An Old, ‘Young Liberal Evangelical’ on the New ‘Young Liberal Evangelical’ Myth

I wanted to cry when I heard that Michael Dukakis had lost the election.

But crying was frowned upon at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego so I stoically stifled my tears and sat in stunned silence as the cheers rang out. The sun had just risen on the rifle range when they announced over the loudspeaker that George H.W. Bush had won the election the night before. My fellow recruits were too cowed to show their feelings but the drill instructors and rifle coaches had no qualms about expressing their elation. “What have I gotten myself into?,” I wondered. Only a few months earlier I had been in college and surrounded by people who despised Reagan’s vice-president and chief henchman. Could it be true that these Marines, these decent and honorable men, were. . . Republicans?

As I soon discovered, many of them were but most were just natural conservatives. And I was too. I just hadn’t realized it yet.

Had you surveyed me in 1988, though, I would have appeared to fit the profile of the liberal young evangelical. I was a member of the growing, soon to be dominant demographic, of Generation X evangelicals that was abandoning the Religious Right. The media sighed with relief at the thought that we were the future. Eventually Falwell and Robertson—and that weird gent in knee-breeches, Francis Schaeffer—would pass away and a kinder, gentler evangelical would emerge from the generation of slackers.

Why Gen X evangelicals didn’t stay liberal is a post for another day (one reason: It’s difficult to be a serious evangelical and condone abortion). But it’s the reason I’m skeptical about the narrative that there is a growing, soon to be dominant demographic, of Millennial evangelicals that is abandoning the Religious Right. As Yogi Berra would say, “This is like deja vu all over again.”

Recently I wrote about why the latest version of the “liberal young evangelical” myth. Today, my friend and favorite sparring partner, Matthew Lee Anderson, issued a rejoinder explaining why he disagrees. I recommend carefully considering his entire post first since in responding bit-by-bit I’ll be eliding over some of the necessary context of his argument.

First, Brett’s analysis of why he’s voting for Romney pretty much nails the younger evangelical support: it’s there, but it’s not quite enthusiastic. In fact, given Romney’s own moderate past I’m a bit surprised that Joe didn’t take the opportunity to say that the millennial evangelical support for him is a sign of how confused we are.

Let me take this opportunity now to say that the evangelical support for Romney among all generations shows how confused—and desperate—we are. We have reason not to be enthusiastic. Romney has three things he really believes in—his family, his Mormon faith, and his desire to get elected; everything else is negotiable. Obama has more core convictions, but they tend to be things like how we should be able to kill children in the womb anytime for any reason at all (and if they make it out alive before they can be aborted, we should be able to kill them too). Romney gives the impression that he wants to be your needy, pliable best friend. Obama seems like he wants to be the president of Planned Parenthood. Not a great choice, but still an obvious one for most evangelicals.

Second, Joe points primarily to party identification to make his case. But the Republican party hasn’t been very friendly territory for social conservatives these days, and that’s probably only going to get worse. So while I understand the decision to use it as a metric, it’s not as persuasive as Joe makes it out to be.

There is no doubt that Republicans haven’t been as welcoming of social conservatives as they should be, especially considering how we are the reason the GOP still exists. But the GOP isn’t exactly friendly to liberal social issues either. While there may still be some social libertarians that vote Republican, I don’t know too many social liberals that do so. If these young evangelicals are socially liberal why then do they identify with the party in such high numbers? Even as a middle-aged evangelical social conservative I don’t want to be labeled a Republican. Why would young liberal evangelicals want to be aligned with the Grand Old Party?

Joe’s best argument is the Baylor study he points to, but then when it comes to analyzing trends among young evangelicals, that one is such an outlier that it’s tendentious to weigh it too heavily.

The Baylor study is indeed an outlier, but for a very good reason: It’s one of the few studies that accurately categorizes evangelicals.

In most social science surveys, evangelicals are identified by their denominational affiliation. For example, in almost every study anyone who claims to be a “Baptist” is automatically listed as an evangelical. But anyone familiar with the diversity of Baptist groups knows that’s not an adequate measure. There are evangelical Baptists, fundamentalist Baptists, and mainline Baptists. The same is true for other denominations—including the denomination of “non-denominational.”

The Baylor study is likely to be more accurate because it took the time to ask respondents how well the term “evangelical” described their religious identity. As the study notes:

. . . we use a measure of whether the respondent self-identifies as evangelical, which is available in the BRS. This is based on the survey question, “How well do the following terms describe your religious identity?” Evangelical was one of the terms listed. The response categories “somewhat well” and “very well” were coded as evangelical, while “not at all” and “not very well” were coded as not evangelical. This distinction is important because a substantial portion of respondents who are affiliated with an evangelical denomination do not self-identify as evangelical (42 percent); in addition, some respondents who affiliate with other religious traditions do self-identify as evangelicals (17 percent). By using two separate measures, we will be better able to test what sort, if any, of American evangelical Christians shows differences in political views based on age.

When trying to determine whether a young evangelical is liberal or conservative, shouldn’t it matter whether they consider themselves to be an evangelical?

For instance, most other studies have found young evangelicals to be twice as willing as their parents to support same-sex marriage. Yes, it’s still not at the level of other social groups, but the trend is definitely in a liberal direction.

That is true. Some studies that classify evangelicals by what denomination they belong to rather than asking how they self-identify tend to find that “young evangelicals” are more liberal than their parents. But if what we are trying to determine is what “young evangelicals” believe, why would we want to include some people who would say that they are not evangelical and exclude some of those who do?

In fact, Farrell’s study nails the real problem with Joe’s analysis: by focusing on party affiliation, Joe misses the change in ethos that younger evangelicals have experienced. Farrell’s article measures attitude, not behavior, and he points out in closing that the changes do not necessarily “suggest that young evangelicals are becoming Democrats, or leaving the Republican party in droves.” If we deprioritize the political affiliation–which is a move that young evangelicals tend to want anyways–then the case for a liberal shift becomes quite a bit stronger.

Is it true that there a growing number of young evangelicals who have liberal “attitudes” but whose public behavior (voting, party identification) is consistently conservative? I’m skeptical. In fact, I suspect that more often just the opposite is the case. It seems much more likely that young evangelicals would have conservative attitudes and yet publicly act—and self-identify—as if they were liberals. That was certainly the case when I was a “young liberal evangelical.” I wanted to fit in, so I mimicked the cool kids in my publicly expressed attitudes (Boo, Reagan; Yeah, Sandinistas!) and behavior (encouraging fellow students to vote for Dukakis).

Eventually, my outward liberal attitudes and behaviors began to align with my internal, latent conservative beliefs. I didn’t change so much as grow into an acceptance of what I had always believed to be true. I suspect what happened to this old Gen-Xer will eventually happen to the young Millennials too.

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