Evangelical Christianity is a movement caught up in the middle of American politics. Neighborly Faith’s recent report on young evangelicals offers data that is both hopeful and concerning when it comes to their future. Most importantly, this data provides clarity into the need for outreach and partnership with young evangelicals in the civic sphere.
Today, the label “evangelical” brings to mind a movement that is much more than simply religious. In public life political jargon, such as “the religious right” or “Christian nationalism,” has become synonymous with a certain strand of evangelicals. It is true that over the last twenty years, evangelicals have leaned right (56% identified as Republican and 28% identified as Democrat). Additionally, 83% of White evangelicals voted Republican in the 2022 midterms. Add the close coupling of Donald Trump and white evangelicals, and a certain perception of evangelicals in American politics – mainly that they might overlook their stated values to maintain political power – has been all but crystallized.
Of course, the evangelical community is too large to boil millions of people's political aspirations down into a single headline, no matter how tempting that might be. Misinformation and political polarization plague the movement and are creating a modern evangelicalism that is deeply divided. For example, prominent conservative Christian Beth Moore left the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) last year, and many evangelical leaders are expressing alarm at the current state of the movement. Peter Wehner, a notable evangelical thinker, expressed his frustrations with the movement in a well-known New York Times Op-Ed titled “Why I Can No Longer Call Myself an Evangelical Republican.” Wehner held that he could no longer identify with the movement after witnessing fellow evangelical Roy Moore maintain his strong lead in the polls with evangelical voters after being accused of sexual misconduct with nine women.
"THE EVANGELICAL MOVEMENT IS IN THE CROSSHAIRS OF POLITICAL DISCOURSE IN AMERICA."
With increasing divisions over Trump, Covid-19, and scandals of sexual misconduct in the SBC and beyond, the evangelical movement is experiencing a crucial moment. This is certainly touching the lives of younger evangelicals.
From the data Neighborly Faith collected, young evangelicals stand out. Not for simply being aligned with such a controversial movement but for their civic engagement. Neighborly Faith found that young evangelicals not only place a higher value on civic engagement but that they also participate in civic engagement more than other Christians and those of other religions.
As a student attending an evangelical university, the value placed on civic engagement is evident. From community service to voting to even protesting, young evangelicals are connected and engaged with their community. Why are young evangelicals more engaged than other Christians and members of other religions? Two ideas can help explain this.
First, evangelicals feel an increase in alienation from the broader American culture. Debates on LGBTQ+ issues, abortion rights, and the rise of a more secular west have led evangelicals to feel on the back foot. Many fear persecution as they see the United States moving to a culture that discriminates against Christians. This tension with public opinion has led evangelicals to engage civically in response to this perceived threat. It is a defense mechanism.
This leads to the second main idea: In-group identity. The data from Neighborly Faith’s report shows that young evangelicals are more likely than other Christians and people of other religions to agree with the statement, “My religious leaders influence my opinions/decisions regarding government or politics.” They are also more likely to be aware of their religious leaders’ stances on political issues, view them as mentors, and be more influenced by them than by other leaders in their lives. For many evangelicals, the identity of being a part of the movement supersedes other identities. This in-group cohesion leads evangelicals to greater civic engagement and unity on political issues.
"YOUNG EVANGELICALS ARE CRUCIAL NOT ONLY TO THE EVANGELICAL MOVEMENT BUT TO AMERICAN DEMOCRACY"
Young evangelicals engage in and prioritize civic engagement more, largely due to the influence they place on the movement's ideals and the political stances of their religious leaders. On the surface, this data seems to point to a high rate of polarization among young evangelicals. However, Neighborly Faith found that young evangelicals had a diverse range of political views. When asked what political figures young evangelicals agreed with most politically, the top four answers were Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Ben Shapiro, and Joe Biden. These four share a diverse range of political views. This data reveals the ideological diversity of young evangelicals.
While this data points to some concerning aspects of the evangelical movement, it additionally reveals some positive aspects about evangelicals and enlightens possible steps for the future. Young evangelicals' civic engagement shows the important role that they can play in the political sphere and the importance of outreach and partnerships with young evangelicals and evangelical religious leaders. The evangelical movement is a driven political group that is eager to get involved in all levels of the public sphere.
Neighborly Faith recommends that outreach be done by more than just civic campaigns. Partnering with evangelical leaders could be an especially powerful practice because evangelical leaders are held in high esteem by young evangelicals. There is a plethora of ways to engage with the evangelical sphere.
Current mainstream rhetoric portrays the evangelical movement as a monolith of polarization and a threat to American democracy. While some of these fears may be valid, the discourse often stops there. Neighborly Faith’s report shows that young evangelicals are open and willing to listen to and engage with the civic sphere. Steps toward an emphasis on outreach and partnering must be made to truly create an impact.
The evangelical movement is in the crosshairs of political discourse in America. Its evolution from a Protestant movement into a political powerhouse has led many to criticize evangelicalism. However, if the movement's future is to be one of healthy political discourse and ideological diversity, criticism must not be where our reaction to the changing movement ends.
Outreach and partnerships, especially with young evangelicals, are the only steps that will help bridge the gap between the movement and the rest of America. Young evangelicals are crucial not only to the evangelical movement but to American democracy.
Caleb Hall is a sophomore studying political science at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, where he has served as Model UN President and a resident assistant.