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White Gen X and Millennial Evangelicals Are Losing Faith in the Conservative Culture Wars

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Younger evangelicals are openly questioning the religious and political traditions of their parents and grandparents. Julie Bennett/AP

Since the 1970s, white American evangelicals – a large subsection of Protestants who hold to a literal reading of the Bible – have often managed to get specific privileges through their political engagement primarily through supporting the Republican Party.

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan symbolically consolidated the alliance by bringing religious freedom and morality into public conversations that questioned the separation of church and state. In 2003, President George W. Bush signed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act into law. In October 2020, President Donald Trump appointed a conservative Christian, Amy Coney Barrett, to the Supreme Court, and went on to win 80% of the white evangelical vote in the following month’s election.

Trump went so far as to appoint a faith consultant board composed of influential evangelical leaders. They included Paula White, a well-known pastor and televangelist; and James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, a leading organization in evangelical efforts to embed “family values” into politics. These panel members heralded gestures by Trump, such as signing the “Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” which targeted enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 tax law requiring houses of worship to stay out of politics in order to remain tax-exempt.

Although it’s debated what specifically constitutes an evangelical, many agree that they are conservatives who are highly motivated by culture war issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and sexuality.

But even though evangelicals are often presented as monolithic in the media, current research signals a more complex picture.

Over the past six years, I have been working with an interdisciplinary team of scholars at the American Academy of Religion to analyze generational shifts in evangelicalism and religion more broadly in the United States. We are finding that some of the younger evangelicals are openly questioning their religious and political traditions. In short, the majority of white evangelicals are aging and a portion of younger evangelicals are engaging in both religion and politics differently.

Leaving the faith versus reforming from within

My research consists of hours of participant observation within younger evangelical faith communities, along with 50 in-depth, qualitative interviews with individuals who were raised in the politically charged evangelicalism in the southeastern United States, a region dominated by evangelicals.

Taken together, this research indicates increasing disaffection among white millennial and Gen X evangelicals with the cultural and political preoccupations that have strongly motivated their parents and grandparents. There is a growing number of “Exvangelicals” who disavow their previous stances on same-sex marriage, race and sexuality.