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Mere Republicanity? How Millenials are Changing the “Christian Right” (Pt. 2)

what I learned from Bush

[This is the second half of an article adapted from a paper delivered at the 2014 American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, 24th Nov. 2014. See Pt. I here.]

The Christian right generational shift

So what do the findings I have shared indicate for the future of the Christian right? They demonstrate despite the Republicans recent 2014-midterm results, that millennial Christians are more ambivalent about politics than their parents. According to Pew Research, millennial turnout in 2014 was down 6 points on the 2012 Presidential election, whilst there was 6 point increase amongst baby boomers aged 50-68. Older white Christian males swung the election in the GOP’s favour.[1] Though this temporarily bodes well for GOP-Christian right relations, it is clear that there will be a significant age-gap problem very soon, for partisan ties are very much weaker amongst millennials. Though educated in a Christian conservative environment at college, being Republican is no longer the default position for many students who seek greater political independence, averse to the polarizing and reductionist “Republican”, “Christian right” tags. Moreover, millennial Christians are more comfortable with America’s post-traditional faith environment. Though they see their own private faith as an important guide in their lives, a framing worldview, they are not motivated enough to clothe the public square, for many students see the Christian right’s activism to-date as counter-productive, intolerant, even one-dimensional. As Smidt has observed, there has been a shift in how millennials take their faith forward into politics.[2] Unlike their parents’ generation they are not as convinced that America is a Christian nation guided and governed by conservative Christian imperatives and that there are liberal secularizing forces working against America’s status as a ‘shining city on a hill’ endangering America’s future or Christian identity. Millennials have come to accept that the picture of American values and demographics has changed considerably, Christianity is less central to daily life, and that for Christian conservatives the exclusive relationship with Republicans appears to be fading. This acceptance, and lack of political activism will likely make the Christian right a greying concern, one that is less appealing to the Republican machine as the young-old voting gap widens. As Guth observes, the evangelical share of the population is both declining and graying, [and] in the long run, this means that the Republican constituency is going to be shrinking on the religious end…’ [3]

Though there is considerable hesitancy amongst millennial Christians to see partisan politics as the solution, domestically they have inherited their parents’ social views on abortion and homosexual marriage, and while not politically motivated at present, millennial Christians may come back into play in future elections if these life issue concerns persist. Nonetheless this would undoubtedly be contingent on breaking millennials’ skepticism of politics; as a recent BARNA study noted, ‘millennials seek authenticity’—politics doesn’t provide this.[4] Lastly international passivity amongst millennial Christians indicates domestic issues at home dominate their political concerns. The international simply doesn’t figure, amongst this demographic it is unlikely that the plight of Israel or the US’s stake in the Middle East will stir a protective foreign policy reaction. Overall, one observes that institutional political perspectives are not being transferred to evangelical-Protestant students, most are apolitical and politically liberated, keeping their politics and faith private. The fidelity of the GOP’s-Christian right marriage comes from its sense of political permanence, of deep-rooted intertwined interests; terming this unconditional bond republicanity therefore seems apt for baby boomers; but amongst millennial Christians its a misappropriation, for any melding of faith and politics there is contingent and fragile, and far less emotive.

 

End of an era?

What do these demographic shifts bring to the GOP side of the relationship? As early as 2008 the Republicans were reconsidering their narrow outreach to the Christian right. Following McCain’s defeat, during the beginning of the Great Recession it was obvious dollars trumped morals as the voting-concern of American Jane and Joe. Obama’s re-election in 2012 deepened the doubts over appealing to the values voter, as Black, Asian and Latino voters were more salient. Combs, President of the Christian Coalition said on reflection, ‘evangelicals turned out in record numbers and voted for Romney, but it just wasn’t enough.’[5] Marty asked in the light of the 2012 election ‘had it been over-rated all along?’ [6] Was the Christian right’s power over-determined, the product of big-tent politics and commentators’ rhetoric? As Christianity plays a smaller role in American life, the GOP strategy of relying upon a motivated evangelical faithful becomes harder to balance against breaking new ground with other sectors of society, especially Hispanics who the GOP have been actively courting since Obama’s 2008 election. As evidenced, the waning popularity of the Republican brand amongst millennial Christians who are far more apolitical and impartial than baby boomers, makes the appeal for a narrow vision of American society all the more difficult, for there is ‘considerable attitudinal distance between conservative Christians and the rest of the population’. Following the GOP’s 2012 defeat Mohler, former leader of the Southern Baptist Convention underlined this societal difference, ‘it’s not that our message [that] …abortion is wrong…and same-sex marriage is wrong didn’t get out, it did get out. It’s that the entire moral landscape has changed. An increasingly secularized America understands our positions, and has rejected them.’ [7] This difference is not only external but internal, for there are now considerable generational differences amongst evangelical Christians themselves, there is far less uniformity.[8] Indeed if there is concord, it is between Christian and secular millennials, against the political process, with a 2012 PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) values poll, confirming a generational withdrawal, 6 in 10 millennials believe ‘people like me don’t have any say about government’ – a clear message of youth disillusionment.[9]  And remember, the 2014 midterms were the lowest turnout since 1942.[10]

Millennial Christians are more apolitical and apathetic because they have witnessed the dualistic and often confrontational form Christian right activism has taken, ‘othering’ their secular liberal opponents as an enemy, elevating themselves as a chosen elect tasked with returning America to a fictional pious Golden Age, like Matthew 3:12, the wheat from the chaff.[11] Millennial evangelicals as evinced have a different worldview to baby boomer evangelicals, more akin to the mainstream Christian view of Matthew 22:21 “to render unto Caesar”, a view that keeps one’s politics and faith separate.[12] With this privatization of faith and aversion to party labels, the millennials cannot be relied upon like their parents’ generation to vote Republican, the ties that bound Republican ideology to Christian conservative theology have weakened, indeed the Republican machine recognizes that the Bush era was a ‘contextual high’ of baby-boomer relations, that a broader, plural and multi-faith appeal is now necessary for electoral victory.[13]  Despite the 2014 midterm ‘blip’, and the swing to older conservative Christian voters, the writing is on the wall for the direction of this relationship, for the millennials politics simply isn’t felt as deeply, and as Jones of the PRRI sums, ’[2012] was the last election where a white Christian strategy was workable’.[14]

 

Conclusion

We’ve seen that the fusion of politics and faith from the Bush era was a convergence of baby-boomer relations; their republicanity was driven by a sense of common mission and values that the millennial generation doesn’t share. Unlike baby boomers, millennial Christians are more discerning, they don’t want their faith pigeon-holed under inappropriate big-tent labels, their political independence stems from their dislike of the red/blue binary and its misappropriation for political gain. The hope that come election time more millennial Christians will align Republican than libertarian and liberal choices is a dubious Republican strategy, for millennials remain politically apathetic, and dubious of the manipulation of their faith under the God Strategy. Moreover the recent dextral shift in the Republican party to appease elements of the Tea Party makes the Republican brand less appealing, even divisive. Many millennials doubt their parents’ conviction that politics remains an effective method with which to ‘reclaim America’, for millennials faith is more private, there is little appetite to clothe the public square in Christianity, to ‘restore’ America to ‘a shining beacon on a hill’ or to protect the righteous American empire. These are no “cultural warriors”.  The millennial generation’s unease with partisan faith shows that Republican allegiances are much weaker, the study shows the considerable attrition has taken place since the Bush era, and that this once foregone convergence of values is on the decline. Though millennial Christians have adopted the rote of life issues, concerned about abortion and homosexual marriage, they are more politically passive and far less mobilized than baby-boomers; concerns remain just that. As such they are less attractive to the GOP machine that has already moved to Hispanic outreach; whilst the Christian right have moved from the Republican principal to cameo, for its votes not values that matter. The constituency may yet rebound, but this would be dependent on a sympathetic Republican executive, an optimistic economy and an cohort of moral millennial voters who want their faith to be politicised. On this last point, if the study’s Christian students are seen as representative, the die has already been cast, the Republicans electoral banker is eroding, and the days of values voting may soon follow.

 

[1] op.cit. Jocelyn Kiley, ‘As GOP celebrates win, no sign of narrowing gender, age gaps’ (2014)

[2] Corwin Smidt, ‘American Evangelicals Today’ Calvin Henry Symposium, Apr. 2013, date accessed 30th Jan. 2014, <http://www.calvin.edu/henry/archives/lectures/Smidt-AmericanEvangelicalsToday.pdf>

[3] Guth quoted in Laurie Goodstein, ‘Christian Right Failed to Sway Voters on Issues’, The New York Times, 9th Nov. 2012, date accessed 29th Jan. 2014, <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/10/us/politics/christian-conservatives-failed-to-sway-voters.html?_r=2&>

[4] David H. Kim & Barna Group, “Frames Live – The New Shape of Young Adulthood,” BARNA, 30th Jan. 2014, date accessed 30th Jan. 2014, <http://new.livestream.com/accounts/6744258/events/2690471>

[5] Sarah McHaney, ‘Christian Right’s Influence Shaken by US Election’ InterPress News Agency, 8th Nov. 2012, date accessed 29th Jan. 2014, , http://www.ipsnews.net/2012/11/christian-rights-influence-shaken-by-u-s-election/>

[6] Martin Marty, “The Religious Right After the Election” Sightings, University of Chicago Divinity School, 12th Nov. 2012.

[7] Mohler quoted in Laurie Goodstein, ‘Christian Right Failed to Sway Voters on Issues’, The New York Times, 9th Nov. 2012, date accessed 29th Jan. 2014, <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/10/us/politics/christian-conservatives-failed-to-sway-voters.html?_r=2&>

[8] Mark Chaves, ‘American Religion, Contemporary Trends’

(Princeton, NY: Princeton University Press, 2011), p. 99, see Ch. 8/ Polarization

[9] PRRI, ‘Diverse, Disillusioned and Divided: Millennial Values and Voter Engagement in the 2012 Election’, PRRI, 4th Oct. 2012, date accessed 24th Nov. 2014, <http://publicreligion.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Millennials-Election-2012-Report-For-Web.pdf>

[10] Editorial Board, ‘The Worst Voter Turnout in 72 Years’ The New York Times, 11th Nov. 2014, date accessed 20th Nov. 2014,  <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/12/opinion/the-worst-voter-turnout-in-72-years.html>

[11] Matthew 3:12, New International Version Bible, Bible Hub, 2014, date accessed 15th Aug. 2014,

<http://biblehub.com/matthew/3-12.htm>

[12] ‘Then he said to them, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’ – Mainstream Christian groups use this verse to underline how the earthly and the divine must not mix; the Christian right spurred on to be the ‘salt and light’ of the Earth have no problem fusing the two realms as they seek to reverse the translocation of faith from the public to the private sphere.

Matthew 22:21, New International Version Bible, Bible Hub, 2014, date accessed 20th Nov. 2014,

<http://biblehub.com/matthew/22-21.htm>

[13] op.cit. Kit Kirkland, ‘Break Up? The dealignment of the Christian right from the Republican machine’ (2014)

[14] Robert P. Jones, quoted in op.cit Laurie Goodstein, ‘Christian Right Failed to Sway Voters on Issues’(2014)

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