Politics & Policy

Trump Has Blown the Evangelical Age Gap Wide Open

(Reuters photo: Aaron P. Bernstein)
Young Evangelicals are rejecting the GOP nominee, even as their parents give in.

A funny thing is happening in the Evangelical movement: Generational stereotypes are being flipped on their head.

Normally, it’s the geezers who toe a hard line, shaking their fingers about that old time religion, calling kids to resist the siren songs of their secular peers, and teaching them that cultural compromise is the path to spiritual oblivion. But now, increasingly, the young are pleading with the old: Don’t compromise. Place your trust and hope in God even (especially) when the earthly options look bleak.

When I speak publicly about Trump, I can almost guess the viewpoint of the Evangelical by his age. Older Christians challenge me to support Trump, often with genuine anger. Younger Christians tend to be far more bewildered and distressed. “Aren’t we supposed to care about character?” they’ll ask me. “Are we this desperate for political relevance?”

As students at Liberty University and Hillsdale College have demonstrated, even the most conservative Millennial bastions are wavering in their support for the GOP nominee — and not because they’re growing more liberal. At Hillsdale, Trump draws only 42 percent support from students, but Hillary is stuck at an abysmal 6 percent. Liberty’s anti-Trump dissidents point out that Trump received a pitiful 90 votes from Liberty students during the primary.

Why is this happening? Why are so many young Evangelicals attacking Trump from the right? The short answer is simple: This is exactly what their parents and Evangelical elders raised them to do. Last month, I wrote a piece about the rise of a generation of young conservatives who are far, far more sophisticated and committed to conservative ideals than I was at their age. Yes, they’re reacting against the progressive excesses of their peers, but they’re also the product of a serious, concerted, and thoughtful effort by forward-thinking religious and secular organizations to raise up a new, improved generation of Christian and conservative leaders.

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After raising their kids and grandkids to stand for truth in the face of long odds, however, older Evangelicals are failing to practice what they preached. Instead of standing firm in the idea that character matters, and living out the ancient truth that we put our faith in God and not in princes, I’ve seen Christian elders cluck condescendingly and talk about the overriding importance of mid-level bureaucratic appointments and the vital necessity of having a “seat at the table.”

I have compassion for these folks. Many of them spent a lifetime building a political movement dedicated to advancing life and religious liberty, and while it’s easy to critique that movement’s near-total dependence on the GOP, in retrospect this dependence was the product of a series of difficult choices — choices that became self-reinforcing as the Democratic party silenced its own pro-life voices and adopted increasingly radical and repressive positions on human sexuality and religious freedom. In many ways, I’d argue that the alliance with the GOP wasn’t so much foolish as forced. There was no other obvious political home.

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But here’s the sad irony: These Evangelical elders are making the same fundamental mistake of the generation before them. Just like the post-war Protestant establishment before them, they’re facing the cultural headwinds and bending to the breaking point. Back then, with their churches under siege in an increasingly secular culture, Protestant leaders made their churches more secular. With liberal elites demanding conformity to progressivism, they made their churches more progressive. And their churches started to die.

The churches that thrived refused to bend. The Southern Baptist Convention actually tacked toward orthodoxy, rejecting its former pro-Roe position and reaffirming its commitment to biblical Christianity. It went from a religious also-ran to by far the biggest Protestant denomination on the planet. Meanwhile, many of the former mainline titans are on a glide-path to extinction.

#related#None of this should surprise any literate believer. God has for thousands of years told His people that He is their salvation. His ways are not the world’s ways. When all of the earthly evidence says “conform or die,” God responds, “conform and die.”

Older conservative Evangelicals, the very people who resisted the temptations of mainline Protestantism for decades, are now choosing to conform, to compromise for the sake of staying relevant. It has fallen to their children to keep the ideals of the faith alive. And that should give us all hope for America’s future, no matter how ugly her present.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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