Since the 1970s, white American evangelicals – a large subsection of Protestants who hold to a literal reading of the Bible – have often managed to get specific privileges through their political engagement primarily through supporting the Republican Party.
In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan symbolically consolidated the alliance by bringing religious freedom and morality into public conversations that questioned the separation of church and state. In 2003, President George W. Bush signed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act into law. In October 2020, President Donald Trump appointed a conservative Christian, Amy Coney Barrett, to the Supreme Court, and went on to win 80% of the white evangelical vote in the following month’s election.
Trump went so far as to appoint a faith consultant board composed of influential evangelical leaders. They included Paula White, a well-known pastor and televangelist; and James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, a leading organization in evangelical efforts to embed “family values” into politics. These panel members heralded gestures by Trump, such as signing the “Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” which targeted enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 tax law requiring houses of worship to stay out of politics in order to remain tax-exempt.
Although it’s debated what specifically constitutes an evangelical, many agree that they are conservatives who are highly motivated by culture war issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and sexuality.
But even though evangelicals are often presented in the media as monolithic, current research signals a more complex picture.
Over the past six years, an interdisciplinary team of scholars at the American Academy of Religion has been analyzing generational shifts in evangelicalism and religion more broadly in the United States. We are finding that some of the younger evangelicals are openly questioning their religious and political traditions. In short, the majority of white evangelicals are aging and a portion of younger evangelicals are engaging in both religion and politics differently.
Leaving the faith versus reforming from within
The team’s research consists of hours of participant observation within younger evangelical faith groups, along with 50 in-depth, qualitative interviews with people who were raised in the politically charged evangelicalism in the southeastern United States, a region dominated by evangelicals.
Taken together, this research indicates increasing disaffection among white millennial and Gen X evangelicals with the cultural and political preoccupations that have strongly motivated their parents and grandparents. There is a growing number of “Exvangelicals” who disavow their previous stances on same-sex marriage, race and sexuality.
Evangelicals, often citing the biblical text, typically maintain that marriage is between one man and one woman. More than 75% tend to worship in racially segregated congregations and favor gun rights and ownership more than other faith groups.
But young interviewee tend toward intense critiques of their previous religious tradition, as well as rejecting the evangelical faith completely.
This data parallels other scholarship unearthing racialized structures within white, American evangelicalism including the work of sociologist Robert P. Jones and religious studies scholar Anthea Butler. Likewise, historian Kristen Kobes Du Mez examines how hypermasculinity is embedded in American evangelicalism.
Expanding religion and politics
Younger evangelicals are expanding their religious boundaries and rethinking their stances on culture war issues, as well as questioning the merits of the conflict.
These younger evangelicals are trying to reform their communities from within the tradition as loyal but highly critical members. Sometimes these groups are called “emerging evangelicals” or “progressive Christians,” with some debating whether “evangelical” as a label is redeemable.
The researchers observed several younger evangelicals working within their religious groups to encourage acceptance of those outside of the Christian tradition as co-religionists on similar faith paths. They herald interfaith interactions as positive. One interviewee described how her church partnered with the local imam and other Muslims to educate each other on their religious practices and volunteered together at a local food bank.
This kind of attitude typically is resisted by older evangelicals. Many traditional evangelicals believe that their faith is the sole path to religious redemption and that interfaith cooperation might harm their followers.
Additionally, some younger evangelicals tend toward adopting spiritual resources outside of the Christian tradition. Whether incorporating meditation techniques or yoga, interviewees highlighted the ways in which they are exploring their religious and spiritual beliefs.
This contrasts with older evangelicals who perceive their tradition as providing all necessary resources for spiritual growth and reject any outside influences. One interviewee noted that she changed evangelical churches after her original church’s leaders prohibited her from being both a church member and a yoga instructor.
Losing interest in the culture war
Many of the younger evangelicals in the study stated that their stances on culture war issues were significantly different from the evangelical majority of the past 50 years, which aligns with the findings of a 2017 Pew Research Center poll. This survey found that younger generations of millennials are more liberal than older evangelicals on numerous political issues.
Interviewees cited an acceptance and welcoming of those who identify as LGBTQ into their communities as both members and leaders. They support and ally with the objectives of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In sum, they are actively dismantling many of the insider/outsider distinctions established by older white evangelicals and transforming what it means to be a politically engaged evangelical in America.
Furthermore, many cited a culture war fatigue. Some believe that evangelicalism’s multi-decade investment in campaigning for these conservative stances and its alliance with the Republican Party actually harmed the evangelical tradition instead of empowering it. Others are simply trying to opt out of the culture war and focus on their faith instead.
Some interviewees explained that their views were creating family conflict, since their parents and grandparents could not understand why any evangelical would not be committed to the older generations’ conservative political causes.
Research to date has yet to measure how widespread these shifts of attitude and belief among young white evangelicals may be. But there is other evidence of internal unraveling.
Take a recent announcement by Beth Moore, an influential evangelical speaker and author, that she has decided to leave the Southern Baptist Convention – the largest evangelical group in the U.S. – and end her relationship with a prominent evangelical publisher.
Or consider former Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president and pastor Russell Moore’s recent departure from the Southern Baptist Convention’s leadership, amid leaked communications over the denomination’s handling of racial issues. These developments indicate a growing internal struggle over who can legitimately claim authority for the evangelical tradition.
The last several decades of American politics have been dominated by culture war issues, with white evangelicals in positions of national power. But as research is documenting, a political transformation seems to be underway. With younger, white evangelicals rethinking their alliances and continued participation in the culture wars, conservative politicians may not be able to count on white evangelical support for much longer.
This could have broader implications for the American political landscape. Without evangelical support and influence, the issues that are often at center stage could drastically change.
This article by Terry Shoemaker of Arizona State University is republished via the AP from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.