Younger evangelicals put happiness and popularity over morality

Here’s an interesting post by Mark Tooley in the American Spectator.


A new generation of evangelical elites is imploring evangelicals to step back from the culture wars. Mostly they want to escape polarizing strong stances on same-sex marriage and abortion, and perhaps also contentious church-state issues, like the Obamacare contraceptive mandate.

Purportedly the evangelical church is failing to reach young, upwardly mobile professionals because evangelicals, who now broadly comprise perhaps one third of all Americans, are seen as reactionary and hateful. On their college campuses, at their coffee shops, and in their yoga classes, among other venues, some outspoken hip young evangelicals want a new public image for their faith.

[…]A popular young evangelical blogger echoing Merritt’s theme is Rachel Evans, who conveniently grew up in the Tennessee small town famous for the Scopes Monkey Trial. Her 2010 book was Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions. “We are tired of the culture wars,” she explained in a recent interview. “We are tired of politics.” Lamenting the church’s preoccupation with “shame and guilt,” she urged evangelicals to reconsider their opposition to same-sex unions.

The post has a nice history of how evangelicals have always been involved in moral and political issues, and it’s worth reading. But I want to make a different point below.

What’s at the root of this movement to back away from moral issues? Here’s what I think is the problem. When you advocate for moral causes like protecting the unborn, or school choice, or freeing the slaves, a bunch of people are not going to like you. Christians in the time of Jesus knew that being bold about their Christian convictions would make a lot of people think bad things about them – they expected it. But young evangelicals have gotten the idea that being a Christian should not involve any sort of unhappiness and unpopularity. They wouldn’t have learned this from the Bible, because the Bible emphasizes suffering and unpopularity as part of the normal Christian life. It is their experience of church (and the hedonistic culture around them) that is likely to reinforce that view.

What young evangelicals learn in many churches is that religion is something that is centered on the Bible and the church building – it is not something that flows into real life. They learn that you can’t find out anything about God from the Big Bang, the DNA, the fossil record, or even from the peer-reviewed research on abortion, divorce, or gay marriage. They learn from the Bible that helping the poor is good, but then they never pick up an economic textbook to see which economic system really helps the poor. What you learn about in church is that religion is private and has no connection to reality whatsoever. This fits in with their view that Christianity should make them happy, because they’ve learned that it doesn’t involve any studying to connect the Bible to the real world.

What follows from having a view that Christianity only lives in the Bible and church, and not out there in the real world of telescopes and microscopes? Well, most young evangelicals interpret what their pastor is telling them as “our flavor of ice cream” or “our cultural preference”. They don’t link Christianity to the real world, they don’t think that it’s true for everyone. They think that you just accept what the Bible says on faith, and that’s all. No reasons can be given to non-Christians outside of just asking them to accept the Bible. Younger evangelicals believe that there are no facts that confirm or disprove Christianity – it’s just a blind belief. Young evangelicals think that their faith doesn’t have to be complemented with careful study of how things work in the real world.

What is the result of this anti-intellectual compartmentalization of faith? The result is that young evangelicals will balk at the idea of telling someone that they are going to Hell if they don’t believe in Jesus. They will balk at the idea that feminism is to blame for the destruction of the family. They will balk at the idea that the best way to help the poor is to push for free market capitalism. They will balk at the idea that it is wrong to kill unborn children. They will balk at the idea that disarmament and pacifism embolden terrorists and tyrants to attack peace-loving people. They will balk at the idea that traditional marriage is better for society and children. They will balk at the idea that man-made catastrophic global warming is not supported by science. They lack courage because they first lack knowledge. They don’t know how to make the case using hard evidence. They don’t learn that hard evidence is important in church.

If the purpose of religion is to have happy feelings and be liked, then studying the real world to find out whether the Bible is true is bad religion. If religion is divorced from reality, then it’s just a personal preference influenced by how a person was raised. No young evangelical is going to lift a finger to take bold moral stands if they think their worldview is just one option among many – like the flavors of ice cream in the frozen section of the grocery store. They have to know that what they are saying is true – then they will be bold. An example: there was a time when people believed that God did not create the first living cell, because it was just a simple lump of protoplasm that could easily come about by accident. Now we know better, and we can boldly make the case for intelligent design based on hard evidence – if we put in the time to study the evidence. And it is the same for everything – from theological claims, to moral claims, to social claims, to economic claims, to foreign policy claims. It doesn’t matter if people call you names when you have the facts to support unpopular claims, and that’s why public, authentic Christianity is built on facts. Non-Christians being offended by your claims doesn’t change the way the world is.

We have to turn away from our own ignorance, laziness and cowardice if we hope to have the ability to stand up for our beliefs in public. Christianity is not about being happy and feeling good and being liked by others. In a society that is increasingly secular and relativistic, studying outside the Bible necessarily precedes an authentic Christian life. There is no shortcut. We might have been able to get away with fideism 50 years ago, but not anymore. Not now.

13 thoughts on “Younger evangelicals put happiness and popularity over morality”

  1. It is a disappointing trend, but I don’t really think it’s anything new. I’m currently reading a book written in 1797 by William Wilberforce. It’s got a long title, part of which is “A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians…” It’s interesting to read this book and see Wilberforce lamenting what he sees in his world, particularly among younger believers. At one point early in the book he writes “…it cannot surprise us to observe young men of sense and spirit beginning to doubt altogether of the truth of the system in which they have been brought up, and ready to abandon a station which they are unable to defend. Knowing Christianity chiefly in the difficulties which it contains, and in the impossibilities which are falsely imputed to it, they fall perhaps into the company of infidels; and, as might be expected, they are shaken by frivolous objections and profane cavils, which, had they been grounded and bottomed in reason and argument, would have passed by them, ‘as the idle wind,’ and scarcely have seemed worthy of serious notice.”

    It seems there is ‘nothing new under the sun’. To be certain, young evangelicals are going down this road. Unfortunately, I see that in many cases, older evangelicals are joining them along the way, or even leading them there. What I see happening is that this may be nothing more than another of what appears to be an inevitable drop in the number of ‘serious’ believers, a culling of the current generation of lukewarm Christians. What this may set up is another great awakening as a future generation rediscovers what was lost by the generation(s) before them.

    I know that God will always preserve a remnant. I believe He will do so through the current round of change. For me, I will do what I can to encourage my fellow Christians to look at the world more critically, willing to challenge and defend their faith against the latest round of attacks that will eventually pass them by. I hope more Christians will do the same.

    Good article.


  2. Upset about the church’s preoccupation with “shame and guilt”? Substitute the words “responsibility and conscience” in there and then you’ll see how shallow these kids are.


  3. Thank you for the post. I think Christians should proceed with great caution when taking sides on issues not directly linked to the central claims of the Christian faith. Free-market capitalism, for example, may well be superior to other economic systems (I’m not sure, to be honest), but why argue about economics when you could be talking about the resurrection of Jesus? What distinguishes the Christian worldview from other frameworks of thought is its central claim that Jesus of Nazareth was raised bodily from the dead, and that he is the Jewish Messiah and therefore the Lord of the world. This is a massive, worldview-shattering claim, and far more controversial (and interesting and exciting) than any contemporary political or social issue. The purpose of the church is to make known to the world that Jesus Christ is Lord. I’m afraid that many Christians today are so bogged down in trying to take (and defend) particular sides on contemporary issues, no matter how right their sides may be, that there’s little time or energy left for confronting people with the actual gospel message that Jesus is Lord. Contemporary issues are important, but the Christian worldview is not predicated on one’s belief about the causes of global warming. We need to teach our children (and study afresh ourselves) about what happened at Easter. This is the message that changes lives and reshapes worldviews. As a starting place I recommend “How God Became King” by NT Wright. Young evangelicals today (and their parents) need to be freshly confronted and challenged and encouraged and emboldened by the central truths of the gospel. They will then be equipped to begin living out the lifestyle that this worldview generates.


    1. Interesting you say this, Todd. Among my daily blog reading is Ben Witherington III’s blog. Recently, a couple of his posts with political content/implications have generated a lot of discussion.

      One on the philosophy of Ayn Rand (where he asks how much of her thinking is behind the Republican’s economic views):

      And one on his own “long journey” to a pacifistic view (which does raise some of the points you have in your comment):

      FWIW, I’m really not sure where I stand on the pacifistic view. I know what WK and others say. But, of course, one cannot make a decision by only listening to one side. (Prov. 18.17) So, I’m trying to be fair and listen to the other(s). So, Witherington’s posts — and the many comments made (on both sides of the issues in response) — are helpful in my own investigation. Maybe they will be to someone else, as well. :-)


    2. Todd, while I agree completely with most of what you say, I do think that Wintery is making an important point that we can’t miss. Many of the young modern-day evangelicals aren’t necessarily questioning the resurrection or who Jesus is. What I see are not people necessarily walking away from the gospel or the resurrection, but rather ignoring everything else the Bible informs us on. There is more to being a Christian than just knowing the ‘basics’. We have to live and fully function in this world. That means we need to be educated and aware of things in politics, science, literature, economics, etc. and how the Bible’s teachings relate in each of those areas. If not, then we find ourselves unprepared to maneuver in discussions, in answering questions. We also set ourselves up to be indoctrinated in false teachings that can come from the most deceptive of sources. For example, certain economic principles that have socialist tendencies can be the starting point for bad government policy. In turn that bad policy starts to give the government more and more power. Before you know it, you find yourself in a socialist or communist state. While it takes awhile to get there, we have to be aware of the possibilities and be prepared to take a stand against them.

      Consider the damage that evolutionary theory has done. More and more people see themselves as nothing more than a product of blind, random chance. You can share the gospel with them, but it has no impact – they don’t believe there is a God to begin with. If we can show them that there is a reason to see design and purpose in the world through current scientific findings, we then may open the door to share the gospel with them. In order to do that, we have to take a stand against an issue that is deeply rooted in our society – one that is shaping how money is spent, how education is performed, how decisions about human value are made. I don’t think that taking a stand on social issues like these is unimportant or a secondary consideration. Rather we should be active in our education and in sharing our opinions on important issues, and we should be prepared to back up those opinions with well informed answers.

      Imagine what this country might be like today if the founding fathers hadn’t put their lives on the line. They did so not to spread the gospel, but rather to fight tyranny, to keep the lines open for those who would share the gospel (or other messages for that matter). Would ideas like freedom of speech be available to us? Freedom of religion? If they hadn’t done what they did then, who knows if we would even be able to openly share this dialogue today. The point is that they took very strong stands on important social, political and economic issues. Many did so using the foundation of the Christian faith as a basis for their views. We should likewise not be afraid to do the same.


  4. This is a five-star post.

    Though this does not fit in with your point about examining physical real world evidence, I do think if young (and older!) Christians would actually read their Bibles—and not just cherry-pick chapters and verses, but a thorough reading and study—it would go a long way toward reminding us all that Christianity is never going to be popular, or make us popular. Unfortunately, many of the Christians I know don’t do a regular study/reading of the Bible, preferring books instead, and we know what the most popular books espouse. It is a little baffling to me, I must say.


    1. See, I think that it is easier to stand up for the plain meaning of the Bible on factual and moral issues when you have the facts on your side. So yes, you have to know what the Bible says, for sure. But then it is much easier to stand up for what the Bible says when you can leverage what science says, what history says, what economics says, and so on. It’s just easier to do, you will have courage. Even 1 Peter 3:15 says to be prepared to make a defense.


      1. Oh, I thoroughly agree with you! But when one doesn’t even know what the Bible says…well, you are entirely up a creek without any paddle (or boat). And of course, not knowing what the Bible says, there is no impetus to study and learn about it from a scientific, historic, or economic perspective.


      2. 30 years in newspaper newsrooms taught me that simply quoting the Bible or saying “you just must believe” was a non-starter. Particularly educated and university-dogmatized journalists simply had too much other baggage to comprehend it. But when I could engage them with facts — questioning their assumptions of origins, for instance, with facts and logic — then a pathway was cleared for getting into the truths of Scripture. The foundation is the Bible. It must be. Sometimes people need to have the wrong foundation dismantled before they can see the right one. And from the right foundation, of course, many of the seemingly grey issues of life become more black and white.


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