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Younger evangelicals look an awful lot like older evangelicals post-2016

Despite some interesting recent anecdotes, surveys show young evangelicals to be much more conservative than others of their generation.

Donald Trump, speaking in a large campus center at Liberty University, with a large screen behind him projecting his image.
Trump speaking at Liberty University.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

In the lead-up to the 2018 midterms, several prominent media accounts reported on the connection between evangelicals and the Republican Party. Given the important role that evangelicals play in the Republican base — they make up about 20 percent of the US population and consistently have given 70 to 80 percent of their votes to Republican presidential candidates — it is important to understand the evangelical-Republican relationship thoroughly.

Observers have paid special attention to young evangelicals as they look for cracks in the electoral juggernaut. Our research provides important context and qualifiers that together suggest the relationship between evangelicals and the Republican Party isn’t much different than it has been over the past three or four decades, except in one important respect.

A piece recently published in the New York Times, written by Elizabeth Dias, reported on how young evangelicals were thinking about religion and politics ahead of the midterms based on 1,500 submissions to an open call put out by the paper. The article is notable because several of the young evangelicals profiled are critical of Donald Trump and hold liberal attitudes on various issues, including LGBTQ rights and immigration. As Dias writes, “The six young evangelicals featured here, all deeply involved in their churches, offer the textured sound of the rising evangelical voice in America, one that is often drowned out by white elders.”

The piece should be commended for acknowledging the diversity of voices in the evangelical community. There has long been a small evangelical left, represented by such publications as Sojourners, and new issues have arisen that have opened up opportunities for collaboration across the ideological divide. However, it is important to acknowledge how young evangelicals compare to 1) other young citizens, 2) other evangelicals, and 3) previous young evangelical cohorts on their issue attitudes, how those attitudes may be driving partisanship and ideology, and what their all-important voting patterns are.

Overall, there isn’t much evidence of a young evangelical voice that is being “drowned out” by elders. On many issues, young evangelicals are quite similar to older evangelicals. When it comes to abortion, a signature issue among evangelicals, Ryan Burge finds that they are just as conservative on abortion as others. As Jeremy Castle shows in his forthcoming book Rock of Ages, one reason for this is that many evangelical churches have mechanisms for socializing members into conservative attitudes on cultural issues, including sponsoring Sanctity of Life Sunday and crisis pregnancy centers. As Andrew Lewis documents, another reason may be that the mandates of abortion politics drive conservatives to maintain support for anti-abortion candidates.

The most notable issue where young evangelicals are more liberal than older evangelical generations is same-sex marriage, but again, context is important. In particular, the change seems to be concentrated among low-commitment evangelicals (those who attend church, pray, and look to religion for guidance on day-to-day matters less). This suggests that changes in the broader society around them, rather than changes in evangelical theology, are behind evangelicals’ liberalization on same-sex marriage. Even so, young evangelicals are much more conservative on same-sex marriage than other young voters.

There also isn’t much evidence that the changing issue attitudes on same-sex marriage (or any other issues) are leading to broader changes in political behavior. In separate research, Castle and Burge find little evidence in nationally representative survey data that young evangelicals are changing their political identities. Both partisanship and self-identified left-right ideology among 18- to 29-year-old evangelicals have remained nearly constant since 1990, though with a demonstrable conservative uptick in 2016.

This comes despite the diversification of evangelicalism as Janelle Wong has shown — racial minorities are growing in number but so far they are having little effect on aggregate partisanship, even among the young.

Young evangelical support for Trump is also more complicated than initial analyses suggest. Even though Trump falls far short of evangelical ideals in terms of both his positions on certain issues and his personal behavior, evangelicals remained one of his most loyal constituencies. Burge’s research on young evangelicals indicates only very small differences in support for Trump across age groups. Quite simply, once Trump became the Republican nominee, partisanship and ideology kicked in and a strong majority of young evangelicals ended up supporting him.

Furthermore, Castle shows in Rock of Ages that young evangelicals who didn’t support Trump didn’t necessarily vote for Clinton. Rather, young evangelicals showed disproportionately high rates of support for Gary Johnson, Evan McMullin, and a variety of conservative write-in candidates.

Finally, some of Castle’s research in Paul Djupe and Ryan Claassen’s 2018 volume The Evangelical Crackup? provides important context for understanding young evangelicals who identify as liberal. First, only a small percentage of 18- to 29-year-old evangelicals identify as “liberal” or “very liberal” — about 12 percent in the 2016 CCES. Liberal self-identification is also heavily concentrated among infrequently attending young evangelicals. Not only are liberal young evangelicals rarer than many accounts suggest, but they are distinctive from other young liberals in their relative conservatism on the culturally conservative policy attitudes that drive the evangelical-Republican connection, including abortion and same-sex marriage.

In short, accounts of a new generation of liberal young evangelicals such as the one appearing in the New York Times last week are intriguing, but the survey data for the most part doesn’t support the narrative that they are growing and shifting their politics from their parents and even grandparents. The real newsworthy story may be the exceptional continuity in evangelical public opinion on most issues over time. When it comes to evangelical politics, then, the old adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same” rings true.

Jeremy Castle is a postdoctoral fellow in the political science department at Central Michigan University. Ryan P. Burge is a political science instructor at Eastern Illinois University. Paul A. Djupe is a professor of political science at Denison University and an affiliated scholar with PRRI.