On Monday, April 1st, IRD hosted a panel discussion on “Engaging Young Evangelicals: Have We Lost the Culture Wars?” I had the opportunity to share some comments alongside our distinguished panelists, Andrew Walker of the Heritage Foundation, Eric Teetsel of the Manhattan Declaration, and Jessica Prol of Family Research Council. Below is a transcript of my remarks. Please check back later for video of the full event!
I’m going to share with you a sketch of what the Evangelical Left looks like and why it might be that young Evangelicals are susceptible to sacrificing on issues like sanctity of life, marriage, and religious liberty. Most often the message is not presented as “abandon your pro-life convictions, abandon traditional Christian teaching, and come over here and advocate for climate control and pacifism, and these sorts of things.” It’s not presented in that way; it’s wrapped in the language of developing a “consistent ethic of life,” and we hear this all the time from groups like Sojourners, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Shane Claiborne, and those want to claim the label of “Evangelical,” and that’s debatable, but they say, “Well of course we want to protect the unborn, of course we believe that Christians are called to do that, but that’s not the only thing. Other things we should focus on include protecting the environment, reducing poverty through welfare initiatives, things like this.”
But that message forgets there is a hierarchy of issues. We must prioritize protecting the unborn above all else because it ultimately expresses why we care about protecting human life, why do we want a consistent ethic of life, that should be the first thing. The unborn are the most vulnerable and flattening the hierarchy of social and political concerns obscures that and confuses that truth.
The most recent example I’ve seen of this was the Justice Conference in Philadelphia this February. It was a huge conference, about 5,000 people in attendance, with many more satellite locations where the conference was shown all over the country. Most people who attended were probably between the ages of 18 and 30, and most would probably identify themselves as Evangelical. Walking through the exhibitor room, there was not a single national pro-life organization there. There was one pregnancy care clinic from the local area, but there was not a single pro-life organization out of about 200 exhibitors. Further, as far as the speakers at the conference, there was one mention of abortion in China, but not one mention of abortion domestically. This was a two day conference with many speakers.
More than that, they featured Sheryl WuDunn, an activist working on solving the oppression of women worldwide. She spoke on that issue and talked about the imbalanced gender ratio in China but did not mention, not a single time did she mention sex-selective abortion, which is absolutely the major cause of the imbalanced gender ratio, but she didn’t mention it once. She’s not a Christian, so that’s her perspective. However, the fact that she was there, featured as a major speaker was very problematic. There was no point where that could be countered, no question and answer session, so I don’t know what understanding these people attending the conference have of that issue, but they left without an accurate portrayal of it. This is a Christian conference, this is a conference that presents itself as “our generation pursuing justice in the name of Christ.” That was very disturbing to me, but it illustrates what we’re dealing with. It’s a very insidious movement to try and pull away young Evangelicals from traditional teachings into cultural acquiescence, and it’s happening in very subtle ways.
Why would any young Evangelical be susceptible to this? Don’t we all know what the Church teaches, what the Bible teaches on life? Well, I think that most young Evangelicals do still affirm more conservative viewpoints, most would still vote more conservatively, but they tend to, a lot of times, privatize their beliefs. We see that most often with the marriage issue. They want to be able to say, “Well sure I believe that homosexual practice is a sin, but I wouldn’t want to impose my view on the rest of society that doesn’t share my opinions and beliefs.” This is very, very common. I hear this all the time and I think it comes from a number of reasons.
We already have a very weakened understanding of what marriage is in our culture. Young evangelicals haven’t grown up in a time when homosexuality is viewed as aberrant behavior. They have grown up in a time when it’s just another option and they may not agree that it’s right, but their parents, or their friends’ parents are divorced, or they’re cohabiting, or their friends are having sex before they’re married. There are very loose definitions of what proper relationships are, and this confusion is just in the water.
Also, messages of tolerance and acceptance are in the water and are what we’ve grown up hearing. Contrary to popular opinion and belief, our churches doesn’t always teach very clearly what a biblical view of marriage. So it’s not that young Evangelicals are growing up hearing solid teachings on what God’s plan for sexuality and marriage is, because that’s not always talked about very often. Then they go to high school, or college, even if it’s at a Christian college, opposing ideas and it sounds mean to say that “I don’t believe that marriage should be redefined as two persons of the same sex.” There’s not a strong foundation that they have to resist those trends.
I think one tangible step to take is to present a stronger message of why we are committed to protecting life, first of all. What is it about the Christian view of the human person as created in the Image of God, and how ought that affect our interaction with public life. Two, what is the Christian teaching of marriage? How has God designed marriage, and why does that matter? Why does it matter that we affirm design in public as well? Arguments about marriage aren’t necessarily going to be persuasive in the rest of society. Depending on what polls you look at, between 60 and 80 percent of the broader population of Millennials affirm same-sex marriage. We don’t’ know where trends are going in the future, nobody knows for sure what will happen, but that’s the situation.
To stand up against cultural pressure is a very challenging thing and young Christians need a lot of courage to do that. So while arguments aren’t going to change the culture, we need to make sure young Evangelicals have the arguments so they can give a solid answer and know why they believe the convictions they do.
So what do we do about this? How do we counter the Evangelical Left? I think, honestly, that we need to capture the imagination, use story to say: “No, it’s not true that in the past we haven’t had a consistent ethic of life.” We have had a consistent ethic of life. This largely is the media portrayal of the so called “religious right” and their “culture wars” caring about the unborn only until they’re born and then we don’t care about them anymore. That’s absolutely not true and we know that, but I don’t think that your average young Evangelical who hears these media stories all the time necessarily knows they’re not true.
We really need to be writing stories, telling stories of people who dedicate their lives to serving Christ by caring for the unborn, poor, and other vulnerable among us. These faithful, every day, average believers represent the majority of the much maligned Evangelicals. We also should look at what the new initiative, Marriage Generation is doing, highlighting stories of marriage and family among young people. Sharing these stories shows there is an positive and beautiful alternative way of life despite the brokenness and moral confusion around us. Let’s find more ways to tell the stories of faithful Christians already living a consistent ethic of life.