The Emotional Problem in American Evangelicalism

Inspired by a recent poll revealing that, as my RD colleague Alana Massey writes, “one-third of Millennials who left the religious institutions of their upbringing cite ‘negative teachings’ and ‘negative treatment’ of LGBT communities as primary reasons for their departure,” conservative blogger Rod Dreher posted a letter from an “Ex-Evangelical, Pro-SSM Millennial” explaining how the issue of same-sex marriage played an integral role in the writer’s lapse of faith.

Though s/he is clear that the experience was personal and not necessarily useful for extrapolation, I agree with Dreher that s/he is getting at something important—specifically, that Evangelical culture has over-invested in emotional appeals: 

When you have membership with no theological or doctrinal depth that you have neglected to equip with the tools to wrestle with hard issues, the moment ickiness no longer rings true with young believers, their faith is destroyed. This is why other young ex-evangelicals I know point as their “turning point” on gay marriage to the moment they first really got to know someone who was gay. If your belief on SSM is based on a learned disgust at the thought of a gay person, the moment a gay person, any gay person, ceases to disgust you, you have nothing left. In short, the anti-SSM side, and really the Christian side of the culture war in general, is responsible for its own collapse. It failed to train up the young people on its own side preferring instead to harness their energy while providing them no doctrinal depth by keeping them in a bubble of emotion dependent on their never engaging with the outside world on anything but warlike terms. 

Dreher encourages readers to “send a link to this post to every pastor in your church, and everyone involved with youth ministry” adding, “if you are a parent, I want you to think hard about this letter.” I agree that parents and ministers should think hard about this letter, and I’d also direct them to Thomas Bergler’s (2012) The Juvenilization of American Christianity, which situates it in a compelling historical context. Both Dreher and Bergler draw on Christian Smith’s “Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism” to indict the current state of the faith, and again, I agree. Smith’s characterization is as precise and intuitive as its title suggests.

But this is where the agreement ends. Dreher seems to believe that fewer Millennials would be leaving the (conservative) church if their faith was informed by a more robust theology. If young people understood that same-sex relationships are forbidden by theologians’ interpretations of ancient church doctrines, in other words, they might be less inclined to forfeit that “learned disgust.” Or rather, that learned disgust would benefit from a higher-order learning which would be able to stay competitive with changing times and social mores.

I doubt that’s true. So-called Millennials are poor doctrinarians for many reasons. One of these is that they grew up in schools that equipped them with basicat times, very basiccritical thinking skills, prompting them to look for reasons. (This is something many private and home schools have worked hard to avoid, to their own detriment.) Another is that Millennials have enjoyed an era of privilege and prosperity that celebrates tempered non-conformity while making God feel distant and unnecessary. When religiosity means middle class comfort and a megachurch with a coffee shop, faith really is just another adornment. 

But perhaps most importantly, Millennials are unlikely to subscribe to a culture war Christianity thatin addition to being too emotionalhas also been too ugly. Its political strategy has been noxious for about four decades. A problem it’d probably take more than doctrinal heft to fix. 

Millennials are leaving the church in large numbers, and the centrality of emotional ritualism can help account for this. As they move on from their adolescence, young people find that their adolescent congregations simply lose their appeal. But the Millennial Exodus also reveals that the demand for intellectualism is perhaps less urgent than the demand for civility, empathy, and a policy platform that treats people with respect. As they address the first problem, church leaders would be well advised to address both.

Eric C. Miller is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. He has a BA in English from the University of Pittsburgh, an MA in English from the University of Maine, and a PhD in Rhetorical Studies from Penn State University. A regular contributor at Religion Dispatches, his research area sits amid religious rhetoric and public advocacy.

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