They’re still conservative, but some younger evangelicals are showing signs of being more liberal than their parents, splitting with their elders on issues like same-sex marriage, climate change and immigration.
“The people that I interviewed are much more accepting of immigrants and want to take what they see as a more biblical approach to that particular topic, because the Bible has several scriptural references that command being welcoming to the outsider,” says Terry Shoemaker, a lecturer at the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University.
Shoemaker says he studied the evangelical community for a decade, spending time with members of both the older and younger generations. He attended four conservative evangelical mega churches every Sunday for a year, where he listened to sermons and chatted with people.
“I was interviewing older people who would tell me, ‘Well, this is what I think but my granddaughter thinks something totally different,’” says Shoemaker, who was drawn into evangelicalism during his teen years but no longer identifies with any religious group. “And so that really got me curious about the generational differences.”
A 2017 poll found that 45% of millennial members of one of the country’s most conservative religious groups — those born between 1981 and 1996 — favor same-sex marriage, compared to 23% of evangelicals born before 1981. On immigration, 27% of younger evangelicals say the growing immigrant population is a change for the better, compared to 13% of older evangelicals. And 55% of millennial evangelicals say stricter environmental laws are worth the cost, while 43% of their elders agree.
White evangelical Christians are a powerful voting bloc, accounting for about one-fourth of U.S. voters. That group is heavily linked to the Republican party, with 80% voting for President Donald Trump in 2016. In 2020, that support slipped to 76%, however, with more than 100,000 evangelicals reportedly voting for President Joe Biden in Georgia, which was critical to Biden’s victory.
“Their role in politics might be summed up in something to the effect of, to bring some sort of healing or restoration to the world in general,” Shoemaker says. “Very concerned about the general welfare of people, so there's a lot of involvement in poverty issues.”
But the young evangelicals who are becoming more progressive are primarily infrequent church attendees, asserts Jeremy Castle, an assistant professor of political science at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
“It would certainly surprise me to see evidence of a major shift,” says Castle, who is also the author of the book, “Rock of Ages: Subcultural Religious Identity and Public Opinion Among Young Evangelicals,” which he mostly wrote in 2015 and 2016.
“Young evangelicals are actually pretty similar, both to older evangelicals today … and overall, young evangelicals are pretty similar to previous generations of young evangelicals,” he says. “We see a bit of a small trend toward the Democrats within the last couple of election cycles, but that trend isn't statistically significant.”
The evangelical subculture has created institutions that are designed to maintain stability, according to Castle, and weekly church attendance helps solidify the evangelical identity.
“Likewise, Bible studies, and other kinds of extracurricular religious activities can reinforce those core values of the faith,” Castle says. “The evangelical colleges have policies and procedures on the books that are designed to maintain and further that evangelical identity.”
While young evangelicals are becoming more liberal when it comes to same-sex marriage, there is one key issue they are not budging on.
“Abortion is as close to a litmus test for evangelical identity as you're going to find,” Castle says. “That would lead us to expect then that on the issue of abortion, we wouldn't see much change because it's so central to evangelical identity, and in fact, that's what I find. If anything, young evangelicals today are actually slightly more conservative on abortion.”
Whatever their differences, both generations remain grounded and centered by religious texts.
“And this is where the real debates within evangelicalism happen,” Shoemaker says. “They think that we're all working from the same text, therefore we must all agree on these things. And the younger evangelicals are simply saying, ‘You know, we're all working from the same text, and we don't understand how you're at the position that you're at.’”