Billy Graham

April 21, 2014

Millennial Evangelicals and Their Future Social Witness

I’m a history major, through and through. That means I like my armchair and my non-committed skepticism when approached by the fortunes of men. However, this spectator’s perspective is one that has its potential weaknesses, especially when faced by pressing needs or decisions. This includes my commitments to faith and that faith’s interaction with public life.

My friend Owen Strachan’s latest post over at the Canon & Culture blog provided some helpful correction and analysis to help wake me up a bit. The article discusses the Millennials (those who were born in the 1980s and who are now entering adulthood), evangelicalism, and social witness. Right now, Millennial evangelical social thought seems to be at a wishy-washy nadir. Strachan writes,

Unlike the Moral Majority, many Millennials are quiet as a church mouse on public square issues, save for a vocal rejection of past tactics. Let me get down and dirty here: If your only significant act of public square proclamation is a sneering disavowal of Jerry Falwell, you’re doing it wrong. A church inspired by the gospel, aware of its claim on all of life, and in tune with a historic tradition of figures like Augustine, Wilberforce, and Colson cannot content itself with exquisitely calibrated public neutrality. Neither can it accept the velvet muzzle its opponents offer. It cannot dance like a celebrity cha-chaing his way back to the C-list when a confused church member asks for guidance on cultural questions of grave import.
It must speak. It must offer a new social witness.

There is much to be commended here. I don’t agree with the Kuyperian overtones, but I do think there is much to consider in Strachan’s diagnosis. Ingratitude and historical amnesia plague the young evangelical community right now. I am certainly guilty of the former. When I look at the economic turmoil of the Great Society project, the effects of the Sexual Revolution, and the social unpreparedness to meet such challenges, I’m kind of amazed our grandparents and parents made it through the tumult as well as they did. Social crises are heating up on tremendous issues. Guilt and embarrassment offer few solutions or constructive responses. The Millennial evangelical response has not passed muster for the rising challenges.

However, when I shared this article, Nicholas Bolzman (who blogs at Looking For Overland) shared an important rejoinder that also merits serious deliberation, especially by evangelicalism’s cultural doorkeepers:

I have a counter hypothesis. We’re less jaded and more weary than this article would indicate. We don’t appear to have a sense of moral agency to the “Moral Majority” because that movement’s leaders don’t let us in, don’t let us be part of the conversation. We’ve been pushed to the bottom, labeled foot soldiers, and told to follow orders. In the meantime we’ve seen causes we used to care about come to ruin through mismanagement. We might be interested in resurrecting them, but not under the orders of the people who have damaged the cause.
We consider a just immigration policy more important than shutting down public schools. We consider trafficking more important than abolishing welfare. We might believe that being good stewards of the earth involves an environmental streak. We’ll pursue those passions. But our efforts to do what this article calls us to do are usually opposed by the current movement leadership. So we’re a little gun shy. We appear more silent than we are, because the people complaining that we’re silent have spent the last ten years telling us to shut up.

In other words, according to Bolzman, the older generation that complains about the lack of young evangelical witness have themselves to blame. The comment’s hyperboles aside, hyper-conformity on a wider swath of issues has shut down some good people and left them burned. Similarly, ambitious Millennials are tired of being used as foot soldiers. I shared a similar yet distinct sentiment when I complained, “Those of Christian-cultural influence must realize that we their children are not just bullets in the culture war.”

I differ from Bolzman in that I really didn’t engage on much frontline activist or campaign work in conservative or Republican circles. I also differ from Bolzman in that some of the offending policy positions  don’t get my dander up as much as they do for folks on both sides of those issues. My own positions and priorities are different. Thus, I can’t say Bolzman fully represents my own sympathies.

However, I think the commentary reveals a possible result of this turn of affairs: certain young active evangelicals that heed a call to public service will found their own organizations and avenues to express their views and advocate for their causes. The upside will be a freedom of expression (as well as a freedom to make mistakes on one’s own).Of course, there are a few downsides to this. First, what useful organizational experience, connections, and possible wisdom that the old guard has may be lost in the disconnect. Second, if such prominent young voices try to establish a platform, they will be faced with the reality of funding. Significant funding generally comes with strings attached.

Time will tell how things will develop in the strange world of social influence. I hope that Christians will make wise decisions. As that particular field of controversy unfolds, I’ll be watching from my armchair.

One Response to Millennial Evangelicals and Their Future Social Witness

  1. Philip says:

    The author’s make several good points, but they overlook some other key issues that may lead to millennial wariness on social witness. 1. Who is defining Evangelical or past Evangelical social witness here? Trying to lay claim to the term seems to have become an obsession for many people over the past few months. The first author mentions Falwell, who’s methods generally involved active endorsement of political figures and measures along with aligning his religious sensibilities with the principles of the Republican Party, or visa-versa depending on who you ask. However, contrast this approach with that of Billy Graham who avoided such narrow political alignment or endorsement and was interested in keeping himself and his followers bi-partisan enough to influence leaders on both sides of the aisle. While many millennials are wary of Falwell and past attempts at conservative/fundamentalist political organizations, many still respect Graham and his ministry. 2. Related to this first point is a trend among all millenials to be wary of hyper-partisanship in religion and politics. We grew up during the Culture Wars, not the Sexual Revolution. Many of us were born during the era of Reaganomics, not the Great Society. Perhaps the most overlooked, yet critical piece of our childhood experiences is that most of us grew up or came of age during the Clinton years, a time which while far from perfect, still when compared to the years of our early adulthood seems preferable. Better economy, fewer wars or fears over global threats to security, not to mention centrist politics and greater bi-partisanship compared to current trends. Compare us then to the last generation which was born or grew up during the turmoil of 1960s, Vietnam, and Watergate which of course gave rise to the Reagan Revolution and a growing ideological divide between political parties as well as an increased concern for personal morals by religious groups hoping to clean up what the sexual revolution left behind. Naturally this generation would see the new partisan climate of their early adult years as preferable to that of their youth, but this simply isn’t the case for many millennials. Rather our generation sees things in the reverse, longing for the quiet and prosperous years of our youth in the place of bitter and pessimistic time we live in now. Most of all, millennials find the hyper-partisanship which characterized operations such as the Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition as counterintuitive and unproductive, first because it appears to have failed in the past and second because they see the current gridlock system that has taken hold in government as utterly ineffective and contrary to their values as Americans. They would be more interested in seeing republicans and democrats work together to providing sound alternatives for women considering abortion than listen to the two sides demonize each other over abortion. They’d rather see republicans and democrats praying together without pundits and pastors arguing over which one is a “real” Christian. They cringe every time they hear someone say, “God’s a republican.” The strange thing is that this kind of attitude seems very characteristic of the Graham-type Evangelical. Graham advised both democratic and republican presidents alike. They seem to want to return to a time when Evangelicalism was relevant to a larger spectrum of Americans and had a voice on both sides of the aisle. Maybe they’re not avoiding social witness as much as they are doing it differently. 3. Who decides what social witness means and what it looks like? Let’s be frank here, when you or the IRD talks about social witness usually you have abortion and marriage in mind, both because these have been your traditional battleground for the past few decades and because they appear to you to be the great moral issues of the day, but without them, what then? Where does the future take you? What happens next? Evangelicals need to start being more holistic in their witness. Are you finally going to take a real stand on environmentalism? Are you going to finally take a deep look into capitalism and whether its principles (when completely unregulated) meet with God’s commandments? Are you going to pause in your unfiltered support for gun rights and ask whether a state should be able to compel churches or other religious institutions to allow members to carry conceal weapons into worship (this issue will come up and gain national attention, sooner than you think)? If you want millennials to become active in social witness, you have to let them speak where their passions and concerns lie and be willing to be challenged by them. Your friend said they are tired of being treated as foot-soldiers. This is true. They need to be able to take command every once and awhile. And they need to know that if they question the strategy or insist on taking the battle to new ground, they won’t be ostracized from the movement.

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