The Two Different Temptations Facing Young Evangelicals

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How can you hold your faith tightly and your politics loosely in a secular, politicized world?

Earlier today the New York Times published a fascinating piece outlining the anguish in many young Evangelicals’ hearts in the age of Trump. The Times solicited comments from young Christians, received well over 1,000 responses and published a representative sample. As I read them, I immediately noticed the familiar questions so many young Evangelicals face: Should I be Evangelical? If so, how?

So, for example, the first highlighted person, a young woman named Alexandria Beightol, says that she was “pulled out of Smith College” when she told her parents she was “rethinking the legitimacy of anti-gay theology.”

This is another way of saying that she is rethinking orthodox, biblical Christianity. It’s not that ideas like the definition of marriage are, say, more important from a political standpoint than immigration policy or police misconduct. It’s that rejecting the theology of Christian sexual teaching involves rejecting the authority of scripture, and that has massive implications for the church well beyond politics.

In other words, Beightol is considering whether to be Evangelical.

Another young Christian, Eduardo Sandoval Ruiz, highlights the second question — rather than doubting the fundamental theology of biblical Christianity, he struggles with how to be evangelical in a political context. Here’s Ruiz:

Being socially conservative, yet immigrants, has been interesting at best and conflicting at worst. Most people in my parent’s church are recent immigrants. We agree with most of what Donald Trump says about God and faith, but we do disagree with what he says about immigrants and any misconduct that he and others may try to justify in his personal life.

Being an evangelical Christian, I have to compromise. I am choosing to prioritize my core Christian beliefs over the immigration policies the G.O.P. is pushing right now. That is a point of tension.

Notice that Ruiz isn’t compromising any core element of Christian theology. He’s not excusing Trump’s personal sin. He’s making a difficult choice, with his eyes open.

When mainstream journalists, who often don’t truly understand biblical Christianity, analyze young Christians, they’ll often boil down the tensions in Evangelicalism to a series of political choices — say, “Young Evangelicals are more supportive of LGBT rights” or “young Evangelicals are more skeptical of Donald Trump.”

In reality, “young Evangelicals” may not ultimately be Evangelicals at all. They might more accurately be defined as young people from an Evangelical background who are growing in their own faith. And as they grow, they often face the twin temptations their parents faced: the temptation of faith and the temptation of tribe.

Each generation of young Christians has to face the reality that biblical teaching conflicts decisively with contemporary secular morality. That conflict is often especially acute in the area of sexual morality. Moreover, the price of social acceptance is often theological compromise. Yes, people in good faith reach contrary positions on the authority and meaning of individual scriptures, but one would have to be willfully blind to deny the persistent pressure toward “inclusivity” and the irrebuttable presumption of moral superiority inherent to secular progressive ethics.

That is the temptation of faith. The temptation of tribe is different. It’s the temptation to find a “place” in contemporary American culture outside of the church. You’ll see Christians acknowledge that, yes, they’re members of the church, before asking with anguish, “But where else do I belong?” They have a religious home, but they want a political home, too, and as American society becomes increasingly politicized, the latter feels more important every day.

I’m reminded of a passage in one of my favorite books, C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, which explores the temptation of a Christian man from the demons’ perspective. Here, the senior demon advises the junior demon about Christians in politics:

About the general connection between Christianity and politics, our position is more delicate.

Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster.

On the other hand, we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything—even to social justice.

The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop.

I confess I’m vulnerable to this temptation. I’m not “merely” a Christian, you see. I’m part of the “Christian conservative” sub-tribe. And I realized how much that sub-tribe meant to my life when, for the first time, it fractured over politics. I remember feeling a sense of homelessness when the vast majority of friends and neighbors and colleagues in the conservative movement chose Trump, and I did not.

This attitude was fundamentally wrong. My true home had never changed. Only my false home was exposed.

Young Evangelicals who dissent from orthodox Christianity do not become old Evangelicals. They either migrate to secularism entirely or to progressive Christianity. Young Evangelicals who are politically conflicted rarely remain conflicted into middle age. They tend to find their political tribe. While Evangelicals rightly lament the compromise of faith, they often ignore (or don’t fully comprehend) the compromises inherent in their tribal migrations.

So, young Christians, hold your faith tightly and your politics loosely. You will not find a home here. As Peter says, you are a “foreigner and exile.” It’s best to get used to it early on. Trust me, it can be a gut-wrenching discovery to make when you’re old.