Yesterday, Fitz argued that evangelicalism won’t split because it’s eroding instead. I agree, and I would add that this erosion factors heavily into the debate over whether young evangelicals are staying conservative or shifting to the left.
Christian conservatives have been trumpeting new numbers that show the evangelical kids are holding on to their politically conservative beliefs. A recent Baylor survey found that 85 percent of young evangelicals and 83 percent of old evangelicals oppose gay marriage. In some cases, young evangelicals are even more hard-line than old evangelicals: 61 percent of young evangelicals say it is wrong to abort a child conceived through rape, compared to 50 percent of older evangelicals.
But other evidence suggests something different from the theoconservative spin. I think evangelicalism is so inextricably linked to political conservatism that young people who leave conservatism leave evangelicalism as well. Yes, 70 percent of young evangelicals may identify as conservatives. But this doesn’t indicate either growth or the increased persuasiveness of the conservative evangelical position; it just means that young people who call themselves evangelicals are already politically conservative. As far as the “movement” goes, a greater number of young people are leaving evangelicalism altogether—which isn’t exactly reason for Christian conservatives to celebrate.
We’ve seen in the past several years a few failed attempts to de-link evangelicalism from conservative politics. For instance, the 2008 Evangelical Manifesto struggled to strip the “evangelical” label from all of its political baggage:
A politicized faith is faithless, foolish, and disastrous for the church. … We Evangelicals see it our duty to engage with politics, but our equal duty never to be completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, economic system, or nationality.
Evangelicalism is still heavily politicized, if not “completely equated” with conservative political ideology. As the Baylor study found, a full 70 percent of young evangelicals identify as conservatives. But is that because their evangelical faith is informing their political convictions, or is it because their political conservatism makes them naturally fit in with people in the evangelical faith? I think the evidence points to the latter.
First, the overall evangelical retention rate has declined, especially among young adults. According to Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell’s landmark study of American religious shifts in American Grace, evangelicals had a high retention rate—about three-quarters—for most of the century and an even higher one among evangelicals who became adults in the 1970s and 1980s. That’s changed in the past two decades: the retention rate has steadily fallen to 62 percent for people who became adults in the 2000s.
Second, a fascinating finding suggests that politics drives our choice of religion instead of religion deciding our politics. Putnam and Campbell found that conservatives who were already evangelical tend to stay evangelical, and conservatives who weren’t raised evangelicals tend to become evangelical. Also, “misfits”—“liberal churchgoers and unchurched conservatives”—are more likely to change their religion than change their politics. The evidence “strongly suggests,” the authors say, that “politics is driving religious conversion.”
So what happens when a young evangelical becomes a liberal? Does she stick with the extremely uncomfortable identity of evangelical liberal, or does she decide to go to a church that doesn’t harangue her about her convictions? Evidence suggests she’ll switch churches. Thus, polls of self-identified evangelicals that purport to show them staying conservative are roundly unconvincing, because if you’ve done much shifting, you’ve probably also shifted out of the overwhelmingly politically conservative evangelical church. By only questioning people who call themselves evangelicals, polls like this miss the very people who are doing the shifting.
So is evangelicalism eroding? The retention rate among the young suggests it is, perhaps because evangelicalism has become irrevocably linked to politics they no longer embrace. The authors of the Evangelical Manifesto writers were correct to say that politicizing faith is “foolish.” When we equate faith with a certain political ideology—or, to use the Christian conservative vernacular, equate our faith with a certain “worldview” that always entails a political ideology—we are not entering into a deeper exploration of faith but reducing faith to the political. And when your politics change, as politics do, you find there’s nothing left to your faith.
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