So, Who Are the “Young Evangelicals”?

Posted: March 31, 2009 by Scott Kistler in The Mysterious World of American Evangelicalism

There’s certainly been a lot of discussion about younger evangelicals and their differences with their parents’ generation.  Matthew Lee Anderson, a “young evangelical” himself, tries to unpack the cultural trends of this group, focusing on their criticisms of their parents’ generation as well as the blind spots of this new generation.  One particular trend that he discussed resonated with my own observations:

Beneath each of these shifts [including the search for “authenticity”, less affiliation with political parties, and criticism of evangelical culture] in the young evangelical ethos is a tacit, yet devout, commitment to a kind of libertarianism—even while holding more paternal instincts on political issues like poverty and race. The libertarianism of my peers is less political and more cultural. It is grounded in the notion that we have—and hence, we ought to have—control over ourselves, and responsibility for ourselves, regardless of circumstance. This conflicts, of course, with many of the communitarian ideas these same young evangelicals support in regards to governmental assistance in society—but few would accuse my generation of being intellectually consistent or coherent.

For most young evangelicals, the flash points where our libertarianism comes out are traditional sources of conflict with parents: tattoos, alcohol, music, movies, language and sexuality. In each area, younger evangelicals have rejected the perceived prudishness symbolized by our parents (yes, ironically, the children of the sixties and seventies) in favor of engaging the culture around us. Often this reflects a new internalization—one might characterize it as a gnosticization—of the Gospel. Social rules, such as those which once governed alcohol consumption among evangelicals, language, and sexual behavior, are now a sign of a Puritanical legalism that has forgotten that Jesus really cares about the heart and our intentions, not our behaviors and, as such, are to be discarded.

This principle of self-control and self-realization undergirds young evangelicals’ consumption of media. The new mantra of cultural engagement provides young evangelicals an effective cover to consume the same media as their peers. They are deeply convinced that such media has no effect on their lives—remaining confident they are carefully protected from the bad effects of consumerism by their flawless decision-making abilities.

This is one of the deep ironies of the young evangelical ethos. While vehemently rejecting the consumerism of 20th century evangelicalism, young evangelicals have adopted a new consumerist mindset under the guise of engagement with culture—a mindset that earns them access into the social standing they desire. The consumerism that has infected the core of evangelicalism has not been eradicated in the younger generations—it has simply been subsumed under a new teaching. Young evangelicals aspire to be urbane, sophisticated, and not appear judgmental or harsh—they want to be cool. And being cool means tossing aside the social mores that many of them grew up in, and transforming themselves into faith-soaked libertines.

Here young evangelicals’ approach to marriage and sexuality is instructive. The social institutions governing mating processes among young Christians continue to erode. While isolated pockets of evangelicals have attempted to buttress them against the impending tide of libertarianism, in reality couples decides for themselves how they want to approach marriage and sexuality. The slow but inevitable relaxing of codes of conduct at evangelical institutions is indicative of this trend—and it is a welcome trend to students who have to deal with being “weird” for attending a school with arcane rules. The new consumerism and the new libertarianism go hand in hand.

I know it’s a long quote, but I’ve noticed (and often succumbed to) this as well.  People don’t want to be the “weird” kind of Christian, and so while wanting community they also want to have their own lives unregulated.  I thought that Anderson’s explanation was the best I’ve seen of this mindset.

Does anyone else notice this?

Hat tip: Internet Monk


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