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No Really, They're Liberal

Byron Johnson’s recent article The Good News About Evangelicalism (February 2011) suggests that all that has been made about the tendency of young evangelicals (often called “millennials”) to lean left on political issues is overblown. Using quantitative survey data, Johnson finds that millennials say they are as conservative or more conservative than previous generations on all the usual issues, including abortion and homosexuality, and not quite as liberal as has been portrayed on more recent questions such as climate change and the election of Barack Obama.

Byron is a friend and a resource to me in my work and he was kind enough to send me the full report some months ago. I was initially stumped by his findings. After completing my undergraduate degree at Wheaton College, a masters in college student affairs from Azusa Pacific University, two years at Colorado Christian University as an academic advisor , and now two years meeting with students and faculty at dozens of Christian colleges around the nation, I have experienced the leftward tilt as both a member of the millennial cohort and as a professional working with today’s students.

But Byron is a first-rate scholar and his data are compelling. So what gives?

I think the incongruence can best be explained by understanding the lines of thinking students go through to arrive at their political conclusions. If you ask a student, “Do you oppose abortion – yes or no?” it is unsurprising that a majority will answer, “yes.” However, if you ask students what the solution to abortion is, they’re much more likely to say government welfare programs for pregnant moms rather than reversing Roe v. Wade. Moreover, if you ask them to elaborate on their ethic of life, you will find that abortion has become just one issue among a slate of “social justice” concerns. Furthermore, if you ask them to prioritize these issues in terms of importance from greatest to least, my experience suggests that the issues of abortion and homosexuality have been supplanted by other concerns, often connected to global poverty: access to clean water, human trafficking, and so forth.

This reprioritization should not be taken lightly. These emphases are indicative of two troubling realities:

First, students today have been given no substantive anthropological or theological foundation for conservatism. Previous generations took for granted that abortion and homosexuality would always be sacrosanct; they are no longer.

Second, students today are far more inclined towards harmony with their peers; they dread appearing intolerant. They prefer to focus on areas of agreement and avoid those issues that may inspire conflict and barriers to relationship. Christian students are particularly conflict-averse for fear that a little thing like abortion or gay marriage might be a roadblock to Jesus. Hence, the zeal for social justice issues that don’t bother anyone – and that might, in fact, confer an increase in social status.

Many observers have noted the similarities between the millennials and America’s “Greatest Generation.” Today, the most senior members of the millennial generation have yet to reach the age of thirty; theirs is still mostly undeveloped potential. Yet, we can see clearly the harbingers of what is to come. The ubiquity of Shane Claiborne, the unquestioning participation in social justice causes, and the befuddled look on students’ faces when I say, “Capitalism is a moral imperative” belie the notion that the political inclinations of this generation are nothing to worry about.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. If parents, pastors, and educators do not begin to provide millennials with a compelling philosophy of conservatism that resonates with their inclinations and experiences, we will get burned.