Young Evangelicals: Expanding Their Mission

  • Share
  • Read Later
From left: Johner Bildbyra AB / Corbis; Image Source / Corbis

(4 of 4)

Miller is a registered Democrat who delivered a prayer at the Democratic National Convention in Denver and hit the road as a campaign surrogate for Obama during the last month of the 2008 campaign. In general, however, young Evangelicals overwhelmingly supported John McCain in the presidential election. (Obama improved only slightly over John Kerry's showing among white Evangelicals under 30.) Those votes for McCain aren't terribly surprising, given the strong pro-life beliefs of many young Evangelicals, the nearly nonexistent outreach of the Obama campaign to those voters and the decades-strong connection between many Evangelicals and the GOP. Just as Catholic homes used to display photos of FDR or JFK, Ronald Reagan was a patron saint of many Evangelical households.

There are, however, signs that young Evangelicals' disaffection with labels could carry over to politics. From 2004 to 2007, the percentage of white Evangelicals who identified themselves as Republican declined from roughly 50% to 40%, driven in part by a rising number of young Evangelicals who registered as Independents. A January 2008 TIME survey of voters ages 18 to 29 found that 35% of Democrats and 35% of Independents called themselves "born again."

Perhaps the most significant change shaping the Evangelical community today is the growing generation gap in political attitudes and positions. On a wide array of issues, you can get completely different responses from Evangelicals over 35 and those under 35. An October 2008 poll by Public Religion Research showed that by a margin of 21 points, young Evangelicals were more likely than older ones to favor expanding government to provide more social services. While they remain staunchly antiabortion, young Evangelicals are twice as likely as their parents to support same-sex civil unions. And 56% (vs. 44% of older Evangelicals) believe that diplomacy is a better road to peace than military strength.

It's no wonder that traditional Evangelical organizations like Focus on the Family that built membership lists by fighting the culture war are worried about their ability to connect with this new generation of Evangelicals. When Focus founder James Dobson retired in 2009, he was replaced by the mild-mannered, 40-something Jim Daly, whose mission is to appeal to young Evangelicals. The much hyped but extremely tame Tim Tebow ad during the Super Bowl was part of the organization's effort to rebrand itself as a kinder and gentler Christian presence.

Focus will have to compete with the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, a new organization launched by Richard Cizik, a former official at the National Association of Evangelicals who irritated religious-right leaders with his work on environmental issues and was ultimately cast out in 2008 for the sin of reconsidering his opposition to civil unions. Cizik's group went public in January with support from an impressive lineup of young Evangelical leaders. Its first official act was to (successfully) lobby the Obama Administration to forgive Haiti's debt.

The Difference Between Justice and Mercy
Teach for America is famously obsessed with data and results, trying to figure out what makes a good teacher. Spokespeople for the nonprofit won't comment on whether teachers from religious colleges and universities have an advantage in the classroom. But the organization has seen enough to focus its energies on schools like Wheaton.

As Josh Dickson prepares to enroll this fall in Harvard's Kennedy School of Government — where he plans to study social and urban policy, with a focus on educational opportunities in low-income communities — he points to Teach for America members like Adam Brown and feels pride in his generation. Brown is a 2007 Wheaton graduate and a Teach for America corps member in East Baton Rouge, La. He is bright and easygoing, with a good sense of humor, and had planned on a career in politics. Law school, not high school, was in his future. "If you'd asked me what I was going to do after graduation," says Brown, "teaching wasn't even on my radar."

Like many of his classmates, though, Brown felt called to service and says the experience has deepened his faith. "We talk about justice and mercy all the time," says Brown, referencing the oft quoted verse Micah 6:8. "But they're not the same thing. I went down [to Baton Rouge] thinking, 'These kids have gotta know that I could have gone into whatever and not be teaching down here in south Louisiana.' That they'd be grateful."

Instead, Brown says, he's grateful to his students. "It's not about me giving them something they don't deserve out of the goodness of my heart," he explains. "That's mercy. This is something the kids deserve and they just didn't get it like I did." Brown's two years as a high school English teacher concluded last spring. But he extended his tour another year, signing up to help coach basketball and baseball, and just might stay a little longer. That might not be the Good News, but it's good news for his students.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. Next