At least once a month (and I suspect more often if I looked harder), I read an article that tells me that young Evangelicals are sick and tired of the culture war, that they have little or no interest in rushing to the barricades to protect traditional marriage (and so on).
There are two versions of the argument, both of which I find in this morning’s reading. One is that younger Evangelicals don’t want to be defined by social conservatism. They may still have conservative views, but to the degree that they’re engaged with issues, their portfolio is much broader, encompassing concerns like poverty and the environment. The other is that they’re abandoning the conservative positions taken by their elders, migrating to the left across the board.
I’m sure you can find instances of both, but the survey data comes closer to supporting something like the former view. Thus, for example, this survey finds that young white Evangelicals overwhelmingly oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, making them outliers among their peers. Perhaps the proportions, especially on same-sex marriage, are less pronounced than among older generations, but 69-27 is still a pretty big gap.
The article is nonetheless revealing in other ways. Consider, for example, this passage:
Amy, a 33-year-old lifelong evangelical Christian, goes further: “The church at a minimum has to make space to say its okay to be gay and you can have sex with a committed partner before marriage.” If evangelicalism means having a personal relationship with God, “couldn’t that personal relationship include God talking to you about things like when you should have sex or who you should have sex with? If we don’t trust that God can talk and people can listen, there’s no basis for evangelicalism.”
At least three things are at work here. The first is the temptation of sin. If our desires are strong enough, we can talk ourselves into anything. Connected with this is a second consideration: to the degree that many Evangelical churches don’t have a rich tradition of moral theology upon which to draw, their adherents might succumb all too readily to the casuistry of sin. Third is the desire to be accepted by one’s peers, which of course also finds fewer obstacles in theologically impoverished churches.
My takeaway is less that Evangelical churches should follow their mainline counterparts in accommodating to cultural changes—to borrow a line from Dr. Phil, “how’s that working for them?”—but rather that they have to find ways of discussing these matters that recognize the power of sin (not, of course, just in human sexuality, but across the board), emphasize that political solutions are for the most part inadequate and unsubtle, and focus on humanly fulfilling relationships.
That said, to the degree that young Evangelicals are drawn to politics, they may well find that the social issues still separate them from their allies. Even if they have a larger intellectual, moral, and theological context for their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, even if they recognize the limits of political action in promoting their views, “the world” may still single these matters out as the big points of difference. And since all too many people avail themselves all too readily of the language of rights, young Evangelicals might find themselves cast as culture warriors, regardless of their own intentions.