Religious Habits of U.S. teens–Especially Evangelicals

By DAN STIVER

In September, the Pew Research Center published a report of their study of U.S. teenagers and their religious identity (https://www.brookings.edu/research/a-time-to-heal-a-time-to-build/?preview_id=1072489&fbclid=IwAR0TsM2ZTK1f3a7WpYkm9APCsMvgkUEWpcDLqy3dmt3OPh1VouplA9KbuUs). Among other things, they found that teenagers share the religious affiliation of their families; it is higher among evangelicals and Catholics, about 80 percent, than in mainline denominations, at 55 percent. The pattern holds even more for religious unaffiliated families at 86 percent. Such identification may be surprising in that it runs counter perhaps to the prevalent discussion of young people leaving their home church identification and even the Christian faith altogether.

Dan Stiver

These findings make sense to me, however, for from a developmental perspective, most teenagers are in a stage where, contrary to what one might think, they tend to identify with the larger identity and values of their families, even if they don’t act like it at times! They are in a “conventional stage.” In the evangelical world, especially, many of these young people will likely be nestled within a strong sense of community and a homogeneous environment, with many being home-schooled and going to private Christian schools that reaffirm the values of their families, not to mention their churches doing the same. This result is surely encouraging to religious parents. 

When one looks a little deeper, however, one finds some cautionary signs. When there are differences between the parents or guardians and their 13-17 year-olds, it is usually the kids who are less likely to say that religion is important in their lives. The kids go to church like their parents, but the parents often overestimate the importance of religion in their children’s lives and the commonality of their beliefs. What happens, however, when they leave home and become young adults? And enter a much more diverse world? That’s when I see them at college and at the seminary in graduate school. The statistical picture at this point looks much different. More than ever before, young adults are not identifying as a Christian, the nones (although they may claim to be “spiritual”), and others are claiming to leave faith altogether, the dones. In fact, in the Pew report, the largest category of teenagers are “nones,” at 32 percent, although about two-thirds are affiliated with some religion. These trends for young adults are less so among evangelicals, but it is still a pattern for younger evangelicals. That shift has intensified in the last few years with the growth of “exvangelicals” and “post-evangelicals.” 

With evangelicals being much in the news, I want to focus upon them. David Gushee, at one point a highly popular evangelical theologian, in his recently published book After Evangelicalism looks at some of the statistics for young evangelical adults. Another Pew study in 2014 indicated that evangelicals who have left evangelicalism make up about 8 percent of the whole population. Another study indicated that almost 40 percent of those raised evangelical leave in adulthood. The white evangelical population had fallen from 23 percent of the population in 2006 to 17 percent in ten years in 2016—and that was before the devastating effect that the presidency of Donald Trump has had upon evangelicals.

Michael Gerson, a former evangelical who was a speechwriter for George Bush, notes that about 26 percent of people 65 and older identify as evangelicals, but it is only 8 percent among those 18-29. In general, millennials are the least religiously connected ever studied. Gushee points out that some of this movement away has been common as young adults go out on their own. In the past, they often came back in the middle adult years. The coming back, however, has lessened. Moreover, he argues that in recent years, the movement away is attributable not just to a move towards independence, but it is a reaction against their past, a moral reaction, one of “conscientious objection.”

Young adults are especially sensitive to hypocrisy—a trait that they apparently share with Jesus, who reserved his harshest words for the hypocrisy of religious leaders. Every day young adults can see the hypocrisy of evangelical religious and political leaders being played out in front of them, often in the form of actual video of them saying one thing in the Clinton and Obama years and now the opposite. The group that ostensibly stood for family values, for the necessity of high character in the President, for honesty and truth-telling (as in the Ten Commandments), and for being Christlike are now the groups making apologies if not enthusiastic support for a President, whatever else one might say about him, who is far from that ideal. These evangelicals are virtually the highest demographic supporting torture, for war, for opposition to immigrants, even legal immigration, and for separating children from parents at the border—all attitudes that differ from most other Americans and especially young people.

It’s difficult to imagine a sharper contrast. Robert Jones in White Too Long sadly underscores a study with a valid instrument testing racist attitudes that found that white evangelicals score the highest in the country, much more than non-Christians (it is a sad note that all white Christians score higher than non-Christians). It is no wonder that Peter Wehner in a recent article could report, “A few weeks ago, a person in Christian ministry told me in pained and poignant terms that he’s been counseling scores of younger evangelicals who are on the edge of leaving their faith and scores more who actually have lost their faith because they have been so unsettled by what they have witnessed during the Trump years.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/10/the-evangelical-movements-bad-bargain/616760/) This kind of reaction increasingly shows up, as one can see in this comment by Jay Parini, especially about younger evangelicals, “The dam has broken…. Younger evangelicals, those under 45, have been slowly but steadily moving away from Trump during the past two years or so, unhappy about his example.” (https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/20/opinions/christianity-today-editorial-opinion-parini/index.html) As I said, young adults have a highly sensitive hypocrisy and inauthenticity radar. 

It’s ironic to note that the evangelical movement began as a reaction to the debacle for Fundamentalism in the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, from which Fundamentalism never recovered. Evangelicals began as a movement to be more open to the culture that they were trying to reach, to be more open to education, and to be more open to science. My prediction, which is always dangerous, is that these last few years will be the Scopes Trial for evangelicals. In other words, I don’t think the evangelical movement will ever be the same. The “evangelical” label I suspect will never get over it. 

Contrary to the recent Pew report, that is a pessimistic read of the times. It is not totally pessimistic, however. I do trust that a vibrant Christian faith will continue among young people and the church as a whole. That is what I see. They may not be drawn to what “evangelical” stands for, but they are drawn to Jesus. Ironically, it is that fidelity to Christ that is driving some of them away from evangelicalism. Perhaps in turning from the hypocrisy that they see in some current evangelical leaders, they are responding to the deepest values that they were taught, namely, to follow Christ above everything else. One of the watchwords of the Protestant Reformation was ecclesia semper reformanda, the church always reforming itself—especially by returning to Scripture. In this sense, these young Christians, even as they may not want to be called evangelical, by being critical are being more faithful Protestants and Christians.

So there is something here for everyone in this Pew report. We will see what happens when these teens leave home and become young adults. I think a vital faith will continue for many—but they may not identify with the evangelical movement or many of its emphases—all in the name of a more sincere commitment to Christ. In doing so, they may well do much better at “evangelizing” or reaching their culture than their evangelical elders. 

Dan Stiver is a part-time professor of theology at Logsdon Seminary

(In top photo, Hardin-Simmons University newcomers pray during an opening event for Stampede Week 2019. Photo by Loretta Fulton)

2 comments

  • Good stuff. Thanks for this.

    Like

  • Thanks, Dan, for researching this rather complex trend among today’s youth. I think they are very perceptive to have discerned the hypocrisy they are see among those who claim Christianity. I join them in finding the incongruity completely intolerable.

    Like

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