The Common Good

Young Evangelicals and the 2012 Election

On Thursday, Sojourners launched its 2012 election campaign, Voting For Us, and the Public Religion Research Institute and Berkley Center released its “2012 Millennial Values Survey.” Young Christians, and particularly young evangelicals are a significant demographic to understand. They could be a large “persuadable” population in the run up to the November elections.

What do they believe? What are their priorities? How will they vote?

Young evangelicals are different from their parents and any generation that has preceded them. Their priorities are changing, their world view is shifting and their political engagement is becoming increasingly nuanced – going well beyond the narrow interests of the Religious Right that until now have been associated with evangelicalism in the United States.

Demographically, young evangelicals are different from their parents and grandparents. One in four of today’s young people have no affiliation with a religious tradition. For our parents’ generation, the figure was one in eight. For our grandparents’? One in 12. We’re finding it harder to associate ourselves with institutions, but why and are we replacing this association with something else?

Young evangelicals’ rejection of their parent’s faith and associated political priorities has led to a higher number to leave the church, but those who do are not becoming less ‘spiritual’ – their beliefs, hopes and aspirations of what it means to be a Christian are simply not adequately met within the churches that they grew up in.

Eleven percent of those surveyed considered themselves unaffiliated during childhood – a figure that more than doubles by the time they reach college age.

This difficulty in affiliating with religious institutions is mirrored in our political landscape.

Young evangelicals are disenchanted by the lack of tolerance and the narrow view of faith that they perceive in their parents’ generation.  They are also jaded by the partisan politics they see in Washington, D.C., and the inability for cooperation.

This is reflected in the fact that whilst six in ten college-age millennials are registered to vote, less than half say they are certain to vote in November. Almost half of millennials identify as politically independent. Young millennials—18-24 year olds—are rejecting both political parties, demanding that they be convinced by policy and results, rather than blind obedience to an ideological position. Pragmatism over party loyalty is the order of the day.

Party affiliation is dropping and political engagement is no longer only associated with voting. It is increasingly probable that their first experiences of political engagement didn’t happen in a voting booth either.

They are more likely to identify their political beliefs with taking action – community projects, protests, petitions – and these actions are more likely to be issue-based, rather than partisan.

Yes, the ‘moral’ issues (homosexuality and same-sex marriage, and abortion) are still important, and ones that are likely to draw young evangelicals to activism, but they by no means hold exclusive status.

Today, only around one in five young adults view these issues as ‘critical,’ despite holding strong viewpoints on them. Indeed, in the PRRI survey, the moral issues gained the lowest support for being ‘critical’ issues amongst college-age millennials; almost eight in 10 say jobs and unemployment are critical, 40 percent recognize income inequality as a critical issue, and similar numbers have critical concern for the environment and immigration.

Out of all of this, two key points must be noted:

1)     The concerns of young evangelicals are broadening.

2)     Young evangelicals are increasingly inclined to challenge the partisanship of both evangelicalism and politics.

Both of these points have ramifications for how we should talk to young evangelicals. No longer can we expect to get them to vote based on the ‘moral issues.’ A candidate’s position on abortion or same-sex marriage is insufficient for many evangelicals of the millennial generation to be convinced that they should cast their vote for them.

Politically active millennials are relational, active at the grassroots level, service-minded and generally more aware of their economic and social status within a global context.  Their morality is derived more so from story and experience, not platitudes and platforms. 

Because of this dynamic, the paradigm has shifted from partisanship to policies and from candidates to issues. The electorate is largely jaded and will not likely turn out for a particular charismatic candidate; however, they may still vote because there are issues they care deeply about.

One way to get in the ear of young evangelicals is to affirm that being a politically active Christian means more than having a strongly held opinion about ‘moral issues.’

Affirming that it is acceptable to be critical of politicians but still committed to finding solutions to tackle the biggest issues of our time will resonate with this generation.

In many ways, young evangelicals have become disaffected. But in the new parameters that have been built in recent years, they are also tolerant, faithful, spiritual and active. They can and will be important, this year and in the years beyond.

Jack Palmer is a communications assistant at SojournersFollow Jack on Twitter @JackPalmer88.

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