Step in a traditional direction

youngevs 01 We've heard this before: Young evangelicals are abandoning the Republican Party; they are sick of being identified with the Religious Right and its narrow-minded agenda; they want a politics that extends to issues such as global warming, Darfur, and (illegal) immigration; and as a consequence, they plan to vote Democratic. If there were one meta-narrative after the 2004 election, this was it. Some stories, however, are poking holes in this thesis. While not bullet proof, they are promising. Take this The New York Times story from Neela Banerjee.

Banerjee began her story in conventional fashion. She focused on young Southern Baptists in Missouri and their rejection of old evangelical politics:

Southern Baptists, as a rule, do not drink. But once a month, young congregants of the Journey, a Baptist church here, and their friends get together in the back room of a sprawling brew pub called the Schlafly Bottleworks to talk about the big questions: President Bush, faith and war, the meaning of life, and "what's wrong with religion."

"That's where people are having their conversations about things that matter," the Rev. Darrin Patrick, senior pastor and founder of the Journey, said about the talks in the bar. "We go where people are because we feel like Jesus went to the people."

The Journey, a megachurch of mostly younger evangelicals, is representative of a new generation that refuses to put politics at the center of its faith and rejects identification with the religious right.

They say they are tired of the culture wars. They say they do not want the test of their faith to be the fight against gay rights. They say they want to broaden the traditional evangelical anti-abortion agenda to include care for the poor, the environment, immigrants and people with H.I.V., according to experts on younger evangelicals and the young people themselves.

If the story had continued on this vein, it would have said nothing new. But Banerjee examined whether young evangelicals' new attitudes made any difference in the polling booth. Her conclusion: they don't, probably.

And so far, there is no clear evidence that supporting a broader social agenda has led young evangelicals to defect from the Republican Party in great numbers, as many liberals have predicted. ...

A report last year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press indicated that in 2001, 55 percent of white evangelicals ages 18 to 29 identified themselves as Republican, far more than in the broader population. In 2007, 40 percent did. But a more recent Pew poll only of registered voters found that 60 percent of young white evangelicals identified themselves as Republican or leaning Republican, the same as all white evangelicals.

"This is the most pro-life generation I've seen," said John Mark Reynolds, professor of philosophy at the evangelical Biola University in La Mirada, Calif. "I don't have any evidence that being green is going to trump pro-life issues in the voting booth."

Banerjee deserves credit for bucking the conventional wisdom and backing up her thesis with statistics. Her reporting is not heroic, but it is empirical.

My only complaint with Banerjee's story is its failure to examine young evangelicals' attitudes toward abortion. What theological or moral influences shape their thinking? Why do they think that the pro-life issue trumps other issues? I mean, good grief. Republicans could hardly be in worse shape politically and yet young evangelicals still favor the GOP overwhelmingly.

As tmatt told me when I prepared this post, reporters need to pursue other angles and points of view. Banerjee's story is a step or two in a traditional direction -- but only a step or two.

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