Are Millennial Evangelicals Going to Change the Narrative?

Featured Image Credit: Al-Jazeera America

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

A few days ago I came across an interesting piece in The Economist magazine entitled, “The evangelical divide.” It’s byline reads: “Younger evangelicals have never been in a moral majority. This changes how they see politics.” That’s a fascinating premise. There has been a great deal of pontificating online about the possibility that younger evangelicals may bring about some changes to the uncomfortable marriage between the GOP and white evangelicalism. For example, a piece from the Washington Post published in August indicates, “With regard to younger evangelicals specifically, there’s a mound of evidence suggesting that they see the country differently from older evangelicals.” Does that premise hold up to any sort of empirical scrutiny?

As is the custom around here, I turned to the CCES to take a look from the broadest angle: vote choice in the 2016 Presidential Election. I define millennials as anyone born between 1981 and 1997, which is the tentative consensus of those who study these type of things. Note that these results only consist of white, born again, Protestants as well (which is a very good approximation of evangelicals). For those over the age of 35, Trump’s margin over Clinton was 61 points (81%-15%). However for millennial evangelicals, that margin decreases somewhat to 50 points (69%-19%). There is something to ruminate on a little bit, however. Notice how Trump’s vote share dropped by twelve points among millennials, but Clinton’s vote total did not rise the same amount? In fact, what seems to have occurred is that those younger evangelicals who were not comfortable with pulling the lever for Trump did not automatically cast their vote for Hillary Clinton. Instead, about four percent went for “other”, another four percent went for the Libertarian Gary Johnson, and the remaining four percent voted for the Democrat. It seems that a number of young evangelicals did not subscribe to the “lesser of two evils” approach to voting but chose a third party candidate knowing that their vote would not likely matter in the overall outcome.

I was interested to take a step back and take a historical view to understand how the divide among younger and older evangelicals has looked over several presidential elections. In order to do that I dug into the General Social Survey, which contains a wealth of information regarding vote choice going back to the election of 1968. The graph displayed below tracks the trend of vote share for the Republican candidate in each of the last thirteen presidential elections comparing those under 35 to older evangelicals. Some noteworthy trends emerge.

The first thing that is obvious from these results is that both generations move in tandem, however there are two small exceptions. In the election of 1988, white evangelicals under 35 were more supportive of George H.W. Bush, while those over 35 were less supportive. In George W. Bush’s re-election of 2004, younger evangelicals were slightly less supportive of the GOP while those over 35 were somewhat more likely to vote for Bush over John Kerry.

There are other stories here worth telling, though.

It’s staggering to note how much support Bill Clinton received in both the 1992 and 1996 elections, especially in comparison to the strong support evangelicals gave the Republicans in 1988 and then again with election of President Bush in 2000. Consider this: white evangelicals under 35 gave Republican Bob Dole just 46% of their votes (in 1996), but then just four years later that percentage jumped to 80% for W. Bush. I would be remiss to not comment on the results from the most recent elections. It’s clear that in the last three election cycles the gap between younger and older evangelicals has widened and that gulf did not dissipate with the nomination of Donald Trump. In 2016, 69% of millennial evangelicals voted for Trump compared to 81% for those over the age of 35.

Finally, one reason observers have suggested millennial evangelicals may take a different path is their attitudes on two of the most high profile social issues: gay marriage and abortion. For both graphs, the entire white sample is in the left panel and just white born again respondents on the right. Support for gay marriage does have a significant gap between age groups for both samples — in the general white population 75% of millennial respondents support same sex marriage, while 56% of those over 35 indicate support. The overall levels of support among white evangelicals are lower. Just 24% of older evangelicals are supportive of gay marriage, compared to 37.1% of millennial evangelicals. In essence, white respondents who were not born again Protestants were twice as supportive of gay marriage as those who are affiliated with the evangelical tradition.

When turning our attention to the issue of abortion, a different pattern emerges by age group. Obviously, the general population is much more likely to identify with the pro-choice movement than born again Protestants, but notice that millennial evangelicals are actually less supportive of abortion than older evangelicals. While the gap is small among the evangelical age groups (just 2%), the fact that younger evangelicals may be more conservative on abortion may seem surprising. In fact, Andrew Lewis’s new book suggests that consistent opposition to abortion is why evangelical advocacy will remain stable for the foreseeable future.

It doesn’t seem that there is some dramatic shift brewing among white, evangelical Protestants. Yes, younger evangelicals seem slightly less wed to the GOP, but the difference is not that large (~10%) and the gap will likely narrow as millennial evangelicals move through the life course, start a family, and begin to earn higher salaries. Through this lens these results could be read as principled defections, not fundamental disagreement with conservative politics. Social scientists who study religion have long noted the reality of the life-cycle effect, which describes a process through which individuals attend church frequently as children and teenagers but then drift away during their college years and into their late 20’s/early 30’s. When individuals decide to marry and have children they return to a religious life which is largely maintained throughout the rest of their life course. I am going to address this in a future post.

It’s impossible to know if this generation of millennial evangelicals will fall into the general pattern of older generations or if the presidency of Donald Trump will truly alter their partisan identities for the rest of their lives.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website.

Full coding syntax for this analysis is available on my Github.

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