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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The Evangelical Crackup? The Future of the Evangelical-Republican Coalition

This week in North Philly Notes, we re-post an blog entry by Paul Djupe and Ryan Claassen, co-editors of The Evangelical Crackup?, from the blog Religion in Politics.

For academics who study American religion and politics, there has been no greater gift than the 2016 election. Rarely do we get the chance to see the strands pulled apart to reveal the true connections, but the conventional wisdom-breaking campaign of Donald Trump helped us bring some questions into sharper focus. In this post, we’d like to recap a few of the most interesting observations, from some of the top scholars working in (American) religion and politics today, from the volume we edited.

Honestly, we did not foresee that we would produce quite this book. The “?” in the title came later. If everything we thought we knew materialized, evangelicals might have taken a principled stand in rejection of the Republican nominee and his morally-challenged character. Instead, as the venerable scholar of evangelical politics, Clyde Wilcox, posted on Facebook (to the effect of), “I’ve been studying evangelicals for 30 years and don’t know them anymore.” That is a crackup in itself, but it is not the one we thought we would be writing about. Let’s turn to the top 11.

  1. Evangelicals were on their own in the 2016 elections.

One of the most startling realizations of 2016 was that white evangelicals were willing to so warmly embrace a candidate with such a character deficit and dubious religious bona fides. One possible explanation is that white evangelicals were essentially left to their own devices, which Djupe and Calfano explore in Chapter 1. White evangelicals did not know many #NeverTrump evangelical leaders. Their clergy were not speaking out in large numbers and when they did they were perceived as Trump supporters. And evangelicals’ perceptions of elites were strongly colored by their immediate surroundings. The signs point to religious abdication in the 2016 election.

  1. Evangelicals’ presence in the GOP activist ranks continues to grow.

Since the 1970s, religiously involved evangelicals have tripled their presence among Republican activists (at the national convention). They are the only religious group whose representation has increased markedly over time, though religiously engaged Catholics have increased their presence a bit too. So find Layman and Brockway in Chapter 2, characterizing evangelicals as the “life of the party.”

  1. Evangelicals’ shift into the GOP from the 1960s on was driven by racial attitudes more than social issues like abortion.

Picking up Randall Balmer’s thread about the genesis of the Christian Right, Ryan Claassen compares the relative effects of abortion and racial attitudes on Republican voting across the critical time period of 1972 to the present. Of course support for Republicans is linked to abortion attitudes, but the shift over time would not have been so strong without racial conservatism. This provides strong evidence the engine of evangelical voting patterns is racially charged, which resonates with Balmer’s origin story of the Christian Right rooted in opposition to federal civil rights actions.

  1. Republican platform language has become more religious and more strident in the last 2 decades.

Ever since the 1980 national convention, the Republican platform has called for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. But the shift in platform language was just beginning. As Kevin den Dulk describes in “the challenge of pluralism” (Chapter 4), Republicans have increasingly employed religious language and more particularistic religious language. In the near term, the strategy to reinforce the evangelical-Republican fusion makes sense, but in the medium to long term?

  1. Evangelical political tolerance levels have been increasing as their minority status and educational attainment grow.

Even for their most disliked groups, like atheists and gay Americans, evangelicals have grown steadily more tolerant of their basic rights to participate in society. There’s a wonderful tension here between Andrew Lewis’ Chapter 5 findings and den Dulk’s Chapter 4. The explanation for the different approaches to pluralism are fairly obvious, tracking the incentives to elite party leaders versus followers, but would otherwise be out of reach if they were not side by side.

Evangelical Crackup_sm

  1. Young evangelicals are not much different than older ones and young evangelical liberals are in many ways dissimilar from other young liberals.

Prognosticators look to young evangelicals to ascertain the future of evangelical politics.  If the shared culture that made older evangelicals politically distinctive fails to unite young evangelicals in the same way, then the evangelical base of the Republican party may turn out to be the “house built on the sand” (Matthew 7:26).  In Chapter 8 Jeremy Castle examines young, liberal, evangelicals to see whether a crackup is underway.  He finds that, even among young evangelicals, liberal politics remain rare.  More importantly, he finds that evangelical culture continues to shape the attitudes and behavior of the liberal subculture within evangelicalism.  Accordingly, he concludes that the existence of young, liberal evangelicals does not signal that a crackup of the relationship between evangelicals and the Republican party is on the horizon.

  1. Evangelical Latinos are a bridge to the Republican Party.

Latinos have shown a steady drift to the Democratic Party for decades, but the rise of evangelicalism among Latinos in and outside of the US raises questions about whether this trend will continue. It turns out, as Taylor, Gershon, and Pantoya find in Chapter 9, that Latino evangelical Protestants are distinctive – they are more Republican than other Latinos, but they are not as Republican as white evangelicals (see also Burge’s post on this question). For now, Latino evangelicals are a small portion of the population[1], but their numbers are growing – they are the group responsible for stemming the losses among the Southern Baptist Convention, for instance. It remains to be seen what the strident rhetoric and policies from Trump are doing to Latino evangelical support.

  1. Evangelicals are not more insulated from disagreement than others.

Among the reasons given for why evangelicals’ politics are so distinctive is that they pray in an echo chamber – a disagreement-free zone. While it’s true that evangelicals have more church-based friends, they report disagreement in their core social networks at the same rate as other religious groups. Djupe, Neiheisel, and Sokhey find in Chapter 11 that, on average, their networks feature partisan disagreement among a quarter to a third of their discussion partners. This does not mean that they respond in the same ways to disagreement, but that question remains for another project – in fact, a related question is investigated in Chapter 12.

  1. Evangelicals may have come to the Republican fold for the culture, but they stay for the economics.

McGauvran and Oldmixon dispel notions in Chapter 15 that evangelicals are not on board with free market economics of the Republican Party (putting aside Trump’s violation of that orthodoxy in terms of free trade). However, there is a good bit of nuance that is worth thinking about. Evangelicals have gained in socio-economic status in the last 40 years and income helps solidify evangelical support for conservative economic policies. Interestingly, so does more engagement in evangelical religious communities. There’s quite the research question hiding in plain sight for the researcher with congregational data.

  1. Young evangelicals react more negatively to their parents than non-evangelicals.

Observers have focused a great deal of attention on young evangelicals, thinking that they cannot possibly share the same racially tinged politics as their parents and grandparents. Dan Cox, Robbie Jones and colleagues look for signs of better intergroup relations and find an interesting pattern. Young evangelicals feel less warmly toward the evangelical label when they are surrounded by fellow evangelicals in their social networks; on the other hand they embrace evangelicalism more when they do face diversity. This result does not portend a crackup within evangelicalism any time soon, though it is important to note that the analysis does not include former evangelicals – those who have left the faith tradition for whatever reason (and that list is likely to include political disagreement).

  1. Evangelicals have consolidated or perhaps are demonstrating ‘ironic continuities’.

We were lucky to have Robert Wuthnow and John Green offer concluding comments on our guiding question and their conclusions do not differ except in shading. Wuthnow notes that while everything has changed since the 1980s, evangelicals have remained consistent in their Republican support. That fact pushes him to distinguish ‘political evangelicalism’ from the religious practice of ‘evangelicalism.’ Green is on the same page as far as identifying the consolidation of evangelicals at the core of the Republican Party, emphasizing their political fit and shared identity, but does not admit to sharing a sense of irony about it.

These are just a few of the nuggets that appear in The Evangelical Crackup. You can also find work on religious authority (Ryan Burge), the spread of ‘In God We Trust’ mottos (Tobin Grant and Joshua Mitchell), new measurement schemes for evangelicals (Tobin Grant and David Searcy), the distribution of the Christian Right and Left in the states (Kim Conger), in addition to a sustained treatment of Christian conservative legal organizations at the heart of so many current and enduring disputes (Dan Bennett). Djupe taught these chapters while they were in press and really enjoyed the conversation across chapters. The ability to talk about the development of the movement’s connections to the GOP and the near comprehensive examination of evangelicals across units of analysis certainly belie easy assumptions about evangelicals, but also offer a compendium of findings that should be of interest to researchers as well.

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University Political Science, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog (see his list of posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.

Ryan L. Claassen, Kent State University Political Science, is author of Godless Democrats and Pious Republicans (2015) and author and coauthor of numerous political science articles. Further information about his work can be found at his website.


Notes

1. In the 2016 CCES, those with an Hispanic identity constitute just over 7% of the sample (4747/64600) and 570-630 of them (depending on the measurement strategy) are evangelical – 12.6% of Latinos and about 1% of the total sample.

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