Certain events or moments in history uniquely define each generation’s political and societal consciousness, setting it apart and distinguishing it from others that came before or are to follow, and imprinting upon it certain common and overarching ideals or values. The ‘Greatest Generation’ that grew up during the Great Depression and fought the Second World War comes to mind for its members’ collective selflessness, willingness to sacrifice, and deep sense of patriotic duty. The oldest among my parents’ more countercultural generation were defined by their love for The Beatles, their opposition to the Vietnam War, support for the Civil Rights’ Movement, idolization of the 1960s, and remembrance of the 1969 Moon landing. All of them can remember where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated. My parents, born at the end of their generation, share with all their friends a remembrance of Watergate, the 1979 Iranian revolution and subsequent hostage crisis, and the election of Ronald Reagan which saw the beginning of a broadly conservative arc in national politics. From my great-grandparents’ generation until my own, the world was seen as a largely bipolarized place, divided between the USSR and USA, communism and capitalism, totalitarian and democratic, unfree and free.
In contrast, my own Millennial generation grew up in a largely unipolar world in which the United States remained the only existent global superpower during our formative years. The oldest Millennials are often able to recall the final years during which the ‘Evil Empire’ still ruled over a quarter of the world’s landmass, while the youngest Millennials are unable to recall the traumatic events of September 11, 2001 which inaugurated this twenty-first century of uncertainty, terrorism, nation-building and failed states, explosive Internet growth and NSA surveillance, and the classic debates between freedom and security, and decentralization and centralization of power.
It is these terrorist attacks which awakened most of my generation to a profoundly changed political, societal, and global reality. Everyone currently in their early and mid-20s can tell you where he or she was when they heard or viewed the news on that day which fundamentally altered the United States’ sense of itself, and its relation to the rest of the world, particularly the largely Islamic societies of the Middle East and North Africa. (1). Those like myself who lived in close proximity to either New York City or Washington, D.C. and lost neighbors, friends, or family to the terrorist attacks, or walked to school in what we naively thought was heavy fog (it was the smoke and soot from the towers) naturally have the overall impressions of the day seared in our conscientiousness. The fact that the events of September 11 are known to us simply by an abbreviated reference to their date — 9/11 — suggests that they form a core and immediately accessible part of our mental, societal, and political identity. Yet what common outlooks or shared sentiments unite us Millennials who grew up defined by the single most devastating terrorist attack in U.S. history?
Having a strong sense of America’s violability rather than its inviolability, coupled with our near-universal addiction to the Internet, social media, and dedication to various interpretations of what constitutes equal justice, it is hardly surprising that my generation is in many ways to the left of previous generations of young people when it comes to areas of political life. The notion of one country remaining forever the preeminent superpower is at once baffling and astonishing to those of us who are students of history, and the notion of a unipolar world dominated by a single political and economic hegemon immensely distasteful. Even those of us who identity as conservative, who firmly believe in the virtues of philopatria, a limited role for government, and the free and largely unrestricted place of faith in public life, nevertheless find it impossible to support much of the program of today’s Republican Party. The phenomenon of practicing, observant Christians who lead what can for all intents and purposes be described as comparatively traditional lives yet nonetheless eschew the traditional political label of ‘Republican’, or even the identifier of ‘conservative’, is a striking one.
I come from perhaps the most traditional Christian faith, one which believes itself to be the Church Jesus Christ founded and which prides itself on over a millennium of liturgical, patristic, dogmatic, and theological continuity, yet even among my most observant Orthodox Christian friends in DC and New York, I can count on one hand the number of them who identify either as Democrats or Republicans, or as staunch liberals or conservatives. Irrespective of how often my Orthodox friends attend divine services, how regularly they read the Scriptures, or participate in weekday church programs and youth groups, all stand united in a somewhat centrist, if slightly to the right, social and political outlook forged in an era of unprecedented political and societal polarization.
All have a common horror of the immense tragedy of abortion and favor considerable (if not always total) legislative restrictions on elective abortion, yet express the firm conviction that for abortion rates to decline, we must work to do something far harder than only legislating on the deeply divisive and painful topic: we must fundamentally transform the collective values and outlook of our society so that it begins to see the inherently divine dignity of the human person at all stages of life. Most of my Millennial Christian friends, whether Roman or Eastern Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, or Protestant, express lukewarm to enthusiastic support for basic social safety nets provided by the government, favor universal healthcare systems (if not Obamacare itself), and tend to see government as a general force for good rather than an intrinsically good or evil entity. Most favor wide-ranging immigration reform, firmly oppose any deportation proposals, and see the so-called war on drugs as a disastrously implemented and unequally enforced policy.
Regarding perhaps the single most polarizing social issue currently being discussed in political society, most Christian Millennials– despite Church teaching which urges them not to — support the extension of all civil rights currently conferred by heterosexual marriage to homosexual couples, while firmly supporting the belief that the Church should never be compelled to bless these unions. In short, most Millennials, including those of us who have active private and corporate prayer lives and regularly attend church services, have a kind of innate allergy to even the slightest possibility of supporting policies or practices which could be seen as discriminatory.
This is a natural product of our largely secular upbringing, in which most of us who attended public schools were educated alongside numerous non-Christians, including many students of exceptionally diverse ethnic, religious, and national heritages. There remains a strong sense that the obligations, beliefs, and way of life incumbent upon all orthodox Christians — the very essence of the Christian life, that of a dynamic, lived faith — is a standard to which our broader, non-Christian society must be drawn, attracted, and gradually transformed, rather than compelled to believe and respect. For how can we truly expect those who are so thoroughly of the world to respect that foreign unworldiness which they do not understand? It is their freedom to choose to refuse the Gospel even if they do understand it, but we should not shy from showing them and living the Gospel by our very lives. A true Christian life has, after all, always been the greatest beacon to convert the hearts, minds, and souls of gentiles.
Raised as we Millennials were within an increasingly pluralistic, secularized, and profoundly compartmentalized culture, we tend to take literally the oft-repeated Scriptural quote (our Lord’s own words) that “My Kingdom is not of this world.” When one considers that numerous Christian societies tolerated chattel slavery, and then racial slavery, for centuries, and the world did not come crashing down about them, it is hardly surprising that most Christian Millennials — all of whom know at least several friends or colleagues who are attracted to the same sex — do not see the subject of gay marriage, for instance, as one of capitulation to satanic forces of evil. Satanic evil seems far more present where there is spousal abuse, infidelity (itself a form of profound abuse), child abuse, starvation, etc.
Rather than see ourselves diametrically opposed to the world around us, it is far easier to see our values are profoundly distinct and different, and thus, the differences of our lives and worldviews quite inevitable. We are called to be “in the world but not of it”, and by this many Christian Millennials have adapted a “live and let live” kind of tolerance of those who remain outside of the Church due to their different values or lifestyles. As we are all products of an inherently compartmentalized worldview (secularism) which at its best treats God as “something to think about for an hour or two on Sundays”, it is quite easy for us to see our Christian society of parish church, parish family, and larger global Church family as existing both within, outside, and largely independent from broader secular society.
To this end, we do not see the lack of Christian faith outside our parish communities as a dire threat so much as a challenge to be confronted with active examples of faithful Christian discipleship and ongoing spiritual transformation, rather than with political statements of condemnation and lamentation. The Church’s timeless position on all the controversial political issues of our day is abundantly clear, especially in an age when episcopal encyclicals, pastoral letters, and endless Bible translations and patristic writings may be found in a milisecond Google search; the difficult work lies in convincing and showing people who are “of the world” that the Church offers not only the highest and most beautiful ontological view of the human person and all creation, but that the Christian way of living is a profoundly liveable, doable, and fulfilling one, which can truly be embraced and realized in this world
Because we grew up in a society in which divorce is the norm and everyone (unless one lives under a rock) knows at least one gay or lesbian person, Christian Millennials are more likely to see the often interrelated factors of marital infidelity, spousal abuse, and a lack of deep commitment to living a shared Christian life as the underlying causes for the high divorce rate, rather than to blame this on the supposed threat posed to Christian marriage by homosexual couples gaining legal recognition of their unions. Both the widespread acceptance of same-sex unions within society and the high rates of divorce are simply inevitable consequences of the transformation of the United States into a largely secular society which prizes the individual pursuit of freedom and a subjective, personalized standard of happiness above al else. This reimagining of the human person constitutes a fundamental shift in our society’s collective understanding of personhood. The defining core of what man is, by his essence and nature, continues to shift away from the previously widespread understanding of man as being made in the image and very likeness of God, to man as a kind of self-directed automaton, a kind of god unto himself free to pursue happiness as he defines it.
While there is a kind of tolerance thus espoused by almost all Christian Millennials toward all those around us living outside the Church (among whom we count numerous friends, colleagues, and neighbors), and a common understanding that the standards of moral behavior and living set by the Church are standards to which we can fairly hold only those living in the Church, I’ve never encountered any Millennials who consciously see themselves as “tolerating” the unchurched. Rather, due to the very secular basis of today’s culture, we are compelled to offer our most precious jewel and treasure —- Christian faith — as just “one option among many”. The challenge thus is to present to people who are foundationally opposed to the notion of there being one transcendant, absolute Truth that there is, in fact, one way which is The Way, one life united to The Life which is truly the most beautiful and highest form of living.
Once we can begin to show our friends, neighbors, and colleagues that the Christian life is not only “a nice way of living that works well for some”, but the fullest and most beautiful life and cosmological understanding of all that is, was, and ever shall be, then the roots of relativism planted by the earliest secular influences can begin to be pulled out. Until then, it’s all a kind of window dressing in which a person’s understanding of what Christianity actually is, in all its fullness, will necessarily be obscured by a secular worldview which sees it as simply one option among many diverse faiths and worldviews.
What, then, are the defining or “go-to” words for young Christians today? Politically, we speak as often as the next group with respect to tolerance, justice, and equity, but we cannot truly engage the secular world in this way, since these terms have almost nothing to do with the core of what Christianity is and has always been. We must speak in accessible language — with actions and deeds above all — but our words must always be “in the world, but not of it”. So, how then can we present Christianity for what it is to those who fundamentally do not understand it? We must use the core words that embody the bedrock of the Christian life: ‘transformation’ and ‘transfiguration’ are words we should use as much as salvation, atonement, grace, and love. To reach a culture which sees Christianity as “something their parents made them do on Sundays, but never really talked about outside that”, we have to make the case in every possible way that the life we have in Christ is exceptional, beautiful, full, and profoundly transforming in ways that leave an indelible mark.
What does a statute on abortion or gay marriage ultimately matter — what do any transitory laws of men truly matter? — when compared with that universal transformation, transfiguration, and illlumunation to which all are called to undergo united to Christ as members of His Body? Especially for this country’s growing body of Orthodox Christians, we fundamentally view Christ as the Master Physician, whose Incarnation, life, death, and Resurrection rebuilt, restored, and reconfigured the very cosmos. As Christ is the Master Physician, the Holy Church is the great hospital for all sinners. United to the transcending love of the Father in Christ by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit, we are called, in our respective stations as clergy or laity, to undertake together the common uplifting, transformation, and transfiguration of the world itself. We are called to be Christ to a society that has largly forgotten Him, or has never truly encountered Him in the first place.
This positive challenge is, to all Millennial Christians I know, far more attractive than the negative challenge of trying to prevent certain people from living this way or seeking recognition for that lifestyle. People rebellign against God’s will for them is the recurring, ongoing story of human history; the story of the Church, which stands astride time, is to heal and raise the fallen and hurting world to an ever-deepening, ever-growing awareness of its own glorious potential, and especially, to remind and counsel all mankind to attain ever-greater likeness to our loving Creator.
This realization, more than anything else, I think lays at the heart of Christian Millennials’ ambivalence to take up the call to enter the political fray, whether to recriminalize all abortion or fight the legal recognition of same-sex unions as marriages: we grew up and live within a culture that is fundamentally not anti-Christian so much as it is areligious and simply unconscious of the Gospel. We are surrounded by many friends who seem perfectly content and happy without the Gospel or even without God. This is not any kind of judgment of what should be, but simply an observation of what is, and what has been the societal reality for some time now. Rather than fight to deny two men or women the right to have a most likely non-Christian mayor or judge recognize their union (intrinsically outside the bosom of the Church) as a legal marriage with all the civil protections thereunto pertaining, most Millennial Christians would rather offer up a heartfelt “Lord have mercy” for this couple and the mayor or judge who marries them, and leave the ultimate judgment to God. Above all, we would rather be instruments of healing in the world than instruments that, in any way, might be seen as dividing or hurting.
Those of us Millennials who are devout, regular churchgoers with an active, engaged prayer life are a minority among our generation, which is, according to numerous Pew polls, the least dedicated to any organized religious identity, observance, or practice in U.S. history. The same polls show, overwhelmingly, that the rise of the “nones” (the religiously unaffiliated) comes due to many Millennials’ unease at the increased politicization (both conservative and liberal) of various denominations. The paradox is that as many moderates leave congregations with a notable liberal or conservative bent, these congregations become increasingly homogeneous in their political outlook. Thus, in terms of the likelihood of their members to vote one way or another and self-identify as liberal or conservative, The Episcopal Church can rightly be termed ‘the Democratic Party at prayer’ today, while most evangelical Protestant non-denominational communities can rightly be termed ‘the Republican Party at prayer’.
In an age of seemingly endless political and ideological polarization, the challenge for Millennial Christians is twofold: to keep and deepen their faith while living in an increasingly secularized society which places little to no emphasis on living an integrated life of faith, and to show, by the example they offer to non-Christians, the incomparable beauty, strength, dignity, and timeless relevance of the Christian life in every age. This is a challenge to which every Christian generation is called, irrespective of the age in which they live, but one to which I hope and pray my generation may be successful at realizing within and among an increasingly secular world. I suppose optimism remains the perpetual virtue of the young, but so far, in my young life, I see no compelling evidence that we are not up to the task, with God’s grace and help.
(1) (From above): It is a striking paradox to me that these areas of the world most associated with fundamentalist Islamic terrorism are all former European colonies which had previously been controlled by the Ottoman Turks for centuries and, now, hold the world’s highest concentration of young people. Millennials make up a far higher percentage of the local populations in Jordan, Egypt, and Iran than they do in the United States, Britain, or France. Having read widely on Islam ever since the 9/11 attacks which the mostly Saudi Wahhabi perpetrators claimed (falsely) carried the full blessing and mantle of a legitimate Islamic jihad, I have long since come to the conclusion that fundamentalist, radical (mainly Wahhabi) Islam is not only a threat to Western civilization, but especially to the rest of Islamic civilization.
One need only read of the Wahhabis’ deliberate destruction of the hitherto most sacred and venerated shrines in Islam — the tombs of Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter, and her husband the Caliph Ali — to recognize that fundamentalist Islam poses a severe threat to literally everyone it regards as being outside the dar-al-Islam, the Muslim world, and the orthodox Wahhabi umma (community of believers). One need only listen to the hateful rants of this Salafist pro-Morsi protesters to realize that these militants view Shia Muslims and non-Wahhabi Sunni Muslims as being just as much outside dar-al-Islam as they view Jews and Christians.
Because of our virtually unlimited access to the Internet, very few of my generation, including conservative Christians, buy into the notion of treating Islam as a monolithic enemy of Christianity. It is self-evident that fundamentalist Islam is essentially at war with the entire world, bent on the restoration of a caliphate which never truly existed in the way the fundamentalists imagine. Yet it is equally self-evident to all of us who have worked with Muslim classmates on coursework, befriended hijab-wearing Muslim girls and taqiyah-wearing Muslim boys, that the vast majority of Muslims living in the West hold nothing but contempt and shame toward those radical minorities among them who profess a highly distorted and very recent interpretation of their faith.