The Common Good

Government Shutdown May Drive More Young Christians Away From GOP

Date: October 9, 2013

How does one deem a government worker “non-essential”? It’s difficult to say, but 800,000 of them were sent home last week.

The ripples of the government shutdown are far-reaching, affecting everything from the national parks to the IRS. Even the Centers for Disease Control, the agency tasked with detecting and investigating disease outbreaks, was forced to drastically reduce its workforce and has ceased to monitor flu outbreaks.

But in the face of so much chaos and calamity, the non-essential workers who are racking up IOUs may not be paying the greatest price.

According to recent polls, more Americans blame the Republican Party than the Democratic Party. On this one, it seems the public got it right. Senator Ted Cruz has reached celebrity status among Republicans for leading the charge and the party’s leaders are beside themselves with glee.

“We’re very excited,” House Republican and former presidential contender Michelle Bachmann told The Washington Post. “It’s exactly what we wanted and we got it.”

But the shutdown may be a classic case of getting what you want and then not wanting what you get. The polls indicate that the stalemate may further alienate Hispanic voters from the GOP, but the effects may be more deleterious than that. It may repel young Christians who have struggled to connect with Republicans in the way many of their parents did.

“Big-hearted youngsters looking to ‘do unto others’ won’t find their calling in today’s rancorous politics,” Matt Lewis stated in a column for The Week titled, “The GOP is losing young Christians.”

He’s right.

As Lewis argues, the name of the game in Washington these days is mockery and relentless “eye for an eye” partisanship, things that repulse young Christians. There was a time when conservative Christians would have rushed headlong into the fray, fighting the culture wars with everyone else. But some of them — particularly the younger ones —seem to be taking a different approach.

In a USA Today column last year, I pointed out that this new crop of Christians is shifting from partisanship to independence, from divisive rhetoric to civil dialogue, and from a narrow agenda focused on only one or two issues to a much broader one. They are still politically active, but they aren’t engaging in quite the same way as those who came before them. (See also my book A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars)

Young Christians and their older, more conservative counterparts both agree with the late Richard John Neuhaus: “Something has gone dreadfully wrong with the world, and with us in the world.” But they don’t find the answer in acquiring political power by all means necessary so as to implement Republican policies.

Young Christians believe the people of God empowered by the Spirit of God must proclaim the gospel of God and embody the principles of God. They know that America’s laws are a function of its people and that the best way to transform a nation is to change the hearts and minds of its citizens through embodying, rather than merely voting, their values. This mission is far more attractive to young Christians than the dumpster fire that is Washington D.C.

No dripping faucet is as maddening as the tit-for-tat bickering of politicians, and it’s even more frustrating given the seriousness of the issues that need to be addressed. From food stamps to healthcare, economic stimulus to education, America is facing some real whoppers. Most Americans recognize that solving such problems will require compromise. But our elected leadership apparently doesn’t share that view, choosing instead to hold the nation hostage until their demands are met.

Christians of various stripes have already expressed their aggravation at the inability of Congress and the President to reach a compromise and end the shutdown. On September 30th, 33 religious leaders signed an open letter addressed to members of Congress saying that defaulting by refusing to raise the debt ceiling was “reckless.” Signatories included Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Mark Hanson, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Peter D. Weaver, Executive Secretary of the United Methodist Church.