Young, cosmopolitan evangelicals

Young, cosmopolitan evangelicals October 24, 2007

WASHINGTON — Jim Wallis and Richard Land were preaching to the same flock, but their sermons at the recent “Values Voters Summit” reached very different conclusions.

“I am an evangelical Christian who tries to live under biblical authority. A fundamental is the dignity of human life. We are all created in the image of God,” said Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine and author of “God’s Politics.”

But it’s time for new strategies, he said. Evangelicals should try to “dramatically reduce the number of abortions in America” through adoption and education, while striving to find “common ground to actually save unborn lives.”

The message between the lines: Think about voting for Democrats.

But Land insisted that evangelicals must continue to demand legal protections for the unborn.

“I want to put together a coalition that will work and do what we can to save individual babies one at a time,” said Land, leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “But the fact is, if we didn’t have laws against segregation, we would still have it. If we didn’t have laws against slavery, we would still have it.”

The message between the lines: Stay the course with the GOP.

Both of these preachers knew that evangelical Christians — especially young ones — have yet to embrace a 2008 presidential candidate. That’s why Republicans are sweating and Democrats are praying, even in public.

Wallis and Land were arguing for a reason. Young evangelicals are losing faith in the current occupant of the White House, according to new numbers from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Many would be willing to listen to a Democrat who risked blending progressive politics with traditional moral values. But is that heresy?

Here’s the big news. Five years ago, President Bush’s approval rating with white evangelicals between the ages of 18 and 30 was 87 percent — a number that has fallen to 45 percent. Meanwhile, 52 percent of older evangelicals continue to back the president.

Back in 2001, 55 percent of the young who called themselves “evangelicals” or “born-again” said they were Republicans, as opposed to 16 percent who were Democrats and 26 percent independents. This time around, it was 40 percent Republican, 19 percent Democrat and 32 percent independent.

“It isn’t 100 percent clear why this has occurred,” said John C. Green of the University of Akron, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum. “The young evangelicals remain quite conservative on moral and social issues. That just isn’t changing or it isn’t changing very much. …

“There is a real sense that they are afraid of being seen as being judgmental, but if you push further you find out that they are still not backing away from traditional Christian beliefs.”

On abortion, 70 percent of young evangelicals said it should be “more difficult for a woman to get an abortion” — a stance claimed by 55 percent of older evangelicals and 39 percent of young Americans in general.

Nevertheless, it’s possible that subtle changes are happening behind the political headlines, according to sociologist Michael Lindsay, author of “Faith in the Halls of Power.” The “populist evangelicalism” of the past is evolving into a “cosmopolitan evangelicalism” that seeks success in Hollywood, on Wall Street and in the Ivy League, as well as on Capitol Hill.

Some of these young evangelicals don’t want to hang Thomas Kinkade paintings on their walls, fill their bookshelves with “Left Behind” novels or sing pseudo-romantic praise choruses in sprawling megachurches. And when it comes to politics, they also care about the environment, health care and social justice.

Eventually, these changes will affect their politics. The young evangelicals want to keep their conservative approach to faith, but apply it to a wider spectrum of issues, while using a different style of activism.

“The edges have been softened,” said Lindsay, at a forum dissecting the Pew Forum research. Thus, while “populist evangelicals want to take back America” or contribute to the “Christianization of this country, cosmopolitan evangelicals have a more modest goal.

“They simply want their faith to be seen as legitimate, authentic, and — they hope in the end — attractive and winsome. In the same way, they do want their faith to draw others, but they use different forms of mobilization that are far more subtle, more nuanced, and because of that, more significant.”

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