Younger Evangelicals More Progressive on Issues. On Candidates, Not So Much.

youngevangelicals.jpgOne of the big takeaways from today’s new poll on religious voters is that white evangelicals under 35 are a lot more progressive than their parents, by a number of different measures. It’s worth noting that abortion is not one of them:

More than six-in-ten (62%) say abortion is very important to their vote, compared to 55% of older evangelicals. Young white evangelicals are also strongly opposed to abortion rights, with approximately one-third saying abortion should be legal all or most of the time–almost identical to the percentage of older evangelicals.


But gay rights and diplomacy and other issues are are a much different story:

On the issue of same-sex marriage, by contrast, the influence of their generational peers is clear. Nearly four-in-ten young evangelicals say they have a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian–a rate approximately the same as all young adults and more than double the rate of older evangelicals. Among older evangelicals, nearly half (49%) say same-sex marriage is an important voting issue, and a strong majority (61%) say there should be no legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship. Among younger white evangelicals, however, less than a majority see same-sex marriage as a very important voting issue, and a majority (52%) favor either same-sex marriage or civil unions. The generation gap is largest on the issue of marriage, where younger white evangelicals are more than 2.5 times as likely to support same-sex marriage than older white evangelicals.


Despite their conservative views on abortion and stereotypes as single-issue voters, like older white evangelicals, young white evangelicals have a voting agenda that is much broader than abortion and same-sex marriage. Fully two-thirds of younger evangelicals say they would still vote for a candidate even if the candidate disagreed with them on the issue of abortion. Younger evangelicals rank a number of other issues, such as economic issues, terrorism, and Iraq higher than abortion, and roughly equal numbers say that health care is a very important voting issue as say abortion.

….A majority (56%) of younger evangelicals believe that diplomacy rather than military strength is the best way to ensure peace, compared to only 44% of older white evangelicals. Finally, younger white evangelicals are more likely than older white evangelicals to favor a bigger government offering more services by a margin of 20 points (44% and 24% respectively).


And yet that leftward lurch on issues doesn’t translate into as dramatic a shift on the candidates:

Like older evangelicals, younger evangelicals strongly identify with the Republican Party and support John McCain, but levels of support among younger evangelicals were modestly lower for McCain (65% vs. 69%) and higher for Barack Obama (29% vs. 25%). Like their generational peers, younger evangelicals are also significantly less likely to identify as conservative than older evangelicals.

So what gives? A few analysts on this morning’s Faith in Public Life call pinned Obama’s failure to peel off more young evangelical voters from John McCain on a lackluster effort to reach those voters by the Obama team.


That doesn’t wash with God-o-Meter. Obama’s religious outreach director is himself a 26-year-old Pentecostal. The Obama camp’s current faith tour is built largely around sending evangelical author Donald Miller to evangelical campuses like Calvin College and to campuses in evangelical strongholds, such as Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

An Obama aide says the campaign’s religious outreach team had no illusions about being able to make major inroads into the evangelical world: “Our outreach is concentrated in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. We’re talking to moderate faith voters broadly, often more to Mainline Protestants than evangelicals. Bush won Mainliners in 2004 so that’s been a focus. We’re winning Catholics and Mainliners and Latino evangelicals, and we’ve increased over 2004 among evangelicals while McCain has dropped a few points.”

But it’s undeniable that evangelical outreach has been a major focus of Obama’s effort. So what’s the real reason his evangelical outreach has paid such patry dividends?


Comments read comments(9)
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posted October 8, 2008 at 6:48 pm

Hi Dan,
You raise an important question here, and I agree that there’s no clear answer right now. But I think the point about the campaign here is that their outreach has been national in exposure but limited in scope. I can’t speak to that one way or another, but just thought I’d weigh in with my impression from the press conference.
Ps, thanks for blogging about the poll!

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Pakeha Tohunga

posted October 9, 2008 at 10:51 pm

It seems to me that Obama hasn’t made more inroads into the “evangelical” community because evangelicals (like conservative Catholics) are far more in touch with the biblical tradition than are “mainline” Protestants. (I put “mainline” in quotes because churches such as the Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian are in sharp decline; “sideline” might be a more appropriate moniker.)Until recently (and I’m assuming that Obama resigned from his denomination when he split from Jeremiah Wright’s church), he was a long-time member of the United Church of Christ–the most liberal American Protestant denomination. (A conservative UCC pastor once jokingly referred to his denomination as “Unitarians Considering Christ.”) Liberal Protestantism helped bring us abortion on demand under Roe v. Wade, perhaps not even realizing how anathema abortion is to the Christian tradition. Obama isn’t in the same universe as evangelicals, and they’re smart enough to see it. Unlike the majority (?) of Americans, they haven’t been hypnotized by Obama. They march to the beat of a Different Drummer. (BTW, I am not an evangelical.)

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Douglas Johnson

posted October 10, 2008 at 9:59 am

The mainstream news media has been, with few exceptions, very protective of Obama, not mentioning any of the specific sweeping pro-abortion policy changes that he has supported in the past and to which he is committed for the future. Fortunately, many evangelicals know better than to rely exclusively on the mainstream news media for their information. So more and more evangelicals are becoming aware, for example, that Obama would end the Hyde Amendment, the law that cut off almost all federal funding of abortion. More than one million Americans are alive today because of this law. They are learning that Obama is a cosponsor of the “Freedom of Choice Act” (S. 1173), a bill that would invalidate virtually all state and federal limitations on abortion, including parental notification laws. In addition, this bill would make partial-birth abortion legal again. In 2007, Obama told the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, “The first thing I’d do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act.”
They are also learning that, in the Illinois state Senate, Obama killed the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, which was a simple three-sentence bill to provide protection for babies who are born alive during abortions. Obama has misrepresented the substance of this legislation and his record on it for the last four years, and he continues to do so, as the mainstream news media flies cover for him.
Documentation on these and other Obama abortion policies is found at www -dot-nrlc-dot-org
Douglas Johnson
Legislative Director
National Right to Life Committee

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posted October 11, 2008 at 9:59 am

I’ve always found it interesting how specific sects of Christianity are so concerned about running other peoples lives, what they can have or not have, be it abortion or same sex marriage. There are far more pressing issues rather than abortion or same sex marriage, which, by the way, is a personal choice.
Perhaps these particular groups should concentrate on the economy, health care, etc., and leave people alone to choose for themselves what they want rather than trying to dictate “their” morals to everyone.
Personally, I don’t need or require their beliefs to tell me what I should have.
This is one of the many reasons I view them of being suspect or pathetic. I see little difference between them and the Taliban in that they want and demand everyone to follow their religious beliefs and be bound to them by law. I’m sure they would be screaming at the top of their lungs if another religious group attempted the same thing that they’re always trying to do in the U.S.

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posted October 12, 2008 at 10:10 pm

Ron has a point in his analogy between the Taliban and evangelical Christians in the U.S.—different theology, same theocratic impulse. It is why we outside this evangelical world are as frightened of the Republican Party as you seem to be of us. Yet, Sundays apart, we lead rather similar lives: jobs, mortgage payments, mowing the lawn in time to get the younger kids to softball practice, worries about the older kids and their grades and their friends. Yes, we accept our gay friends and aquaintences because it’s the tolerant thing to do. If you’re intolerant, don’t have gay friends—but don’t expect the state to enforce your preferences for you, or to embody your disgust in discriminatory laws. If you don’t want an abortion, don’t have one, but please try to understand that thoughtful, decent, lawn-mowing Americans have a legitimate intellectual disagreement with you on the moral status of abortion. We would never force you to have one; where do you draw the line on overriding our liberty with your social and moral preferences? Where do the Taliban draw the line?

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Richard Clark

posted October 16, 2008 at 9:40 am

It is disappointing that younger Evangelicals haven’t completely broke from the previous generation. They need a good dose of Paul Tillich or Walter Rauschenbush. Most of their theological education, so far, seems very shallow. Most of Americans have moved beyond the abortion issue, it’s too bad they haven’t also.

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posted October 25, 2008 at 6:41 pm

Interesting article. I was raised Pentacostal, and still attend a Pentacostal church. I have taken alot of criticism for my support of Obama. Unlike the young evangelicals polled in this article, healthcare is my primary concern as I am pursuing a bachelors of science in nursing at UT. I have witnessed many unfortunate, preventable situations in my clinical experience, and I strongly believe that this country desperately needs health care reform. How can we say that our country is so great when even Cuba and South Korea have lower infant mortality rates than we do? A land of opportunity for whom? Certainly not infants! That is just one of the many horrific health disparities in America. It’s time to get our priorities right. I also strongly support women’s right to choose, and I don’t think that a law with a 30+ years precedent should decide whether or not you vote for someone. It’s not going anywhere!

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