Seeing what we want to see: Millennials look a government, capitalism and religion

Article Highlights

  • Are today’s evangelical colleges, and Millennial students, drifting toward anti-capitalist progressivism?#Only 17 percent of Millennials today self-identify as religious conservatives.

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  • Advocates of conscious capitalism must continue to show how free enterprise offers the most people the best life.

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The new Economic Values Survey, recently published by the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute, has been lighting up the blogosphere this week—with many pundits singing just one tune. “The Rise of the Christian Left in America” is at hand, proclaims Jonathan Merritt on the pages of The Atlantic; clearly we are witnessing “The Rise of the Religious Left,” says Salon. Rachel Held Evans writes that among other reasons “Why Millennials are leaving the church,” young evangelicals are withdrawing because Christianity has become too political; her piece alone has started conversations with nearly 200,000 on CNN and Facebook.    

As illustrated below, it’s true enough that only 17 percent of Millennials today self-identify as religious conservatives, compared with 23 percent of Millennials who say they are religious progressives:

But beware a rush to judgment. 

The report’s title, overlooked by far too many analysts, asks, “Do Americans Believe Capitalism and Government are Working?” And after the singular focus of recent coverage, the report’s answer might surprise you: a majority of Americans (54 percent) say capitalism is working, while an even larger majority (66 percent) says the federal government is broken. 

Psychological discouragement among younger Americans runs deep. The Silent Generation (ages 66-88) is the only group for whom a majority still thinks they are better off than their parents’ generation. Each successive bloc gets more dismal, and 58 percent of Millennials believe we are worse off than our parents.

One surprising, discouraging finding is that evangelicals lead the charge in believing that “capitalism is at odds with Christian values.” According to the report, 50 percent of white evangelicals say the free market system is inconsistent with Christian values, compared with and 49 percent of black Christians, and 41 percent of both Catholics and mainline Protestants.

Why this belief—particularly among evangelicals? Catholic public intellectual George Weigel ventures this observation in a new First Things essay, “Fighting on New Terrain”: 

…we can now see a notable shift to the left in Evangelical colleges and universities, just as the wider American left has become toxically secularist. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Evangelical Protestant higher education will now rewalk the trail of tears taken by Catholic higher education in America after Vatican II; such a sojourn into a new wilderness does not bode well...

Is Weigel right? Are today’s evangelical colleges, and Millennial students, drifting toward anti-capitalist progressivism? 

There is a kernel of truth here—but the long-term trends still favor congruence, not opposition, between Christian values and capitalism. Evangelicals in America, as the venerable sociologist Christian Smith teaches, are “embattled and thriving.” Our theology is at odds with the dominant secular worldview, so evangelicals are “in the fight.” We are therefore inclined to challenge greed and cronyism, in favor of ethical capitalism. We are also bent toward speaking out against statism, corrupt lobbying and crony contracting practices—in favor of ethical, limited government that helps the truly destitute and offers a “hand-up” rather than handouts. 

What of today’s evangelical campuses? This past year I visited nine Christian colleges. At many of these schools the “Christian Left” has a real following, particularly in the humanities and biblical studies departments. But those students and professors who are theologically conservative—especially those who see organic connections between Christianity and free market capitalism, and recognize the contours of this fight—are thriving.

A second reason for optimism, pointed out by the ERLC’s Russell Moore, is that church attendance by evangelicals is still considerably higher today than that of mainline Protestants and other progressive traditions. Millennials may choose theological liberalism for a time, but as Moore asks, “Where are the Unitarian mega-churches, the Episcopalian church-planting movements?” Given the power of community and accountability, without congregational affiliation the leftward drift of younger evangelicals is unlikely to endure. 

In fact, the recent shift toward progressivism among Millennials is real, but it reminds me of the saying sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill: “If you are young, and not liberal, you don't have a heart. If you are old, and not conservative, you don't have a brain.” Now as much as ever, over time the deeper truths set in—in religion, politics and economics.  

This week many progressive pundits are seeing future trends they want to see. Against this talk, advocates of conscious capitalism must continue to show how free enterprise offers the most people the best life. My guess is that as more and more Millennials experience the felt repercussions of Obamanomics, the coming decades will witness sharp movement to the right—particularly among evangelicals.

The sooner the better.

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