So who are the “young evangelicals”?

There’s certainly been a lot of discussion about younger evangelicals and their differences with their parents’ generation.  Matthew Lee Anderson, a “young evangelical” himself, tries to unpack the cultural trends of this group, focusing on their criticisms of their parents’ generation as well as the blind spots of this new generation.  One particular trend that he discussed resonated with my own observations:

Beneath each of these shifts [including the search for “authenticity”, less affiliation with political parties, and criticism of evangelical culture] in the young evangelical ethos is a tacit, yet devout, commitment to a kind of libertarianism—even while holding more paternal instincts on political issues like poverty and race. The libertarianism of my peers is less political and more cultural. It is grounded in the notion that we have—and hence, we ought to have—control over ourselves, and responsibility for ourselves, regardless of circumstance. This conflicts, of course, with many of the communitarian ideas these same young evangelicals support in regards to governmental assistance in society—but few would accuse my generation of being intellectually consistent or coherent.

For most young evangelicals, the flash points where our libertarianism comes out are traditional sources of conflict with parents: tattoos, alcohol, music, movies, language and sexuality. In each area, younger evangelicals have rejected the perceived prudishness symbolized by our parents (yes, ironically, the children of the sixties and seventies) in favor of engaging the culture around us. Often this reflects a new internalization—one might characterize it as a gnosticization—of the Gospel. Social rules, such as those which once governed alcohol consumption among evangelicals, language, and sexual behavior, are now a sign of a Puritanical legalism that has forgotten that Jesus really cares about the heart and our intentions, not our behaviors and, as such, are to be discarded.

This principle of self-control and self-realization undergirds young evangelicals’ consumption of media. The new mantra of cultural engagement provides young evangelicals an effective cover to consume the same media as their peers. They are deeply convinced that such media has no effect on their lives—remaining confident they are carefully protected from the bad effects of consumerism by their flawless decision-making abilities.

This is one of the deep ironies of the young evangelical ethos. While vehemently rejecting the consumerism of 20th century evangelicalism, young evangelicals have adopted a new consumerist mindset under the guise of engagement with culture—a mindset that earns them access into the social standing they desire. The consumerism that has infected the core of evangelicalism has not been eradicated in the younger generations—it has simply been subsumed under a new teaching. Young evangelicals aspire to be urbane, sophisticated, and not appear judgmental or harsh—they want to be cool. And being cool means tossing aside the social mores that many of them grew up in, and transforming themselves into faith-soaked libertines.

Here young evangelicals’ approach to marriage and sexuality is instructive. The social institutions governing mating processes among young Christians continue to erode. While isolated pockets of evangelicals have attempted to buttress them against the impending tide of libertarianism, in reality couples decides for themselves how they want to approach marriage and sexuality. The slow but inevitable relaxing of codes of conduct at evangelical institutions is indicative of this trend—and it is a welcome trend to students who have to deal with being “weird” for attending a school with arcane rules. The new consumerism and the new libertarianism go hand in hand.

I know it’s a long quote, but I’ve noticed (and often succumbed to) this as well.  People don’t want to be the “weird” kind of Christian, and so while wanting community they also want to have their own lives unregulated.  I thought that Anderson’s explanation was the best I’ve seen of this mindset.

Does anyone else notice this?

Hat tip: Internet Monk

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4 comments

  1. Absolutely true! The ‘alternative’ culture which is itself the dominant culture and isn’t alternative to anything. I personally don’t like the wear jeans to church, slacker, reject authority ethos of much of our society.

    As Chilton Williamson has said: “Be true to your forebears, and to the culture they created and—for nearly four centuries—sustained. Wear a coat and necktie in polite society, even on an airplane. Speak out! Make yourself heard as loud and as strong as your lungs, and the co-opted press and electronic frequencies, permit. Keep your sense of humor, ALWAYS. . . . Go to Church.”

  2. I could never put my finger on it as well as Anderson did in this article, but it brings together a couple of trends that I’ve seen. It’s like being ironic and anti-traditional becomes a mark of spirituality amd maturity. Traditions can be crazy sometimes, but violating them doesn’t make one more spiritual. It’s hard to see where the authority of Scripture fits in that mindset. It not only runs the risk of sinning (which is always a reality), but even worse of losing a sense of what sin is. And that strikes me as a scary place for Christians to be.

  3. Exactly. The default stance amongst the younger people in our culture is to be skeptical of everything. It’s an excuse for not thinking through things. I believe that it is better to have strong convictions, live by them and defend them rather than to forever be alternating between positions due to some alleged quest for truth.

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