A growing movement among millennials that is reshaping the evangelical church and the nation’s political landscape. Since the 1970s, white evangelicals have formed the backbone of the Republican base. But as younger members reject the vitriolic partisanship of the Trump era and leave the church, that base is getting smaller and older.
The numbers are stark: Twenty years ago, just 46 percent of white evangelical Protestants were older than 50; now, 62 percent are above 50. The median age of white evangelicals is 55. Only 10 percent of Americans under 30 identify as white evangelicals. The exodus of youth is so swift that demographers now predict that evangelicals will likely cease being a major political force in presidential elections by 2024.
And the cracks are already showing.
“With Generation X, millennial and Generation Z evangelicals, there is a deep suspicion of any cynical use of religion for worldly purpose,” Moore says. “So one has to motivate them differently than one would, say, the kind of television evangelist demographic that many secular people think of when they think of evangelicalism.
When I am in a group of older evangelicals, my message is typically ‘Seek first the kingdom of God. Political idolatry will kill us. Let’s remember what is transcendently important.’ But when I talk to younger evangelicals, I am dealing with the opposite problem and saying one cannot simply withdraw from political life in overreaction to some dispiriting actions that have taken place.”
Evangelical youth are not susceptible to the “Make America great again” slogan, Moore says, because they’ve never lived in an America in which their brand of fervent Christianity was ascendant. “Young evangelicals do not feel as if they are losing anything in terms of American culture,” he says. “They came of age at a time when following Christ seemed countercultural to them anyway. They never expected a nominally Christian culture in which being a church member would be the equivalent of being a good American.”
Christopher Maloney, 32, was raised evangelical, stepped away from his faith and has released a documentary film on the exvangelical movement called In God We Trump. He disagrees with Moore that young evangelicals like him will come back to the fold.
“People around my age and younger were already deconstructing their evangelical faith in large numbers before Trump came along,” he says. “What the 2016 election did was accelerate what was already happening. We had begun edging toward the doors, and when evangelicals embraced Trump we bolted outside. To be honest, I don’t see a return of younger generations to the church as we know it.”
They aren’t interested, he says, in going to a central place to worship anymore, particularly when those fellow churchgoers are Trump supporters. “Millennials largely live by Christian ethics without any formal doctrine or dogma,” he says. “We just don’t need a religious structure to tell us how to be kind to one another.”