Can young evangelicals move beyond the Religious Right?

Brandon Thibodeaux GETTY IMAGES A cross necklace hangs in front of a worshipper’s American flag t-shirt as she participates in … Continued

Brandon Thibodeaux


A cross necklace hangs in front of a worshipper’s American flag t-shirt as she participates in the opening worship ceremony during the non-denominational prayer and fasting event, called “The Response” at Reliant Stadium August 6, 2011 in Houston, Texas.

Christians often jump into the political fray, but it’s not necessarily doing politics or faith any favors.

Whenever there is a lot of power involved, it’s easy to make mistakes. And those mistakes can be costly. David Campbell and Robert Putnam have argued convincingly in this past issue of
Foreign Affairs
that one of the primary factors in the exodus of young people from traditional churches has been the Religious Right.

A poisonous mix of religion and politics is killing the church.

As a young evangelical, I see two choices: back out of politics all together, or figure out a better way to do it.

The first option is tempting. A lot of good Christians have stepped into the Washington, D.C., arena before, like Billy Graham, only to get burned.

But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

While it might sound easier just to bow out, I don’t think it’s an option. The choices made in the halls of power—whether in our nation’s capital or in local city halls—have impacts on the lives of real people.

Christians are commanded to love our neighbor. That’s not limited just to our direct personal interactions. Loving our neighbor requires asking questions about what systems and structures in our society help promote human flourishing. That means we need to engage government.

Young Christians, myself included, will make mistakes along the way. But I think there are three starting points that can help keep us on the right track.

First, we need a broader definition of politics. Instead of just thinking of government and elections, we need to understand politics as all the things we do together. What the state does is a part of it but not all of it. When we act with others to build better communities, whether through starting a business or being a good neighbor, those are political acts.

If we expect the world to change just because a politician promised, we’re going to be readily disappointed. We need to be both national advocates for justice on a policy level and local practitioners in our own neighborhoods.

Second, we need a broader definition of “values.” The word is too often associated with a narrow political agenda that discounts the deeply held values of many Americans. While it might surprise some, it’s exactly because of my values as an evangelical Christian that I believe in equal rights for all, gay or straight.

My generation has a broader list of concerns including domestic poverty, pandemic diseases, reducing abortions, the environment and human trafficking. These are all challenges that need government to be a part of the solution, but it won’t be all. It will also require new non-profits, businesses and strong families.

Third, we need to regularly practice our moral imagination. The Golden Rule is at the heart of Christian moral understanding. This means that our starting point always needs to be with people. Jesus told his followers that the religious law was created for people, not the other way around. It’s the same with government; it’s not an end in of itself but is meant to be, as St. Paul said, a “servant for God’s good.”

We need to remember that our neighbors might not always be in close geographic proximity. They could be the child in a failing inner-city school halfway across the country or the man halfway across the world mining the minerals that go into our cell phones.

And our neighbors are people we might disagree with politically. We have to regularly remind ourselves that it is entirely possible to believe that someone might be wrong politically without thinking they are evil. If more people started with that assumption, it might bring some civility to an often caustic election environment.

This is why Sojourners has kicked off our “Voting for Us” campaign with this video. We think there is an opportunity to build a “post-candidate” paradigm for engaging this election. It’s an approach that starts with people and issues instead of personalities or parties.

We hope to engage young Christians in issue-based advocacy but at the same time re-brand for the rest of the country what it looks like to be a Christian engaged in politics. It doesn’t need to be replica of the old Religious Right with just a different list of policy concerns, and we don’t need to bow out of the electoral process all together.

It’s not easy, but it’s worth doing because it matters to our service members overseas, to the clean air and drinking water of future generations, to those who are out of work, to the world’s poorest 1 billion people and to the young and to the old.

It matters to all of us.

Tim King is director of communications at Sojourners.

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  • quiensabe

    Christians are commanded to love our neighbor, Tim, but we’re commanded first to love God. And we’re told to not be unequally yoked with the unbeliever. All this trumps your social gospel innuendo.

    You’ve also put Christianity on its head. The Bible is at the heart of Christian moral understanding, not the Golden Rule which is not part of the Bible. But until you understand who Jesus is, you miss the whole point of Christianity. Until then, don’t blame the Christian Right for the exodus of young people from traditional churches

  • michaelbingeman


    I think you did a wonderful job illustrating the changes that need to happen within American Evangelicalism, but I think there is still something to be said about the effect a stronger ecumenical current might have on young adult involvement in both faith and politics. I don’t have any data to support my claim, but much of the discontent from my peers comes from the general pig-headed attitude of Evangelicals who claim monopoly on the Gospel. I imagine that our generation would respond well to a listen-first Evangelicalism that was willing to listen to and work together with our brothers and sisters from other parts of Christ’s body.


    I agree with you in part, but there are places where I think you miss the mark. I think if we take a look at Matthew 20:36-40, (which judging by your post I think you already have,) then we find that Jesus declares a variation of the Deut 6 text about loving God with our entire essence as the first and greatest commandment, and then lists loving our neighbors as ourselves as the second.

    Saying that one love trumps another, quiensabe, seems to miss that these two commandments are a part of a whole. According to Jesus, both of these summarize the Law and the Prophets; if one is missing, the summary is incomplete. A faithful Christian cannot have one love without the other. Loving God with all of our heart, soul, and mind (or strength in Deut 6) cannot be done without loving our neighbor as well.

    Check out James 2. I think that gets to the heart of what I’m trying to say.

  • marcussimmonscc

    I think this campaign is a good start even if it is a bit too general for my understanding. I think that “Forgive us Father, as we have forgiven those who sin against us…” is a good entry point for how we should live w/ one another. Yet, I don’t think the religious right is what is driving young people away from church (certainly not in the African American context). I think this is too ambiguous and too much of an easy answer. For me, it falls into the American habit of declaring war on invisible, non-beings and entities. What in the world is the ‘religious right’ in 2012? Who is the religious right in Bronzeville in Chicago? or Newtown Marshall, TX? or on an Indian reservation in SD? I don’t really understand what/who/where you are speaking of w/ the term ‘religious right.’ Can you clarify that please?

    I think traditional churches are on the wain because they have spent much more time being afraid of their own youth (trying to mold them into echoes of past generations, alienating their concerns and experience through language + jacked up outreach, and making marriage, wealth, and social title the primary ways of being a good, productive Christian). Also, they are very out of touch with the experience of youth and young adults. To name a theo-political entity as culprit seems too passive. I am more inclined to name liars, ageists, racists, sexists, gold diggers, hypocrites, and discrimination against young/single/unmarried individuals as the ‘problem’ populations and those exist on the right, left, middle, etc.

  • tom_christmas

    Really positive article! I think it’s so important for Christians to be advocating political in areas of justice that really matter.

    Quiensabe I don’t really understand your comments. You don’t seem to be particularly enthusiastic about us loving our neighbours. I would say that’s biblical and in line with who Jesus is. What exactly are you criticising?

  • marcussimmonscc

    Another thought I had is that the influx of audio/visual effects and gross saturation of media have made churches less incarnate and more about ecstasy. We live in a media saturated society and people just aren’t impressed with tech tricks and sappy videos. (Some) people don’t want to come to church and watch the man/woman who is supposed to be pastoring them on a big screen 200 yards away. We can do that on our phones. (This doesn’t really apply in many low-income church communities though). I love the stuff, but I think it has gotten to a point where people begin to look at worship and lives of faith just like they do a playlist or a facebook post – the church must ‘earn’ our attention or prove to be ‘worthy’ of our continued commitment and full sacrifices – if not, we check out or move on quickly. I think that a lot of traditional churches have gotten seeker-sick and they try and draw youth and young adults w/ tricks and trade – but nothing keeps a believer like the victory that comes from struggling w/ the word. Media saturation commodifies the church and makes it a religious product. Young people have very short attention spans so pretty soon – it just doesn’t impress anymore – and then what’s left to keep people connected?

  • jonsteve2

    Are you aware of the seduction of the “Religious left” as well? You need to be if you are going to be seriously involved in any sort of Christian involvement of politics.

  • hapny

    Matthew 7:12 is where you find the golden rule. Love of others is central to the teaching of Jesus. When asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus gave two with the second one “love your neighbor…” – Matthew 22:36-40. Young people and many others are turned off when Christians leave out love for those in need and love for those of different social groups.

  • hebaber

    If you hold these views, why call yourself “evangelical”? Evangelical isn’t the only Christian option. Non-evangelical “mainline” churches have for decades affirmed these liberal values. Evangelicalism has got to go–it makes all of us Christians, and in fact religious believers generally, look bad.

  • catatonicjones

    Jesus wants you to hate. Unless and until you understand how well the christian right understands this, you’ll never be welcome among them.

  • ezrasalias-socialize

    @Michaelbingeman-Your response to quiensabe is spot on.
    You have shown that the Bible can be used to convey any attitude to humanity, from using it for draconian political measures, to campassion and loving ones neighbor and giving all your belongings away to the poor. It’s a game of pick and choose what fits your understanding, however narrow or wide.

    Quiensabe believes that you have to be subserviant to the manifestation of his interpretation of the Bible, and I am glad that you abscribe to your own and think independently. Yours is more ecumenical, humble and loving, unlike the social-Darwin right-wing Christian attitude. That gives me hope, that young Christians are not buying the current older Evangelical approach, you are the future of your faith.

    As a Secular Humanist, I don’t need to use the Bible for my moral compass, but if I did, I would be choosing similar passages to you. We have much in common.

  • TheNaturalist

    When politicians make religious claims as part of their platform (i.e. Jesus died for our sins) they are transforming what should be personal beliefs into political issues. So religions ideas become equivalent to other political issues such as “a tax on the wealthy will hurt the economy.”

    Then the religious must not be surprised when they receive vitriolic comments usually associated with political discourse and cannot revert to the usual “I am offended” line that normally protects religious speech.


    Evangelicals have been and always will be creatures of the hate-filled and poisonous Republican right. They cannot be redeemed in any way, shape or form.

  • jeb_jackson

    Essential Christianity doesn’t exclude loving everyone on the planet but it is not Christianity’s essence either. God Himself said He would not strive with man forever. Even some of those who have done mighty things in His name will we cast out because He never knew them. Why? Because not all are born again.

    Our works, yes, even our works of love do not determine our destiny. To inherit God’s kingdom requires belief in Jesus Christ. There is no other name given whereby man can be saved. The Christian Right has entered politics to preserve and protect our right to declare and live this, not make anyone “subserviant (sic) to the manifestation of his interpretation of the Bible.”

  • michaelbingeman


    I appreciate you kind words, and I can see why a secular humanist might see the Bible in the way that you just described; but as a young Evangelical myself I feel like I need to say a few words about the importance of good hermetical practices.

    You’re right that people have used the Bible in terrible ways in the past, and in many places the practice continues. To say that we (Christians and secular humanists alike) can pick and choose texts to prove a point, however, is not a good understanding of how Biblical theology works.

    Good Biblical theology is rooted in an understanding of the Biblical narrative from beginning to end — the story of creation, sin, covenant, slavery, exodus, monarchy, exile, prophets, rescue, atonement, salvation, and the eschaton. When we chose our particular verses, good theologians do not choose them at random or simply because they fit existing theological scaffolding. We chose them because they are good and true examples of a relevant place in the narrative of God and his creation.

    It should be noted, though, that Evangelicals like myself believe that the Bible is more than a moral compass: it is the inspired word of God. As astute as we can be about its narrative, law, and beauty, though, it seems an act of hubris to for any particular person or group of people to claim full authority over God’s word. The Pharisees and Sadducees thought the same of the Hebrew Bible (although they disagreed about which texts were holy), but Jesus turned their theological certainties upside down.

    I could write more, but, alas, I’ve already dedicated too much of my time to this post. I’m leaving much left unsaid, I realize, but I think the above is a good start at the very least.

  • RickWatcher

    Many on the left want to blame Christians for the problems of today, yet it is the policies of the socialist (progressive) left that has caused most of the problems. It has been the removal of God from our schools and policies that has allowed the darkness to infiltrate and pervert much of what was good about this country. And most importantly it has been the introduction of so much socialist lies, half-truths, and deception into the system that has warped the minds of so many from even receiving the truth.
    Here are a few words of Daniel Webster, former senator, congressman, and Secretary of state and defender of the Constitution: “But if we and our posterity reject religious institutions and authority, violate the rules of eternal justice, trifle with the injunctions of morality, and recklessly destroy the political constitution which holds us together, no man can tell how sudden a catastrophe many overwhelm us.”
    Ecclesiastes 10:2 “A wise man’s heart goes to the right, but a fool’s heart to the left.”
    Wake up before it’s too late.

  • AstraBeaujolais

    …and Matthew 25:

    For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

    37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

    40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

    41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

    44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

    45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

  • paulhume

    Matt. 7:12 does not report that Jesus states whatsoever you desire men do unto you, do unto them as well? And this is not popularly referred to as the Golden Rule?

    I prefer the way Hillel put it a generation before Christ’s ministry is supposed to have occurred: What is hateful to you do not do unto another.

    Both can be turned on their heads, of course. Someone with a death wish cannot cite Matthew to justify killing people. Someone who would be offended to receive alms cannot cite Hillel to avoid giving charity (something that teacher prescribed as an essential part of Judaism).

    But it seems a bit odd to say that the Golden Rule does not appear in the Bible – unless you are splitting hairs because the article used the popular term “Golden Rule” instead of quoting Matt. 7:12.

  • annzpics

    If, as you say, “A poisonous mix of religion and politics is killing the church,” then the vector for this poison is a press that has agreed to be bullied into using the word “Christian” as a synonym for “politically right-wing evangelical Protestant Republicans.”

    The leaders of that sub-group of Christians have every right to suggest (or, in some cases, outright insist) that anyone who can’t fit that description isn’t a “real” Christian. But for the leaders of public debate (such as writers and editors at the Washington Post) to go along with this is misleading to their readership and, frankly, a little insulting to those of us whose faith is thereby implied to be less than worthy of the name “Christianity.”

    What about the mainline Protestants, a demographic that is much more liberal than the culture at large? What about the Roman Catholics, a group whose political affiliations are evenly split between liberal and conservative? What about the members of other sects (like Quakers) who take seriously the call to pacifism and radical action on behalf of the poor? What about the African American church, a large majority of whose members also happen to be Democrats?

    It is a source of frustration to those of us who are not right-wing evangelical Protestant Republicans that we are so frequently being associated with actions and public speech we consider to be anything but “Christian.”

  • annzpics

    Wish I could edit. When I wrote “sub-group of Christians” in the second paragraph, I actually meant “subset.” Nothing derogatory was intended by use of “the pretext sub-“.

  • annzpics

    *sigh* “the preFIX sub.”

  • PhilyJimi

    Without politics religion has no power or influence. Without perception of conflict opposing the religion there is no “political will” created in the religion’s followers.

    The Christians, the Jews and the Muslims all understand this and are heavily involved in politics to the point war to assure it’s political power. It is easy to see, considering the Jews only make up about 2% of the population they wield considerably more political influence then that of the unaffiliated @ 16% ( Nothing in particular 12.1%, Agnostic 2.4% & Atheist 1.6%).

    Money and easy votes influence politicians in America. If a religious group can create a problem that is easy for a politician or a political group to address in opposition to the other political group they will take the opportunity to capture the “one issue” voters (example gay marriage bans). If a religious group can throw money at buying influence they will also do that.

    The American politics and religion have been partners in spite of the 1st amendment. Religion always will find some issue in which to create a wedge with society and their group of followers and if they have enough guaranteed votes there will always be an opportunistic politician willing to appease them in order to get elected. The civil rights movement and the black churches (a very large block of voters) is an example in American history.