The Common Good

Hard Data on the Shifting Evangelical Ethos

The soul of evangelical Christianity is under stress.

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A few weeks ago, there was the disturbing report on torture, which revealed that Southern white evangelicals are more likely than the general population to defend the use of torture as sometimes or often justifiable. On a more hopeful note, when asked about torture in light of the teaching of Jesus to do unto others as we would have them do to us, they were less supportive of torture.

When these findings on torture are taken together with other findings -- that show, for example, that evangelicals are the least welcoming group toward Asian and Hispanics in their neighborhoods (Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boom, Princeton Univ. Press, 2007, p. 193-196) -- these findings suggest to many of us that the corporate soul of American Evangelicalism leans in a dangerous direction, highly out of synch with the teachings of Jesus.

A recent study by Religion and Ethics Newsweekly offers some data that the younger generation of evangelicals is beginning to chart a different course from their elders. Younger evangelicals share their elders' opposition to abortion, but in other areas, they are choosing to differ. For example, while the McCain/Obama statistic for evangelicals over age 30 breaks 71/23, among 18-29 year-olds, it breaks 62/30. Among female evangelicals, only 46% of under-30s give Sarah Palin a "warm" rating, compared to 65% of over-30s. President Bush, who is rated "warmly" by 57% of over-30s, is rated warmly by only 39% of under-30s. Regarding homosexual unions, the report reveals:

A majority of young white evangelical Christians support legal recognition of civil unions or marriage for same-sex couples. 58 percent of young white evangelicals support some form of legal recognition of civil unions or marriage for same-sex couples; a quarter (26 percent) support the full right for same-sex couples to marry. White evangelicals over age 30 are less supportive: 46 percent favor some legal recognition, but only 9 percent of older white evangelicals favor full marriage rights.

While there have been many anecdotal reports of this kind of shift, this study gives the first hard data, raising important questions about the future of the evangelical ethos. Will evangelical gatekeepers clamp down and force younger evangelicals to conform or disassociate? Or will the evangelical community become more like the Catholic and mainline Protestent communities, with a wide range of political and social opinions? Keepers of the evangelical status quo will likely be as alarmed about this generational shift as the rest of us are about the status quo.

Brian McLarenBrian McLaren is a speaker and author, most recently of Everything Must Change and Finding Our Way Again.

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