Young Evangelicals Dreaming–and Voting–for a New America?

By Erica M. Ramirez

This week, Elizabeth Dias’ NYT piece, “God is going to have to forgive me: Young Evangelicals Speak Out” presents six representative case studies in what it means to be a young evangelical. The article is an important intervention because media representation of evangelicals has overemphasized evangelicalism’s “leaders”– most often male and white. But reporting on a handful of high-profile figures is a limited way to approximate the motivations and values of 62.2 million Americans. Dias’ work offers a needed corrective; key takeaways follow.

This piece does offer confirmation of many known commitments of evangelical voters, but here nuances matter. For instance, it seems that even young evangelicals are motivated by the issue of abortion. This is remarkable given that this group represents a self-selected cadre willing to own their commitments to (maligned) evangelicalism, to speak to the “liberal media,” and to surface the internal contradictions they find within the movement. These thoughtful, conflicted evangelical voters still, in general, vouch for abortion as top priority and will even admit Trump’s successes in being a voice for these concerns. On a different note, there is corroboration in the piece of a sense of victimization operative in (especially white) evangelicalism. Trump is, to these quarters, securing fragile religious rights. More disconcerting, young respondents voice entering their voting years with a sense of dispossession (one complains her community’s corn crops lose value at $ .40 a day). Trump’s “forgotten man and woman” has seemingly been someone older, whose livelihood has been outsourced. That younger evangelicals could carry this sense of displacement sends a foreboding signal about the transmissibility of felt-dispossession, a palpable threat to our nation’s peace. We, as a people, may have to contend long-term with these twin, aligned forces– the battalion of voters who are readily mobilized to the anti-choice cause and those who infected with a resilient strain of revanchist melancholy, even in young people who can’t actually be considered nostalgic. These details are reasons to believe the transmission of the priorities and pathos of American evangelicals to a new generation of religious voters has been effective.

Yet, more interesting were signals that this transmission of values has not been  a 1:1 process. Except for the interview with Nebraska-based Hannah Flaming, every other evangelical profiled voiced disenchantment with the Republican party. Ruiz and Yee focused their concerns on the vilification of immigrants. Beightol points to similarities between the deaths of Matthew Shephard and Jesus Christ. Duckenfield expresses reaching her limits with the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh. These interviews make clear the GOP has not offered a robust vision of a world that young evangelicals can eagerly cosign.

Still, we should not assume this state of affairs renders the discontent unevangelical. As Beightol explains: “I don’t feel so much like I am leaving conservative evangelicalism. I worship like one, I talk like one. It’s not like I can pull myself out of this relationship… I love the community that raised me.”

Instead, like Hopper, many young evangelicals who are unhappy with the marriage between Republican politics and evangelical voters sense they are in an existential conflict for the soul of evangelicalism: “There are a lot of old white men in the Republican Party that use Christianity as a weapon to get themselves elected… [t]he Jesus those men depict is not the Jesus that healed the sick and broke down social barriers. We are not a part of those men’s religion, and my hope is people will see that.”

When young evangelicals disaffect from the blighted worldview of Republicanism, they take their evangelical votes with them. Jayna Duckenfield cites concrete issues which are setting her priorities at the polls: “As I’ve gotten older I realized I couldn’t be silent any more. Both the murder of Botham Jean in Dallas, Texas, and the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh have caused me to question the legitimacy of my voice and safety in American society. I was incensed — a black man was shot in his own home.”  Tellingly, Duckenfield identified as neither Republican nor Democrat.

How tenacious is single-issue Republicanism? There was broad-based agreement hinted on just one issue in this piece. The respondents clearly also shared frustration with the anti-lgbtq, anti-muslim, anti-immigrant platform of older Republicans and this is a significant shift. George Lakoff, whose political theory proved better at calling the 2016 election than, basically, all polling, has argued that evangelicalism sacralizes domination by the powerful as, in and of itself, moral; he explains:

The basic idea is that authority is justified by morality (the strict father version), and that, in a well-ordered world, there should be (and traditionally has been) a moral hierarchy in which those who have traditionally dominated should dominate. The hierarchy is: God above Man, Man above Nature, The Disciplined (Strong) above the Undisciplined (Weak), The Rich above the Poor, Employers above Employees, Adults above Children, Western culture above other cultures, America above other countries. The hierarchy extends to: Men above women, Whites above Nonwhites, Christians above nonChristians, Straights above Gays.”

If abortion remains a priority concern in the purview of younger evangelicals, this article still intimates a sea change is taking place in the political ordering that young evangelicals take to the polls and want to see reflected in the world. One respondent explained, “I’m very pro-life but Black Lives Matter. I’m the daughter of immigrants and believe deeply in supporting dreamers. I’m fiscally conservative, but I want healthcare for all.” In short, this isn’t a winners and losers evangelicalism; these younger evangelicals don’t seem to buy into the domination of the powerful as an ideal or God-intended world. As Beichtol reflects, “The world I was dreaming about was not the world my church was dreaming about. The world liberal evangelicals want to see is the one conservative evangelicals hope doesn’t happen.” Whether young evangelicals are ready to press for a better future for America, now, is one question we bring into this pivotal week.

Erica M. Ramirez is Auburn’s Director of Applied Research.

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