A look at the political identities and social attitudes of young evangelicals

This week in North Philly Notes, Jeremiah Castle, author of Rock of Ages, asks: Are young evangelicals becoming more liberal? (This blog is re-posted with permission from Religion in Public.)

For the past several decades, evangelical Christians have been one of the strongest and most reliable Republican constituencies. Massive numbers of evangelicals mobilized into politics in the 1970s and 1980s, concerned over issues like abortion, gay marriage, and religion’s declining role in the public sphere. Prominent evangelical elites including Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson fervently endorsed the GOP, and evangelical organizations like the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and Focus on the Family further linked evangelicalism to conservative politics. On the partisan side of the equation, prominent Republican candidates like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush spoke the language of evangelical Protestantism and made a point of reaching out to evangelical voters. Occasionally, the religious and political spheres even fused, as in the case of religious broadcaster Pat Robertson’s challenge to George H.W. Bush in the 1988 Republican Party primaries.

However, over the course of the last decade or so a number of political observers have speculated that the youngest generation of evangelical Christians, those belonging to the Millennial generation, are more liberal than their Baby Boomer and Gen-X predecessors.  Commentators have suggested several types of change: young evangelicals may be moving left on cultural issues or abandoning the culture wars, they may be increasingly concerned about issues like the environment and poverty, and they may even vote for Democratic candidates. Given that evangelicals constitute roughly one-fifth of the voting population, if young evangelicals are becoming more liberal in any of these ways, it would have the potential to shake the bedrock of American party politics for the next several decades.

Academic researchers have only just begun to examine whether or not these observers are correct. In a short research note, Buster Smith and Byron Johnson find that young evangelicals are similar to their older counterparts on issues including abortion, stem cell research, marijuana use, welfare spending, healthcare, and the Iraq war. Only on the environment did they find substantial evidence of liberalization among young evangelicals. However, their data are only cross-sectional, and therefore they cannot help distinguish between age, period, and cohort effects. Justin Farrell shows that young evangelicals are more liberal on same-sex marriage, premarital sex, cohabitating, and pornography. However, he finds that higher education, delayed marriage, and shifts in views on moral authority are the likely causes, rather than changes in religion itself. Most recently, Mikael Pelz and Corwin Smidt find evidence of consistency in young evangelicals’ political identities and social issue attitudes. However, they also uncover some evidence of their change in attitudes on non-cultural issues including the environment, foreign policy, and government aid to the needy. While these works serve an important purpose in beginning to test the empirical claims being made in this debate, together this scholarship highlights the need for a more unified theory of public opinion among evangelicals that can help explain why we see change in some instances and continued conservatism in others.

Rock of Ages_smIn my book Rock of Ages: Subcultural Religious Identity and Public Opinion among Young Evangelicals, forthcoming from Temple Press in August 2019 in the Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics series, I develop just such a theory. Drawing on John Zaller’s work in The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, I argue that the evangelical tradition has the potential to impact public opinion among members by changing the underlying distribution of considerations on political issues. The evangelical subculture engages in several processes that might help it influence public opinion among adherents, including building and reinforcing evangelical identity, discrediting issue considerations from the secular culture, promoting its own distinctive values, and even delivering explicitly political messages.

However, evangelicalism is unlikely to impact all political attitudes equally. My Issue Hypothesis predicts that we are more likely to see stability in evangelical public opinion on topics or issues that are important to the evangelical subculture’s identity and distinctiveness. As I explain in the chapter, those issues include Republican Party identification, ideological conservatism, and opposition to cultural issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. My Commitment Hypothesis predicts that evangelicalism should exert a greater effect on those who are more engaged within the evangelical subculture (including those who attend church more often, pray more frequently, and self-report that religion is an important guiding factor in their daily lives).

The heart of the book provides a thorough investigation of public opinion among young evangelicals. Chapters 2 and 3 use nationally representative survey data to explore trends in public opinion among young evangelicals over time (including comparisons to both older evangelicals and non-evangelicals). I focus on numerous issues, including abortion, same-sex marriage, welfare, the environment, immigration, and foreign policy. One of the key findings from this section is the consistency of Republican party identification among young evangelicals. The figure below, created using General Social Survey data, shows that young evangelicals today are just as reliably Republican as they were in the 1980s and 1990s.

RoA Figure 2.1b July 2018 color

The remainder of the book provides a series of tests of the mechanisms behind my theory of public opinion. Chapter 4 provides a closer look at how evangelicalism influences public opinion, emphasizing how evangelicalism can impact issue considerations among adherents. Chapter 5 provides a more careful test of whether immersion in evangelical institutions causes opinion change, including the use of panel data. Finally, Chapter 6 explores political attitudes among the 12-15% of young evangelicals who do identify as politically liberal. The evangelical subculture’s conservatism on cultural issues appears to influence liberal evangelicals, too; liberal evangelicals remain more opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage compared to other young liberals. Overall, the results discussed in the book provide strong support for my theory of public opinion among young evangelicals.

In the Conclusion, I use the findings to speculate about the future of the evangelical-Republican coalition. The results suggest that young evangelicals may push the Republican Party to the left on a few issues, including same-sex marriage and possibly the environment. However, it is unlikely that young evangelicals will become a true “swing constituency.” Young evangelicals have been reliably Republican for many decades, and thanks in part to the intense socialization within the evangelical subculture documented in my book, that trend seems poised to continue for the foreseeable future.

 

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