Evangelicals On Common Ground

On Tuesday, I participated in a panel discussion hosted by the evangelical political advocacy organization Sojourners. I’ve worked with the folks at Sojourners for years, organizing debates between their president Jim Wallis and AEI president Arthur Brooks, and speaking alongside their director of communications, my friend Tim King. I’m constantly impressed by the goodwill I receive from Sojourners, despite some major differences of opinion. If more organizations on the Left and the Right demonstrated their willingness to publicly debate ideas we would all be better off.

Image from Sojourners website.

The purpose of the forum was to discuss a new Sojourners study on young (“Millennial”) evangelical attitudes about politics. I represented the conservative point of view, alongside my friend Jessica Prol of the Family Research Council. Other panelists included Ben Lowe, founder of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, Christopher LaTondresse, advisor for faith based and community initiatives for USAID, Jenny Yang of WorldRelief, and others. We engaged in a hearty discussion of the study and our own perceptions of the Millennials. It was a worthwhile time.

However, I was a bit surprised when I read the press release Sojourners distributed shortly after the event. The release described panelists agreed that young evangelicals have moved beyond the old culture war issues and are now giving equal weight to issues like immigration and the environment. It quotes Jayme Cloninger of Feed the Children, who said, “It’s really exciting that we’re seeing a holistic approach to addressing issues of our faith.”

Just one problem: I said almost exactly the opposite. And so does the Sojourners study.

After expressing confusion at the optimism expressed by the other panelists, I read from Section 6 of the report:

The other striking finding is the continuing importance of social issues to a large portion of the young Christian community we sampled. Four in 10 ranked social issues in the top two of their overall rankings… This finding suggests that while the culture war institutions of the Religious Right may be fading, the social issues that drove those wars are alive and still matter to young Christians.

42 percent of Millennials prioritize social issues like abortion and marriage, compared to just 8 percent who prioritize immigration and 6 percent who put the environment in their top two issues of concern. 54 percent of those studied self-identity as Republican, compared to just 26 percent Democrat. When asked which party most-closely reflects their own position on abortion, 75 percent said Republican. On immigration, Millennials were split 38-38 percent between the two parties. These findings are similar to those found in other research on young evangelical political attitudes.

I understand that organizations like Sojourners and Young Evangelicals for Climate Action want to spread a particular narrative. Their work most often aligns with that of the Democratic party, so they hope the Millennial generation will cease prioritizing issues on which that party is weak. But, the facts are clear. Yes, Millennials care about immigration, the environment, poverty, and other issues. Yes, they are less comfortably associating singularly with one political party. No, they are not “single issue” voters. Millennials exhibit a very reasonable approach to politics and social action based on a biblical social ethic that rightly prioritizes life. Rather than valuing other issues alongside life, Millennial emphasis on life explains their interest in other social issues. Caring for the poor is born from a foundational valuation of life. I believe the same applies to Millennial thinking about immigration and the environment.

Evangelicals seeking to promote liberal political policies will be stymied by this reality for the foreseeable future. Democrats have not shied away from their commitment to abortion on demand; indeed, they have gone further, insisting that contraception and abortifacient drugs be subsidized by employers, regardless of any religious affiliation or moral conviction. Millennial evangelicals understand that they cannot support a party apparatus behind such policies, even if their opinion on second-tier policy questions leans to the Left.

Note: I believe Millennial evangelicals are also still quite strong on marriage, but that’s not demonstrated in the Sojourners study, which included one rather general reference to “LGBT rights” not marriage specifically. Another blog for another day.

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