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Mere Republicanity? How Millenials are Changing the “Christian Right” (Pt. 1)

Patrick-Henry-College

[This article has been adapted from a paper delivered at the 2014 American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, 24th Nov. 2014]

Following Bush’s consecutive victories in 2000 and 2004 the Christian right have been labeled the ‘backbone’ and ‘base’ behind the Republican Party’s electoral successes.[1] Evangelical born-again Christians constitute around 26% of the US electorate according the latest Pew Research poll, of whom three-quarters consistently vote Republican.[2]  For forty years the considerable convening power of these faithful conservatives have made them an attractive constituency for Republicans to court. Aligning with their social and cultural concerns, this relationship has generated a distinguishing feature amongst Western politics, the American ‘values voter’. The issues that stir Christian conservatives are well known as they are often at odds with the secular-liberal trend of American society, generating the “culture-war”. These hot-button social, cultural and religious issues, or as Senator Danforth labels them ‘wedge issues’, cleave American society into one camp and another. They include opposition to abortion, stem-cell research and homosexual marriage, efforts to make Christianity ‘visible’ in courthouses and schools with attempts to display the Ten Commandments, teaching intelligent design and creationism in public high schools and universities as equally valid theories to evolution, opposing ‘Big’ government,  most notably the 2010 Affordable Care Act (or ‘ObamaCare’), deficit spending and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), demanding a ‘righteous government and judiciary’, opposing the decline of the traditional nuclear family amongst many others.[3] Equally well versed (amongst academics who follow the social movement) is the narrative of GOP-Christian right relations. As Meacham, Putnam and Campbell, Domke and Coe, Dochuk and others note, since Reagan in the 1980s, Republicans have pitched themselves as the ‘religion friendly party’ of America, with a Christian nationalist narrative, reaching out to a predominantly Protestant evangelical base by promising to enact moral legislation in return for evangelical votes and support.[4]  Christian conservatives in response picket, strategize and vote Republicans to power to push their countercultural moral Christian agenda into the public square, to ‘turn America back to God’ to ‘reclaim America’ from their liberal and secular-humanist opponents.[5]  In the 2000’s under Bush, an avowed evangelical, this relationship—or as Domke and Coe term it, ‘God Strategy’—appeared to reach its apogee; with the fusion of the spiritual and political blurring the lines of Christian theology and conservative ideology.[6] Linker and Laderman saw the legislative agenda and actions of conservative evangelicals and GOP as hybrid, that America was witnessing a form of ‘republicanity’ or ‘theo-conservatism’.[7] As Arnal comments the result of this ‘R’evival of religion in American politics spawned ‘a cottage industry, busy fretting about the Christian right’ ranging from the inquisitive and scholarly, to the fear-mongering diatribe and the polemical ‘hatchet-job’.[8] (Good examples of the latter include Hedges, ‘American Fascists’ and Kaplan’s ‘With God on their Side’.[9])

Whether the Bush era should be cited as another religious awakening in American politics as Linker and Laderman argue is debatable. Given the rise of the ‘Nones’, America’s declining religiosity and embrace of secular mores, aligning the Bush years to previous awakenings such as the Fundamentalist 1920s seems to stretch a point. Less contested is how the GOP and Christian right’s co-dependency is inflated by the academy’s boilerplate repetition, a noise that gives the constituency’s narrow vision for America credence, legitimating in part the increasingly dualistic nature of America’s religious politics, furthering the simplistic partisan binary, and the lexis of cultural warfare.

Commonly overlooked in this narrative however, is the generation game, that GOP-Christian right relations are based on the interactions of baby boomers. As the millennials (or Generation Y) take the wheel, so too should we update our views on this relationship that many have taken for granted.[10]  Taking inspiration from Lindsay’s seminal work, ‘Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite’ (2007), that traced the rise of evangelical power in government through their Republican partners, and their increasing command and control of business, entertainment and law;this paper looks to developments within Christian higher education.[11] In particular it looks at the views of fifty millennial students in 2013 from five Christian conservative colleges in America’s Mid-West and North-East, to discover their politics, and to review whether republicanity amongst millennial Christians is quite the foregone conclusion it is made out to be.

 

College findings

In fall of 2013, fifty gender-balanced random interviews were conducted with students at five Protestant-evangelical colleges: Calvin, Wheaton, Grove City, Patrick Henry and Gordon (from a field of 20, this selection was based on their affiliation with the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities for Christian ethos and the Young American Foundation’s Conservative Colleges listings). Though none of the colleges possess an official political position, the interviews sought to uncover students’ partisan inclinations and their perception of their colleges’ political position and views, along with their views on Christianity in America, and their domestic and international concerns. Due to the overlapping nature of conservative Christian ideas with Republican ideology, and the strength of the GOP-Christian right narrative, one would assume that the majority of students attending these conservative Christian colleges would be Republican. When students were asked what they believed the political orientation of their college was; 42% responded “Republican”, and a further 16% “Conservative”, much higher than the 28% who said their college had “No political stance”. So the climate of republicanity, or at the least the perception of Christian colleges being socially and politically conservative rings true. However, when asked what their own personal political views were 30% stated they were “Independent or not affiliated”, and a further 22% kept their views private and “Chose not to say” – the same figure as those students who identified themselves as “Republican”. This suggests though the climate of Christian evangelical education is perceived as conservative and Republican, millennial students are much more weary of party labels, preferring to keep themselves politically private, above the partisan fray. Indeed, the research found that this preference for political independence was gendered, with males showing a 2-to-1 lead over females, identifying as “Independent or not affiliated”. Interestingly female students were much more likely to identify as “Republican” than males, reversing the national gender gap that women typically lean Democrat.[12] If we are assessing the future trajectory of the Christian right, it is clear that the millennial generation have yet to buy into the movement’s ‘Christian conservative’ label.

When students were asked whether they or their institution associated with the Christian right grouping, a majority of students, 56% said “Yes” their college was part of the Christian right umbrella in their views and concerns; but this declined rapidly when it came to their personal attachment to the Christian right label, with only 26% of millennial students associating themselves with it, 30% chose “No association” with the movement at all.  This suggests students’ feel their college was more often than not part of the Christian right umbrella, but like their personal politics, students chose not to polarize their faith, and those who did were a minority report. Tellingly, when asked whether the Christian right label and its message were still relevant today, only 22% of students responded “Yes”. From Pastor Falwell’s call for a ‘Moral Majority’ in the 1970s and 80s to the sympathetic executive of Bush, the Christian right gains much of their political traction from their belief that the socio-political climate of America is warm to Christianity. However when students were asked whether Christianity in America was “growing, declining or don’t know”,  the majority, 68%, said it was “declining”. This implies millennial Christians believe that Christianity’s place within American society is on the wane, as American society becomes more plural and religiously diverse as Wuthnow argues, that Christianity has moved into Bellah’s ‘post-traditional’ world, but unlike their parent’s generation, millennials at this point don’t seek to reverse this faith trend.[13] An area of affinity with Christian right concerns came when students were asked what domestic issue first came to mind. The majority of students chose the life issues of “homosexual marriage” 48% and “abortion” 20%, the next involved “fiscal concerns / sequester” at 8%. Given the October 2013 Federal Shutdown was happening during the college visits “fiscal concerns” were evidently at the forefront of students’ minds. The leitmotif of life issue concerns is more complex to decode; either baby-boomer concerns are being passed on to millennials through education, or these life issue concerns are the default-setting for Christian evangelicals regardless of generation. Lastly, when students were asked what international concern came to mind, the majority 64% said “Don’t know / not talked about”, followed by “Israel / Palestine” at 14% and “Immigration Issues” at 10%. As Kiracofe and Posner note, the current GOP-Christian right foreign policy concerns of baby-boomers centre on the protection of Israel and defending US interests in the Middle East; indeed US-Israeli relations are seen as a litmus test for 2016 amongst values voters.[14] The international apathy of millennial Christians demonstrates baby-boomer foreign policy interests are not being transferred, and there seems little ambition amongst millennials to protect what Marty discusses, the ‘righteous empire’. That being said this apathy could also be the result of the Christian colleges’ climate of protection, not only do these ‘holy huddles’ protect students from the corrupting influences of post-modern America, they are also insulating students from international affairs.[15]

(Article concludes with Pt. II on Thursday)

 

[1] The Christian right was touted as the driving force behind President Bush’s electoral victories in 2000 and 2004. 52% of Bush’s votes in 2000 came from conservative Christians, a figure that rose to 74 % in 2004, equating to approximately 26 million and 45 million votes respectively.

Esther Kaplan, ‘With God on Their Side: George W. Bush and the Christian Right’

(New York: The New Press, 2005), p.3

See also, Lee Marsden, ‘For God’s Sake: The Christian Right and US Foreign Policy’

(London: Zed Books, 2008), Ch.1

[2] 26% refers to the percentage of the electorate for US House of Representatives who identify with the Evangelical / Born-Again religious group. 78% of evangelicals voted Republican in 2014, 77% in the previous midterm of 2010.

Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, ‘How the Faithful Voted: 2014 Preliminary Analysis’ Pew Research 5th Nov. 2014, date accessed 10th Nov. 2014, <http://www.pewforum.org/2014/11/05/how-the-faithful-voted-2014-preliminary-analysis/>

[3] Sen. John Danforth, ‘Faith and Politics: How the “Moral Values” Debate Divides America and How To Move Forward Together”

(New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 2006), p.4

See also, Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady, ‘Jesus Camp’ A&E IndieFilms and Magnolia Pictures (2006)

[4] See ‘Reagan’s Mission’, Jon Meacham, ‘American Gospel: God, The Founding Fathers, and The Making of A Nation’

(New York, NY: Random House, 2006), pp. 219-226

See also, Robert D. Putnam & David E. Campbell, ‘American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us’

(New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), pp.369-418

See also, David Domke & Kevin Coe, ‘The God Strategy: How Religion became a Political Weapon in America’ (Rev. Ed.)

(New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 25

See also, Darren Dochuk, ‘From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism’

(New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2011), Ch. 10

[5] Joseph L. Conn, ‘Dominionism and democracy: religious right radicals’ growing role in the presidential election sparks a debate over what kind of America they want’, Church & State Vol. 64, No. 9. (Oct 2011)

See also, Os Hillman & Loren Cunningham, ‘Reclaim Seven Mountains of Culture’ R7M 2011, date accessed 29/10/2011         <http://www.reclaim7mountains.com/>

[6] op.cit. David Domke & Kevin Coe, ‘The God Strategy…’ (2010), p. 25

[7] Damon Linker, ‘Theocons: Secular America Under Siege’

(New York, NY: Knopf Doubleday, 2007), Ch. 1

See also, Gary Laderman, ‘Republicanity: The GOP Transformation Is Nearly Complete’ Religious Dispatches, 17th Jul. 2011, date accessed 29th Jan. 2014

<http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/politics/4844/‘republicanity’_—_the_gop_transformation_is_nearly_complete/>

[8] William Arnal, ‘Being Secular in Twenty-First Century America: Responses to Jacques Berlinerblau’s “How To Be Secular”’ quoted inKit Kirkland, ‘Break Up? The dealignment of the Christian right from the Republican machinePolitical Theology Today, 20th Mar. 2014, <http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/breaking-up-the-dealignment-of-the-christian-right-from-the-republican-machine/>

[9] Christopher Hedges, ‘American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America’

(New York, NY: Free Press, 2007)

See also, op.cit. Esther Kaplan, ‘With God on Their Side…’ (2004)

[10] Millennials according to Pew Research, are those aged 18 to 33 years old, or born between 1981–1996.

Pew Research Center, ‘Millennials in Adulthood: Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends’ Pew Research, 7th Mar. 2014, date accessed 20th Nov. 2014, <http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2014/03/2014-03-07_generations-report-version-for-web.pdf> p.4

[11]  Michael Lindsay, ‘Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite’

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), Chs. 1-4

[12] The gender gap is at least as wide as at any point over the last 15 years. Women were 10 points less likely to support Republicans in (the 2014 midterm) election. That gap was 8 points in 2012, 5 points in 2008, and 4 points in 2006.

Jocelyn Kiley, ‘As GOP celebrates win, no sign of narrowing gender, age gaps’ Pew Research Center, 5th Nov. 2014, date accessed 10th Nov. 2014, < http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/11/05/as-gop-celebrates-win-no-sign-of-narrowing-gender-age-gaps/>

[13] Robert Wuthnow, ‘America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity’

(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), Ch. 7

See also, Robert Neely Bellah, ‘Beyond Belief: essays on a post-traditional world’

(New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1970), Intro

[14] Clifford Attick Ciracofe, ‘Dark Crusade: Christian Zionism and US Foreign Policy’

(New York, NY: IB Taurus, 2009), Ch. 1

See also, Sarah Posner, ‘Israel will be a 2016 Evangelical Litmus Test’, Religion Dispatches, 19th Nov. 2014,

date accessed 20th Nov. 2014,

<http://religiondispatches.org/israel-will-be-a-2016-evangelical-litmus-test/>

[15] Kit Kirkland, Student Interviews Fieldwork, 2013 (unpublished)

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