The marriage battle is over and everybody knows it, even Maggie Gallagher, even World, which nevertheless just dedicated part of a cover package to a small group of young evangelicals who have vowed to keep fighting. The dispersal of the troops continues to be a fascinating thing to watch, mostly because this revolution is happening so quickly and there are so many trends and pressures playing upon how evangelicals engage with politics right now. There’s everything from Tony Perkins finally proposing a breakup with the RNC to Rod Dreher literally quoting Cassandra.

If I had to guess what was going to emerge from evangelicals under 30, it would be something like a bell curve: a large loop of silence and relative apathy with tails of committed support and opposition trailing off each side. The supporters are perhaps the least surprising and least interesting, and I think it’s fair to say they will eventually make the bell somewhat lopsided, i.e., there will be a larger number of open, committed supporters of gay marriage than there will be opponents.

The large, complex middle tells the story of the past 15 years. There are lots of different stripes of people who make up this center: some silently supportive of gay marriage, some privately opposed. Probably the largest group is those who feel a unsettled mix of apathy and indecision: their theology is relatively conservative, but the proximity of their gay friends and co-workers and the radical shift in the surrounding culture’s attitude has done its work. Most of all, the legacy of the religious right still haunts; it’s difficult to overstate just how deeply the rejection of the politicized fundamentalism of the past three decades has shaped them. Even if they remain theologically opposed to gay marriage, they are likely to be aware the battle is lost and unsure it’s all that big a deal. I suspect we’ll hear—are already hearing—excuses like, “the government shouldn’t be involved in marriage anyway” or “divorce is worse for marriage than the gays” or “we should focus on religious freedom.” Because of how deep the rejection of and apathy about politics goes among this group, there will be virtually no civic participation in any direction; they’re likely to mostly lay low until this is such a non-issue that no one really talks about it anymore.

What will be the most unpredictable and interesting will be the right-wing tail: the committed opponents, like those profiled in this New York Times piece and the previously mentioned World story. It’s difficult to know what the motivations are here—conviction, careerism, the glory of holding out for a lost cause, or maybe all of the above. These guys will continue to have jobs and funding and pats on the back from the evangelical establishment as it further fades in relevance. But it seems inevitable that they will become more and more isolated from anything like the evangelical mainstream, and that this will provoke radicalizing delusions that could harden into a kind of intellectual far-right that’s different than the one we’re used to—better educated, more savvy, but darker because they’re more realistic about what they’re up against. But then again, the pull of the Christian-right lobbying machine in Washington may co-opt the careerist among them and produce another generation of Tony Perkinses. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

25 Responses to The New Lost Cause

  1. toddh says:

    I think it’s a good analysis. Perhaps a little unfair to those who would problematize the role of church and government in deciding who can be married. Maybe it is just an excuse for some, but at least it’s a worthy conversation to have!

  2. David Sessions says:

    Todd, I didn’t mean to be insulting to those positions, which I realize I probably was. They’re legitimate even if I disagree with some of them. I think “government shouldn’t be involved in marriage” is shallow and a cop-out, and “religious freedom” is very often a code word, as it was in the last century, for freedom to express institutional bigotry. But nevertheless, those are positions some people take with a good amount of principle, and I didn’t mean to be automatically dismissive.

    • Strepsi says:

      The funny thing I never ever see in mainstream media in this argument about government vs. religious marriage, is that there ARE churches blessing same sex unions (United, Unitarian, some Episcopal and progressive synagogues and mosques) — so, even if we say all civil marriage is “civil unions” and “marriage” is reserved for church sacraments, you STILL get “gay marriage” existing! So these arguments are disingenuous, because religious freedom allows churches TO perform same sex marriages and some do! Be as dismissive as you like, because there is not a single logically coherent argument that does not result in same-sex marriage existing.

  3. Joseph says:

    David, the end of your commentary is intriguing. Could you elaborate on what “intellectual far-right” might like look like? If the careerist within this group is “co-opted” by the D.C. Christian-right lobby, this would seem to imply a separation between this “darker” but “more educated” group of opponents and entrenched organizations like FRC.

    • David Sessions says:

      Good question. I’m being very speculative there, of course, but I think something like the sparks of this already exist. I think these people are, like I said, better educated and more realistic about the world around them, so they’re less inclined toward the kind of crazy, outright bigoted stuff like the 90s Christian right’s hysteria about the “gay lifestyle,” etc. But I think their intellectual and cultural isolation could produce a different breed of the same thing.

      So for example, you have people coming up under Robbie George who think natural law is persuasive, and think these elaborate theologies of culture and politics are going to save Christianity or America or whatever. (I’m exaggerating, of course.) Not only is no one in mainstream scholarship going to listen, but the evangelical mainstream won’t either; American (secular) culture is going to have way more influence over the direction evangelicals act or re-act than someone like Ryan Anderson. But because those people are smart and principled, they might avoid the D.C. lobby machine and focus more on intellectual projects, i.e., building self-enclosed systems that are ultimately just not going to amount to much. I could see that producing a very dark vision of heedless American society and law outside, and giving them an apocalyptic/messianic edge that has so much history in Christian theological movements.

      Again, I’m just spouting off – I have no idea what will happen. The DC vortex is powerful, and the Christian right is difficult to predict.

      • Joseph says:

        Thanks for your reply. I got the sense that isolation from politics, scholarship, and evangelicalism, with the accompanying lack of influence outside, was part of what would make this group darker. One wonders what sort of conservative intellectual models these folks might look to – Weaver, Kirk, etc. – writers who are unread by both the average conservative and average evangelical.

  4. AC says:

    Rome is burning & everything is gay this , guns that – I’m sick of the information control in this country

    If Nixon deserved impeachment – Obama should be tarred & feathered for his offenses

  5. Strepsi says:

    David interesting analysis, thanks. I suspect two things:
    1) You underestimate the zealotry of college-age young people — the opposition from mainstream society radicalizes, not moderates, them. Recall how it was to be twenty years old, how righteous for whatever cause.

    2) You overestimate the impact of mainstream secular society. Post Jerry Falwell and Oral Roberts, and with homeschooling, there is an entire new generation of radical evangelicals who have never been in the secular public school system.

    University was once considered a place for mind-expansion — but not for these people. There are young people, who were home schooled, graduating with University degrees who have NEVER interacted with secular society, and many of these are going straight into government in aide roles. Texas and Louisiana’s education systems, for instance, have seen an erosion of the secular by the fundamentalist, not, as you would suggest, the reverse.

    • Strepsi,

      It doesn’t sound like you actually know many of these people – these points sound like collected media narratives. The thing outsiders often fail to understand about evangelicals is how important it is to them to be a part of, rather than be isolated from, mainstream American culture. They are first and foremost “progressives” in the sense that they are actively trying to participate in and shape culture. American evangelicalism is much more closely tied to cultural development than say, the Catholic Church.

      1) Of course there are some radicals, but college-age evangelicals tend to be the opposite of what you’re describing. They have much more to rebel against, and college is often the time where it happens. Even at very radical, very right-wing places like Patrick Henry, where I went to undergrad, experience this phenomenon. They’re more hardcore than most, but even there, people feel the isolation from the cultural mainstream and subconsciously adjust themselves to either 1) accomodate it or 2) give the appearance of accommodating it.

      2) I am a product of this generation, so I’m particularly positioned to understand its influence, and you’re exaggerating it. First of all it is a tiny number of people who have “never been in the public school system.” The estimates for U.S. homeschoolers are somewhere around 2 million, many of which are not evangelicals. I think what your describing does exist, but it’s very marginal, and very much at odds with the central current of even conservative evangelicalism. Falwell and Roberts are over with a capital O, and to the extent anyone cares about them, they are actively trying to expunge their legacy. Even in the establishment, but especially in the generation now my age, the sense of becoming cultural pariahs is powerful and motivating.

      • Laney says:

        I have to agree with David on this, although I have not thoroughly researched this position. I am actually a home school mom with four children under the age of seven and am probably ten years your senior. But in my twenty years of being a Christian I have seen this movement among young, conservative ministers: They are facing marriage and family issues every day in their congregations that completely befuddle them. They have no idea what to do with a man who commits serial adultery, who is addicted to porn, who is homosexual. They don’t know how to shepherd women with eating disorders or broken relationships with her parents. They don’t know how to encourage other men to shepherd their own families, how to promote a Christian work ethic, how to disciple people whose lives have no room, no time, no energy. These preachers have come back with PhDs from Scotland, imagining they are the new Reformers of the Western world. They try to solve all of the church’s problems with a Sunday sermon. But they find their elders and deacons boards have never thought through how to help people deal with messy sin and societal problems. And, frankly, many of them don’t know the Bible. I lived in the South for a decade and I would say this is generally less true of conservatives in that region. But I have lived in the Northern Midwest for a decade now and I would say this is definitely the case here. Most church leaders here are coming from either wildly charismatic offshoots or else they are coming from liberal Lutheran and Catholic backgrounds. Everyone is dispensational in their eschatology, no matter their tradition. The pastors themselves may be learned men with impressive degrees from top seminaries. The elders/deacons who serve with them are often good, good men, they are men of faith, but they don’t know the Scriptures. We have watched more than one congregation follow its pastor into very obvious doctrinal errors, simply because the people want strong leaders and they’ll follow whomever has a pedigree and sounds like they know what they’re doing. And many “conservative” pastors with pedigrees are blurring basic lines of Christian belief and practice. I’m told even in the most conservative mainline evangelical seminaries there is a rise of young ministers who are less orthodox in their perspectives on basic definitions, such as “sin” and “repentance.” My husband and I live in a very liberal state, politically, and it often looks as though evangelical church leaders are trying to iron out their theology while concurrently trying to figure out how to live in a homosexual culture…which means they don’t have the theological legs for standing firm. If this is the next generation of church leaders, of preachers, in particular, then it’s hard to see how their congregations are going to tow any lines. We know many people in ministry, and we know this is not true of all of them. But we are seeing enough of it to believe it to be a definite direction. David, we are finding there is a third group of young evangelicals, though – college-age to early thirties. These are people who neither accommodate the cultural mainstream nor give the appearance of accommodating it. Instead, these give the appearance of adhering to orthodoxy, of standing firm against the mainstream. But they have actually grown so comfortable living in contradiction that they don’t realize what they’ve already jettisoned. This third group is the one that concerns me most.

  6. […] at 11:45 on April 21, 2013 by Andrew Sullivan David Sessions speculates about how evangelical Christians under 30 will respond to increasing support for same-sex marriage. […]

  7. […] The New Lost Cause: How will #ssm change evangelicals under 30? […]

  8. bookguybaltmd says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful comment.

    I am 53, most of the young people I speak to are graduate students that I teach or younger members of the business community with whom I work (in a fairly conservative banking environment); these folk who are in their mid 20s to early 30s. They consistently strike me as incredibly bright, well informed, with a “BS meter” that is incredibly sensitive. Certainly they are much less naive than we were at their age in the 70s.

    But, as with young folks throughout history I suppose, they can still be amazingly credulous about some things and have a definite tendency to think that, because they know so much, they know it all.

    One of the things I have noticed in talking to them is the extent to which the “Christianist” co-option of Christianity has largely succeeded. It seems that the “culture warrior” political positions that the “Christianist” elements have taken, including their strong opposition to gay marriage, seem to have not only de-legitimized their own position, but that of Christianity as a whole.

    These young people seem to think they “know what ‘real’ Christianity is” and they want absolutely no part of it. They won’t listen to anything further on the subject, not even from groups and denominations that have been accepting of gays. They “know” what Christianity is and any attempt to persuade them that there is a larger message in faith is met with extreme skepticism and even outright hostility: just another attempt to lead them on and deceive them.

    Not only have the “culture warriors” of the extreme right de-legitimized themselves, they seem to have done a very effective job of de-legitimizing the entire Christian message for an entire generation of youth.

    Given their experience of what it means to be a “Christian,” it’s very difficult not to see that they have more than a point.

  9. Matt Purdum says:

    I’d love to go back to say, 1971, and find all the short-sighted articles about how opposition to abortion would be “fading out in the next few years” and become “no big deal” to most evangelicals. The truth is you have no clue, just as no one knows whether the first tick on the stock market tomorrow will be up or down. No one.

  10. AC says:

    I stand by the case for mom & dad as the standard we (government)need to maintain & support.

    I can’t dispute there may be propensities toward gay, or even ….pedophilia…..i dont think pray the gay away therapy is that effective…polygomy is just a religious/cultural wish.

    I understand people are gay, and I believe it should be acknowledged & respected but gay marriage doesnt have to be celebrated & embraced as a gov-sponsored standard equal to the gold standard. All children deserve mom & dad & gov interest is the preservation of the family…if not, gov should get out

    I don’t think gays should be discriminated against, I guess civil unions are ok (although that sets the stage for further demands)…but I think to try to make marriage a civil rights issue is a bunch of baloney,

    I’m sure molestation, poor parenting/absenteeism & over sexualization of youth play a big part in sexuality issues as well…..But there has been no fair public discussion on the issue, just unfair & biased support from Hollywood & the media…..a sinister & subtle radical indecency along with bullying tactics & character assassinations toward those who hold to traditional values with continuous threats against freedom of religion & rights of conscience that look to destroy conservative small businesses & mock any & all form of Christian orthodoxy in & outside the church – still waiting for tax exempt status to be withdrawn all on behalf of the queering of society

    Then we have stories of our presidents past gay propensities (and if true shouldn’t BHO come clean?)

    But the story on Obama – that he had some gay trysts & hung out in gay bars (2 of the men he was involved with are now conveniently dead

    Then we have the recent incident where Michelle mistakenly called herself a single mom came out recently – that they’ve lived apart quite a bit of their marriage….

    Throw in Obamas ‘safe school’ czar Kevin Jennings and his deviant queering agenda directed at young school age children and the appointing of Supreme Court Justice Kagan, who was a real gay radical at the university she worked – even though the WH put a muzzle on all that – what a shady way to forward an agenda, instead of being open & honest about it

    Is this the reason David Geffen got the Obama train in the early stages?

    While our kids are being indoctrinated as the natural order is being turned upside down – look up what going on in Mass schools these days…..satan Deluder act has been revoked and a mass exodus from the public schools back to the safety of the home (school) – which is the last hope for a radical free zone

    Back to Obama – what the heck do we know about this guy???

    Everything becomes a conspiracy when we have no info on the guy- he’s a big mystery!

    Morality & decency is giving way to perversion & us conservative are nuts???? The left are the loons

    Equal does not mean same. Everyone should be respected but not everyone should be married. We need to get back to the proper standard – man & woman, faithfully married for life

    I know this was a crazy rant – but I want truth not propaganda

    These shady tactics & media controlled delusions/deceptions are enabling the sinister fringe to go mainstream while the transformative power of Jesus is forsaken for a demonic crusade

  11. AC says:

    That would make for interesting journalism David – expose the religious/political propaganda of your own side

    Expose liberation theology, radical homosexuality, the true violent fundamentals of Islam, all of the attrocities perpetuated in the secular, communist & heathen gov/lands throughout the ages & the current day….some of the effects of moral & social decay in the form of godless, broken families & the selfishness of man

    Look at Bill Maher, as repulsive as he can be, he stood up & said Obamas tax policies is hurting the country & California is dead as a result of lib economic policies

    Now he’s come out & exposed Islam as distinct from even the most radical elements of Christianity – if it was Prager who said that nobody would flinch but Maher has the cajones to speak unbiased truth – could David Sessions have it in him to do such a thing? I think you do David! Lets open dialogue & be prepared to see the ugly elements of BOTH sides!

    • Neil Wilson says:

      What is ‘radical homosexuality’?

      • AC says:

        Im referring of movements that promote the queering of America – this is not about letting the gays be gay…’s a radical two-fold agenda that looks to vilify orthodox Christianity as extremists while promoting homosexuality to young children in schools …..I gave you leads, look it up or give me your email, I’ve written about it a bit

  12. Neil Wilson says:

    Well the Tea Party is having a relaunch this coming week with Michelle Bachman as the spokesperson. Front and center are to be moral and religious concerns. So I guess the author is right about a small group continuing the political fight.

    • AC says:

      Bachman is toxic – we need American families to stand up and fight the radical fringe promoted by a godless media establishment & a godless Democratic Party – a phony GoP is the people we want representing traditional values cause politicians seek popularity not decency or even truth

      • Neil Wilson says:

        Why is she toxic? She articulates clear Christian truths. Are you afraid of that? On the specific issue of a Bible believing Christian response to homosexuality she has more knowledge than most as her husband is a psychologist working in the field of so called gay conversion therapy.

  13. AC says:

    Sorry, a phony GoP is NOT the people we want representing…..

  14. […] “But then again, the pull of the Christian-right lobbying machine in Washington may co-opt the careerist among them and produce another generation of Tony Perkinses.” […]

  15. […] see it as a big deal that America isn’t—and never was—a Christian nation. I still think, as I speculated a few years ago, that for the most part, Americans who are committed to the traditionalist sexual ethic are going […]

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