Kim is a 25-year-old Christian, a nurse who graduated from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. She voted for President Bush in 2004 and characterizes herself as pro-life. With just that information, it would be easy to categorize Kim as a conservative Republican. But in November, she cast her vote for Barack Obama. She was not alone.
Survey data shows that while fewer than a quarter of white evangelicals between 30 and 64 supported Obama, that number increased to a third for white evangelicals under 30. Kim’s reasons for gravitating toward Obama reflect those of a generation of young believers. Since starting her nursing career, Kim has developed a passion for the poor and perceives that Democrats have traditionally been more active in providing for their needs. She also says that her vote was more focused on issues where change is possible—such as poverty and global health issues—than on traditionally conservative concerns where legislative change is unlikely, like abortion and same-sex marriage.
Since the election of Barack Obama, pundits everywhere look for signs: Are evangelicals drifting to the left? Do evangelicals remain the largest voting bloc in the country? As pollsters disrupt dinner hours across the country, answers are still emerging. In the midst of debate about voting patterns and political power, one question has garnered much interest: Is there a generation gap among evangelical Christians when it comes to voting behavior? Kim gives us a quick answer: yes.
According to Newsweek magazine, “Following such high-profile do-gooders as Rick Warren and Bono, moved to action by global poverty and environmental decay, [young evangelicals] were supposed to turn away from their parents’ obsession with abortion and gay marriage and pull the lever for Obama.” Following the election, however, it became clear, writes Newsweek, that “The truth, as always, is a lot more complicated.” While exit polls and subsequent polling data show a shift of young white evangelical Christians toward Obama, determining why is tougher to evaluate, as is whether the trend will stick. As pollster John Zogby questions in Forbes, “Does the 2008 election … show a shift in policy attitudes among young evangelicals? Or is it just a response to one very eloquent and inspirational figure? The evidence one way or the other is far from complete and still developing.”
One thing is clear—voting evangelical Christians are a much more diverse bunch than has ever been acknowledged by the media or the politicians who woo our vote. As we more fully understand this range of political belief within the Church, the question we must address is this: How do we maintain unity and honor Christ despite our differences?
Endorsing a Broader Agenda
If Kim’s vote for Obama is part of a trend, what might account for the move of young evangelicals like her to the Democratic Party? Amy Black, associate professor of politics and international relations at Wheaton College, thinks much of the shift can be attributed to this generation coming of age during the George W. Bush presidency. “They will associate the Republican Party with an ongoing and increasingly unpopular war and with economic decline,” she says. But, she suspects that there are broader reasons than just a reaction against the Bush legacy. “I see my students resonating with a broader political agenda [than their parents],” she says. “They are very concerned about international issues such as the AIDS pandemic, religious freedom, and human rights … . This broadening of interests does not mean that other matters are no longer important—indeed, abortion remains a very significant issue for most of my students, but it is not the sole or central focus of their concerns.”
Jim Skillen has identified this gradually emerging trend through more than 30 years of teaching at Christian universities and as head of the Center for Public Justice in Washington, D.C. “As tolerance has become more important on the university campus, if you’re a young person in college—if you’re trying to get along with your neighbor—you don’t want to be in the middle of fights all the time [about abortion, the death penalty, homosexual marriage]. Instead, evangelical students who want to have an intensity of involvement choose issues that can’t be denied as urgent: AIDS, poverty, human trafficking.”
This generation has experienced pluralization like no other, agrees Greg Thompson, senior pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Charlottesville, Va. “Tolerance has become the dominant social ethic.” Therefore, the younger generation has a different view toward other nations and those with other belief systems. He explains, “Whereas fighting the ‘bad guy’ made total sense to those growing up during the Cold War, this generation values diplomacy. They say, ‘We have to live at peace with others.’” For Thompson, who is also pursuing a Ph.D. in religion and politics at the University of Virginia, this cultural shift explains the appeal of Obama among younger Christians. “It’s about ethos, not policy,” he says. “Obama embodies the ethic of tolerance.”
With the traditional Christian right still focusing primarily on abortion and gay marriage, some young believers feel a disconnect. Black says, “As key spokesmen—what I call the ‘old guard’—pass away and many of the organizations they founded close or dwindle in size, these leaders and organizations are fading from the political spotlight. The evangelical organizations with the numbers, energy, and prominence in today’s politics are much more likely to emphasize a broader political agenda than those from the previous generation.” And while Obama’s staying power may be limited, Black predicts that the broadening of the evangelical political agenda is a long-term trend.
Precisely because they feel limited by the traditional Christian political agenda, young people, “who are tired of listening to people yelling at each other from the extremes,” gravitated toward Obama, suggests Skillen. The under-40 evangelical community is rejecting the old-style methods of political debate, agrees Mark Rodgers, a former staff director for the Senate Republican Conference, writing in unChristian: “I believe that one of the key reasons they are rejecting the religious right is not that they fundamentally differ on issues like abortion and marriage (yet), but in part because they are uncomfortable with its perceived narrow and limited agenda and its unpopularity among the cultural elite. It is as much the perception of a sin of omission (the issues not addressed) by the religious right that is causing them to disaffiliate as it is a sin of commission (the tactics or positions).”
A disdain for ugly political rhetoric has alienated not a few Christians—of all ages—from the political arena. In an age when Ann Coulter proclaims the evil nature of Democrats while Janeane Garofalo accuses the Republican Party of being a sanctuary for dumb and mean people, even the youngest of ears may have difficulty hearing voices of reason above the inflammatory partisan warfare. It’s not just TV pundits fighting amongst themselves—the Church is a combatant as well. “We have almost wholly adopted the mindset of conflict, polarization, and power struggle that characterizes the larger political climate,” mourns Thompson.
Will Hinton, a political activist since his 1980s high school days who now blogs about politics, says, “During the formation of the religious right, we wanted to ‘speak the truth’ in love. But we were so concerned with speaking the truth that the ‘with love’ sometimes felt tacked on.” Skillen adds that an emphasis on political dogma by some Christians has left young people, often searching for meaning and direction, feeling empty. “If you only have an interest in passing along fundamentals, you’re not really helpful to young people who are trying to figure out what they think about the world and what to do with their lives.”
Recognizing a Broader Problem
Young people are not the only ones who reject a one-size-fits-all political identity for Christians. Michael Spencer, who blogs about politics as the “Internet Monk,” writes, “I have known for a long, long time that evangelicals are a diverse bunch. That diversity is shifting generationally, but it has always been there. We all weren’t Jerry Falwell or Billy Graham, and we always knew this was the case. The media, both mainstream and Internet, has misportrayed evangelicals for decades. They have decided to make Dobson and Robertson our spokespersons, when millions of evangelicals want nothing to do with either of them.”
In her book, Beyond Left and Right, Black writes, “Ironically, at the same time elected officials are growing more polarized, the general public charts a much more moderate path … . Even those voters within a party camp are typically more idealologically moderate than the elected officials who represent them.” With the media reinforcing our worst tendencies, Black warns that extreme polarization can remove us from authentic Christianity. “At its worst, allegiance to party can overshadow allegiance to Christ … . If you find yourself wondering, ‘How can he be a true Christian and think that way politically?’ partisanship has probably gripped your life too strongly. Far too much of the contemporary religion and politics debate creates implicit expectations that “good” Christians ally with one political party or the other, in effect using a party platform instead of the historic creeds of the church as the mark of true Christianity.”
Political polarization not only affects how some young Christians vote, but also how many young people view Christianity. In their book unChristian, Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman write that the perception of young people aged 18-35 is that Christians are too involved in politics. They write, “Christians need to be aware of their reputation in this arena, not only because it influences their political engagement, but because it affects their ability to connect with new generations who are innately skeptical of people who appear to use political power to protect their interests and viewpoints. This perception may not always be accurate, but it contributes to outsiders’ mistrust of Christians.”
Thompson echoes this concern: “We are perceived by our neighbors to be primarily about the task of political domination. That is, we are understood not primarily in terms of the gospel of Jesus and the kingdom of God, but in terms of the American culture wars … . And the tragic and deeply unChristian net result of this is that civic life becomes for us not a place in which we seek to love our enemies, but in which we seek to triumph over them.”
Seeking another Way
So, if Christians are alienating nonbelievers because of our political involvement, does that mean that they should disengage from the process? Not an option, says Thompson. “The Christian vision of the world—of loving God and loving neighbor—are inescapably public acts.” This vision encompasses our involvement in civic life. Instead, what is called for is a recovery of “civic love,” argues Thompson—whether we’re talking politics over the neighbor’s fence or over the back of the pew. “Even more important than our positions on public policy, or our decisions for political candidates, is the need to recover a deeply Christian view of civic life, to have our impoverished imaginations renewed,” says Thompson. “For what we want to be is not partisan machines fueled by sound-bites and mutual agitation, but Christian citizens … who live in the civic sphere for the glory of God and the good of their neighbors.”
Whether we’re struggling to understand a daughter’s more liberal viewpoint, or sharing a concern about legislation with an elected official, how Christians conduct the dialogue can be as important as what we say. “The essential task is engaging in politics with the goals of loving God and loving neighbor first and foremost in our minds,” says Black. “In Christian charity we can work to demonstrate that a different kind of politics is possible, one that invites conversation and transformation, not condemnation of the other side … . We need to demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit as we engage in politics.”
Starting with Ourselves
What better place to begin to cultivate that Christian charity than within our own church walls? With the homogenous nature of many churches, it’s all too easy to surround ourselves with those who share our preference for red or blue. Yet, the best way to develop a better appreciation for the nuances of political belief is to spend time talking with—and listening to—those who embrace differing viewpoints. “In our churches, homes, and families, we need to create safe spaces for people to express and explain their differing opinions and honestly listen to one another,” says Black. “Far too many people enter conversations about politics with closed minds and hearts. We need to enter into discussions with humility, loving one another enough to genuinely listen and seek mutual understanding.”
This is especially true for building bridges of understanding across generational divides, says Skillen. “Older people need to take the initiative—in homes, churches, Christian schools—to invite young people into a conversation in a way that is not threatening. They need to communicate that they are not there to critique or talk them out of their positions, but just want to understand.” He says, “Only if there is understanding will young people feel free to express themselves. It won’t come from didactic teaching and analyzing issues.”
American etiquette eschews talk of religion and politics, but it is exactly these topics that help us best understand one another. “Politics can be very controversial, but people need a safe place to talk about these things,” agrees Hinton. “People of a younger generation are seeking more informal gatherings built around relationship. They’re not looking for a lecture.” Nor are they looking for trite answers to multi-dimensional problems. Thompson says moving beyond oversimplification of the issues is part of the solution. “We have to do more creative thinking, understanding that the world is insanely complicated,” he says. “We have to jump into the mystery.”
Changing Our Tone
Practically speaking, Black outlines several questions to consider when discussing policy alternatives with those who disagree, focusing on a willingness to listen to other perspectives and demonstrating love and respect:
• Why do you believe that this particular solution is best?
• When did you first learn about this policy? What in particular captured your attention?
• What are the strengths and weaknesses of going this route?
• Has this solution been tried before? If so, what happened?
• What biblical principles inform your support for this policy alternative? What biblical principles potentially conflict with it?
If we’re honest, this type of dialogue doesn’t typically characterize the current tone of our political discourse. It’s much easier to argue with the liberal on TV or talk amongst ourselves about those far-right fanatics. But as Christians, we are called to love one another and—like it or not—that includes our most fervent political enemies. Is it possible for Christians to change our tone? If Christians from every generation were to radically live out the calling to love in the political realm, perhaps a watching world would see not our quest for power or our desire to win at all costs. Perhaps, instead, they would see Jesus.
Click here to listen to Richard Doster’s interview with Greg Thompson, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Va., as they discuss politics and the generational and cultural factors that divide Christians.
Susie Fikse is a freelance writer and member of Intown Community Church in Atlanta.