Fact Check: Is the Evangelical Youth-Inspired Great ‘Awokening’ Just Around the Corner?

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Early in George W. Bush’s second term, not long after I started my Ph.D. work at Stanford, I met a cousin of mine in San Francisco. We had spent a lot of time together in early childhood in central Indiana, before her father went to seminary and then became a staff pastor at a large evangelical church in Solano County. Now I was the one living in California, and she was back to visit. Remembering this cousin as someone I could have “deep” conversations with, I waited for an opening to tell her that I had voted for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.

Her response was less than receptive. In fact, I’d seen the same perplexed look on the face of an old friend from Christian school a few years prior when I quietly “came out” as no longer evangelical. But it wasn’t until that moment, in San Francisco with my always “deep,” cooler-than-thou, “rebellious” cousin, that I was wholly disabused of the notion that young evangelicals were differentiating from their parents on social and political issues in any substantive way.

Unfortunately, America’s major media outlets still haven’t gotten the memo. To be sure, anyone can cite anecdotes and claim to intuit a trend. But we now have the data to confirm the intuition I had roughly 15 years ago, in contrast to the legacy media’s endless anecdotally-based claims about young evangelicals supposedly steering evangelicalism toward more compassionate political positions. As political scientist Ryan P. Burge wrote in late 2018, “The data tells a story that is unmistakable: young evangelicals are not moving back toward moderate politics. There is zero evidence of that when looking at political partisanship.”

John Stoehr has ably pointed out here on RD that elite reporters don’t know the Christian Right like those of us who grew up with them, as them, in “flyover country.” There may be exceptions that prove the rule, but elite reporters who are “respectable evangelicals” themselves, like The Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey and The New York Times’ Elizabeth Dias, both graduates of prominent evangelical college Wheaton, surely have their own reasons for painting an overly rosy picture of America’s most Trumpist demographic.

In addition to pushing the narrative that evangelical youth are liberalizing, so that any day now—just wait for it, it’s right around the corner—evangelicals are going to be more or less “normal,” like “us,” they also push the narrative that conservative evangelicals are in play electorally and should thus be courted by Democrats. 

Both of these narratives are flat-out wrong, but America’s legacy newspapers never let inconvenient data stand in the way of wishful thinking. And that’s why, year after year, we get stories like this:

Hip New Churches Sway to a Different Drummer (2004)

Evangelicals Open Debate on Widening Policy Questions (2005)

Are Young Evangelicals Skewing More Liberal? (2008)

It’s Not Your Father’s Christian Right (2008)

Young Evangelicals Seek Broader Political Agenda (2008)

The Evangelical Divide (2017)

‘God is Going to Have to Forgive Me’: Young Evangelicals Speak Out (2018)

And, most recently, Jack Jenkins’ “Complaints on Trump’s Debate Performance Highlight Generational Divide among White Evangelicals” and Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s “A New Group of Evangelical Leaders Forms in Support of Biden.”

Yet, in a study published in 2011, sociologist Justin Farrell wrote: 

“Leading up to the 2008 election, journalists paid particular attention to the role of young evangelicals, suggesting that they are breaking with conservative political and cultural views of their parents… This perspective that young evangelicals are becoming more liberal than older evangelicals has surfaced most visibly in popular magazines and newspapers, and has not been verified by scholarly analysis.” 

Having made that observation, Farrell did what any good sociologist would do—he attempted to verify or falsify the claim based on the best data available to him at the time, which was gathered in 2005-2006. And what he found was that while young evangelicals tended to have more liberal views than their elders on certain issues like cohabitation before marriage, pornography, and homosexuality, they were indistinguishable from their parents on the all-important issue of abortion, which has become a socially acceptable proxy through which white evangelicals pursue a politics of white supremacism while claiming to be “not racist.” That stance on abortion, frankly, tells you all you need to know about how young white evangelicals vote: Republican.

No data gathered in the years since Farrell’s study was published does anything to support elite journalists’ breezy claims about young evangelicals. In 2016, in fact, when about 80% of the white evangelical electorate voted for Donald Trump, an even more definitive 83.8% of white evangelicals aged 18-35 and holding at least a two-year college degree pulled the lever for the constantly lying strongman. 

Asked to comment for this article, sociologist of religion Andrew Whitehead said that, based on his own findings regarding Trump support and Christian nationalism, “Young evangelicals who embrace Christian nationalism are going to vote Trump, no matter what they are liberalizing on.” And the state of the relevant research leaves no doubt that the vast majority of young evangelicals embrace Christian nationalism, no matter what they may say about their views on the environment or same-sex marriage or human trafficking in the hopes of appearing more “respectable” to mainstream society. Back in the aughts, my “hipster Christian” cousin talked a good game. But actually voting for Democrats? That was unthinkable, and for most young white evangelicals, it still is.

If anything, young evangelicals are becoming even more right-wing than they once were, because evangelical culture-warring pushes young people who cannot in good conscience support the Christian Right’s agenda, or who cannot conform because of their own identities, out of evangelicalism altogether. I’ve been saying for years that white evangelical subculture, which is authoritarian through-and-through, presents its young people with the following choices—accept full far-right orthodoxy, or at least shut up about your objections, and if you can’t do either of those, leave. 

Whitehead suspects this is correct. He told RD, “I think there is so much inertia institutionally that it will take an extremely long time for white evangelicalism to change, and I have a hard time seeing that happen. It will be so interesting to see if younger evangelicals just leave or conform. My suspicion is those who truly embrace environmentalism or LGBTQ-affirmation, for example, will end up leaving.”

With hashtags like #EmptyThePews and #ExposeChristianSchools, I have tried to give those of us who have left a means of reclaiming our stories and pushing back on the false narratives that still characterize most coverage of evangelicals. Ex-evangelicals are stakeholders in discussions of evangelicalism with real insights, and we deserve a seat at the table. 

Unfortunately, instead of listening to ex-evangelicals or even to empirical data, the movers and shakers in legacy media outlets seem set on continuing to normalize an anti-democratic, anti-pluralist demographic with distortions, half-truths, and anecdote-based projections of wishful thinking. As the 2020 presidential election nears and Republicans make their illegitimate push to cement a radical theocratic majority on the Supreme Court, we would do well to reflect on how this denial of reality damages the prospects of democracy.