The New Yorker’s Young Evangelicals

By Mark Tooley Published on September 1, 2018

The New Yorker has published a smart if incomplete article saying young Evangelicals are politically more liberal than their parents.

The headline sums up the story nicely:

Millennial Evangelicals Diverge from Their Parents’ Beliefs

The separation of families at the border, climate change, and other progressive causes have galvanized young Christians.

These claims confirm my own experience with elite, educated, young urban upper middle class Evangelicals. My contact with working class young Evangelicals outside of academia is more limited.

The same is true for The New Yorker piece. It offers an important window into the political world of elite urban young Evangelicals. They are a subset. But they are influential and merit analysis.

It’s also important to note that this story looks at young people from Evangelical churches. There won’t be an equivalent story about young people from liberal Mainline Protestant denominations. Why? They don’t have young people. They’re mostly old and dying, except for congregations that adopt Evangelical practices.

So here’s some irony. It seems these liberal young Evangelicals want to be more like liberal Protestants, at least politically. But they aren’t attending liberal churches. And they almost certainly don’t know how liberalism helped kill Mainline Protestantism.

Pushing the Envelope

These young Evangelicals in The New Yorker are politically liberal. But, for the most part, they aren’t theologically liberal. They esteem the Bible and traditional church beliefs.

Yet some of them push the envelope on those beliefs.

Here’s how The New Yorker describes the beliefs of these young Evangelicals:

Believing that being a Christian involves recognizing the sanctity of all human beings, they support Black Lives Matter and immigration reform, universal health care and reducing the number of abortions, rather than overturning Roe v. Wade.

So do these young Evangelicals affirm abortion rights and “sanctity of all human beings?” If so, they have a flawed view of government’s role in protecting human life.

Jonathan Merritt is a liberal Christian of Southern Baptist background who explains this permissive definition of “pro-life” to The New Yorker:

Merritt continues to oppose abortion. “I’m personally pro-life,” he told me. “But would I pull a lever and overturn Roe v. Wade? The answer is no.” Merritt’s view is common among his fellow-believers: that abortion is wrong, and there are ways to work on reducing it without overturning the law of the land.

So the government has no role in protecting the unborn? A young Christian woman in The New Yorker echoes Merritt:

Ekemini Uwan agrees. “I’m not pro-repealing Roe v. Wade,” she told me. As law of the land, the landmark decision should stand. “That’s why I oppose Brett Kavanaugh as well.” She went on, “Let’s move forward. Let’s not go back and fight wars we’ve already lost.” This was less of a political calculation than a practical reality. It would be nearly impossible to overturn the law, and there were more pressing issues. “We should be dealing with kids locked in cages right now,” she told me.

This young Christian woman dismisses abortion as major. She prefers activism for liberal immigration policies.

A Different View of Government

There’s a noteworthy divide in how traditional versus more politically liberal Christians view government.

Traditionalists stress the state as protector of natural rights: life, property and liberty. Progressives focus on the state as giver of positive rights: health care, guaranteed living standards, advanced education, citizenship for immigrants.

Christianity traditionally limits the state’s duties to public order. This order includes defending vulnerable life from abortion, euthanasia and suicide. But liberal Christianity minimizes the state’s duty to defend vulnerable life. With Western individualism it often defers to individual choice.

Of course liberal Christians don’t admit it, but vulnerable life, if aborted or euthanized, doesn’t have choice. It’s victimized by the choice of others.

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The New Yorker quotes another young Evangelical confused over choice. He’s unsure about overturning Roe v. Wade. It “might further disadvantage the Latino and African-American…[and] poorer communities.”

He seems unaware that blacks, Hispanics and the poor all suffer more abortion than Americans overall. They’re Roe’s chief victims.

Others in The New Yorker are more resolutely pro-life. My own experience with young Evangelicals is that they’re strongly pro-life.

But many groups politicizing young Christians avoid abortion because it’s discomfiting. For them, environmentalism and immigration advocacy are safer.

These groups also tend to avoid religious liberty, even the plight of persecuted Christians overseas. Their suffering oddly doesn’t qualify for “social justice.” Nobody in The New Yorker mentions religious freedom.

Roots in Christian Tradition

But credit The New Yorker piece. It accurately portrays politics among an important subset of young Evangelicals. And it highlights a vibrant, racially diverse church of young Evangelicals in Philadelphia. There are virtually no liberal Protestant equivalents.

Such churches for urban millennials are exciting. They preach the Gospel. But they often lack deep roots in Christian traditions.

Those traditions would help them address politics more systematically.

Many young Evangelicals shun conservative political causes for liberal ones. They quote Bible verses. But they aren’t thinking very theologically.

Thank God for young Evangelicals passionate for the Gospel, as The New Yorker describes. But they need historic Christian teaching to be good disciples and citizens.

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