The following is a guest post by friend of the blog Emma Connell.
I’m not usually one to discuss my religious or spiritual beliefs in public. That’s partly because conversations about belief are always awkward. However, in recent years my hesitations have been exacerbated by the actions of those with whom I share a faith. As a Christian, I’m concerned about how my fellow believers are influencing and harming our society.
The Pew Research Center’s recently released “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” has quantified what many of us knew was happening: that millennials are leaving the Church in a significant way. Journalists, religious leaders, and laypeople alike have been speculating as the the cause of this exodus. Rachel Held Evans recently wrote in the Washington Post that the church’s pandering to what they think Millennials want is the very reason they’re walking away. While I think that certainly plays a role in the diminishing numbers of 20-somethings in the pews, I don’t think it really gets to the heart of the matter. Aesthetics and “feel” of a church certainly determine what kind of congregation they pull in, but no one should pretend that this explains the issue. From my perspective, and from conversation with my fellow Millennials, I think my generation has serious issues with the church. I’ll contend that they aren’t aesthetic; they’re political.
The Republican Party has monopolized religion, and they’ve done so for their own political gain. They’ve determined that it’s politically savvy to take up the social issues that evangelical Christians are particularly die-hard about. And they’re largely right. Throughout their rhetoric, the Evangelical Right asserts that America is a morally failing country and that their “Christian values” should guide their political actions moving forward. To them, that means socially conservative stances on abortion, birth control, welfare policies, and equal marriage—though the sway of voter opinion toward acceptance is changing their tune on that issue.
This should infuriate Christians. It certainly infuriates me. Beyond that, though, it confuses me. Far be it for me to determine what Christianity is or how it should appear to others, but what the Evangelical Right believes in is not the Christianity I’ve learned of. I’ve read and heard stories of the socialist reformer Jesus—the man who spent his time with social pariahs, washed the feet of peasants, and asserted that compassion and love are the foundations of the Christian faith.
Perhaps the Evangelical Right and its leaders—Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and the ever-vocal yet out of office Michelle Bachmann to name a few—really believe their political stances are the morally correct positions. I think it’s important to note, though, that their public declarations of faith make them popular with a powerful bloc of voters, and that these declarations of faith can and often do serve as powerful PR messages.
Members of the Evangelical Right are essentially the kingmakers of the Republican Party. White evangelical Protestants make up only 18 percent of Americans, but a whopping 36 percent of self-identified Republicans. Essentially, they’re a minority group in the general population that can determine the representatives of the Republican Party. These voters shape the conversation of caucuses and primaries, because they show up. Nearly 60 percent of Iowa caucus attendees are evangelical. Because of all this, the whole Republican Party has veered to the right, and they’re taking Congress and the rest of the country captive.
They’ve utilized the Gospel of Success—the assertion that financial wealth and wellbeing is a blessing by God on those who are worthy—to explain away income inequality and to destroy welfare systems. If one is financially destitute, it can be blamed on a lack of faith or religious goodness, according to this line of thought. This rhetoric fuels the political Right as it continues to slash welfare programs and bolster big business. It’s an incredibly convenient way to make religious the political choices that are most likely to keep political donors happy.
While the binding of religion and politics has proven beneficial for the New Guard of evangelical Republicans in office, Christianity in America has taken a serious blow. Those who are religious but believe in welfare, a lessened worldwide military presence, and access to birth control, are sent into a state of cognitive dissonance. When the voters of America are presented with the truism that Christianity is synonymous with social conservatism, Millennial voters are choosing to side with the social Left, which they believe to be the areligious. They’re questioning their faith (or rather, what they’ve been raised to believe), and determining that it’s the better choice—morally and in pretty much every other regard—to be areligious and politically liberal. I can’t blame them for leaving. If I were to believe that the Evangelical Right serves as an accurate depiction of Christianity, I’d be gone.
Because of the vocal minority of the Evangelical Right, whenever I find myself publicly asserting my faith, I always find myself wanting to phrase it: “I’m a Christian, but…”
But I don’t look down on those who are different than me. But I think we should have structural supports for the financially destitute. But I believe that women have a right to determine their futures through safe and affordable access to birth control and abortion.
These aren’t defenses I should have to make. These positions are only bolstered by my Christian faith. But my religion has been taken over by those who are using it for their own gain.
I’m glad to see millennials rejecting the poisonous rhetoric the Evangelical Right is spouting. Once it becomes unpopular and politically dangerous to preach intolerance, I’m convinced we’ll see a shift toward tolerance in the Evangelical Right, which we’re already seeing this with the issue of equal marriage. If millennials make hardline conservatives even question their rhetoric by leaving the church, I don’t think it’s a sign of moral decay at all; I think that’s a sign of moral growth.
Emma assists with policy and nonprofit program analysis at the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and philosophy from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. Emma likes to spend her time making bad puns and getting to know the craft breweries of the Twin Cities.