Young, Restless, and Re-Formed: Generation Y and American Christianity

by Tim Reuter:

Decline always sells. People enjoy discussing or predicting the collapse of civilizations and social systems, whether it is Rome or Communism. Judging by the amount of ink spilled on doom mongering today, the United States is probably hopeless. Fiscal and demographic oblivion beckon as neo-paganism contaminates the culture.

GenerationYFor many, America is spiritually sick. The proliferation of self-identified “nones,” increased political support for gay marriage and legalized marijuana, and censorship of public Christians (see Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty) indicates that faith is in retreat. Evangelical Christians see the yawning abyss and respond by raging at trifles. Mark Driscoll, the chief pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle (one of the largest mega-churches in the U.S.), once called Avatar “the most satanic film I’ve ever seen.”

Railing against movies may sound silly. However, such jeremiads manifest a palpable anxiety among evangelicals. Slogans such as “reclaim America for Christ” are existential cries before the cold truth: the young are not as religious as their parents. If culture grows out of religion then it is easy to see today’s hedonism as a prelude to societal failure.

American evangelicals have long been vulnerable to tantrums vis-à-vis decadent culture. But sometimes, words catalyze the legislation of morality. While Billy Sunday decried evolution in the early 20th Century, his pious followers wrote Prohibition into the U.S. Constitution. Whatever the rhetoric about demon rum, “the noble experiment” had a high human cost. The government packed the jails with people who did nothing wrong except produce, sell, or ingest alcohol.

It is unfortunate that impetuses to perfect men by government force still exist. The one in the news lately is Prohibition’s spiritual heir, the War on Drugs. John Piper, the retired senior pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, offered the following on the subject of legalized marijuana earlier this month:

“There are at least two biblical truths that would lead us away from the recreational use of marijuana. The first is that, for the Christian, the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. That simple teaching, in context, should have a huge effect… I would ask, ‘Can you commend Christ authentically to your friends during a marijuana high?’ ”

There is a profound irony here. As the cultural ground continues its leftward drift, Piper, Driscoll, and others have led a hard-right theological shift in American Protestantism. Their movement goes by several names; Neo-Calvinism, Neo-Reformed, or “Young, Restless, and Reformed.” Indeed, the large number of young people and their passion for Biblical doctrine are the movement’s defining traits. That socially liberal millennials would embrace the teachings of John Calvin, with his brute logic about human depravity and predestination, is paradoxical.

Yet, the Neo-Reformed movement commands a powerful position in America’s religious realm today. In 1993, Albert Mohler became president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and he purged its liberal Protestant faculty. While pro-life protestors camped outside of abortion clinics in the 1990s and early 2000s, church plants in Seattle and New York grew into behemoths whose congregations number in the thousands. If the proliferation of conferences and coalitions such as Resurgence or Together for the Gospel is any indication, millennials have not forsaken faiths.

But how should one explain the simultaneous collapse in support for traditional social issues and emergence of conservative theology? It is somewhat truth that little has changed. Some young evangelicals continue to exalt George W. Bush as a paragon of Biblical leadership, just talk to a graduate of Patrick Henry College. There is also the possibility that America’s free-market place of ideas allows Christians to find a church they like, i.e. one where good stewardship of the Earth is emphasized.

Yet, the statistics that portend declining faith nationally paint a clear picture. Millenials do not share the faith of their parents. The traditionalist Baby Boomers that rant about taking their country back are right that something is amiss. But before they decry secularization for becoming a fait accompli, they should look in a mirror. Their choices are the source of America’s declining faith.

Generation Y has spent its short lifespan in a polarized country. The disintegration of Communism after 1991 allowed evangelical cold warriors to turn their focus on domestic opponents. The political parties do not just differ, but act like enemies. And in some ways, the economic boom of the 1990s enabled the culture wars. It is easy to bicker about gays serving in the military or abortion when few people fear losing their job.

Baby Boomer evangelicals truly lost their children when America went to war in the early 2000s. Pastors such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell blamed the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the ALCU, “pagans,” and feminists among others. While President George W. Bush did not explicitly use the phrase, his co-religionist supporters accused dissenters of “hating America.” Preachers who endorsed Bush’s preemptive war in Iraq, such as Franklin Graham, discarded the ancient doctrine of “Just War.” Indeed, all the flag-waving by Bush’s “values-voters” calls to mind Sinclair Lewis’ quip: “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

There is truth in the anguished cries about American Christianity suffering a decline and fall. Millennials’ Christianity is, and will be, different from the faith of their fathers. The young are abandoning the Religious Right’s crusades against boogeymen, such as parts of the U.S. that “hate America.” They are right to do so. That path ends with the transformation of countrymen into strangers, and social chaos.

Young Christians’ emphasis on theology is an effort to recapture what the Baby Boomers threw away, surety. The world is changing, and so is Christianity. Its center is relocating to the Global South, and the faith’s new challenges are not reducible to slogans and grandstanding. The young are seeking a rock to stand on, and they have opted to search for it in deep doctrinal debates instead of crusades.


Tim Reuter is a researcher at a Washington DC think thank.

One Comment

  1. Are you kidding me? My generation is turning away from religion and christians are tying to find something to blame. The fact of the matter is this is a world trend, and its not a bad thing. The conservative right talks about how evil we democrats are. HOW DARE YOU QUESTION GOD YOU FAITHLESS COMMUNIST BASTARDS! I hate to be the harbenger of truthfull thing but if you take a look at europe th ” socialized liberal nations” are doing the best look at norway. Norway is doing wonderfully and they have socialized everything they are a very liberal secular country and they have a stronger econemy, less corruption, very low crime. My point is the counties that abandond god are doing WAY WAY better than the ones who havent. Apparently if you stop trying to live in 1245 AD in a theocratic society you can actually get you shit staight and move into the future

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