by William Trollinger
The numbers tell a remarkable story. White evangelicalism is shrinking, and at a brisk rate. While 23% of Americans identified as white and evangelical in 2006, that number had dropped to 17% by 2017. More than this, white evangelicalism is aging. As of two years ago the median age of white evangelicals was 55, with 30% of white evangelicals older than 65 and only 11% under the age of 30. Most dramatic, perhaps, only 8% of American adults between the ages of 18 and 29 are white evangelicals.
There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that a primary reason white evangelicalism is shrinking and aging is its culture war politics, particularly regarding issues having to do with sexuality. In his tellingly titled article, “Are White Evangelicals Sacrificing the Future In Search of the Past?,” researcher Daniel Cox reports that, “for young white evangelical Christians,” the fact that evangelical leaders fiercely condemn homosexuality and oppose same-sex marriage “can be a source of considerable tension”:
If you are under the age of 30, it is increasingly difficult not to know someone who is gay or lesbian. Young white evangelicals are caught between their peers, who are predisposed to embrace cultural pluralism and express tolerance for different personal behaviors, and an evangelical tradition that staunchly resists changes in social, cultural, and religious norms.
A few weeks ago we spoke at a local high school about creationism, evangelicalism, and the Christian Right. Afterwards one of the students (a senior who will be attending a Catholic university in the fall) said to us that
Most of the seniors I know have made a very big point of not wanting to go to any sort of religiously-affiliated university. The biggest reason is that they associate all religion with evangelicalism, which they think of as judgmental and hypocritical and hateful, especially when it comes to gays and lesbians. When I have tried to explain that there are other forms of Christianity and other forms of religion, I just don’t seem to get anywhere.
All of this raises a very interesting question for evangelical colleges and universities. How will they survive the demographic reality that the numbers of white youth who identify as evangelical are rapidly shrinking, in good part because young people understand evangelicals and evangelical institutions as homophobic and intolerant?
One obvious response would be for evangelical schools to drop their opposition to gay marriage and adopt open and affirming policies regarding LGBTQ students. But the evangelical school that did this would immediately face the wrath of evangelical leaders and their own evangelical constituents. This includes parents, many of whom want reassurance that their sons and daughters will not be exposed to dangerous ideas regarding homosexuality and gay rights.
It thus seems likely that evangelical colleges and universities will maintain their anti-LGBTQ policies (which vary in harshness from school to school). As Adam Laats has noted about Wheaton College and its recent crackdown on efforts to express LGBTQ pride on campus, these policies will only change if and when evangelical college presidents become “convinced that a large segment of the evangelical public is cool with LGBTQ pride.”
That day is not here. So it is that evangelical schools hold the course, in the process competing with each other for a rapidly shrinking demographic. And all the while their “evangelical” brand becomes increasingly tarnished as “judgmental and hypocritical and hateful.”