Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
High School Students Trying to Understand Evangelicalism | Righting America

by Susan Trollinger and William Trollinger

Returning to high school was great fun!

Last Friday we had the good fortune of speaking in Ms. Barbara Acker’s three Comparative Religion classes at Oakwood High School (just south of Dayton). We talked about young Earth creationism, and Sue showed slides from the Creation Museum . . . and we were mildly surprised (given that it is only an hour away, and given that Answers in Genesis has billboards in Dayton) to discover that only four students out of the three classes had been to the museum. Of course, Oakwood is a public school; it would be interesting to know what percentage of adolescents visiting the museum are homeschooled or attend Christian schools.

We also talked about evangelicalism and fundamentalism more broadly. And what made this such great fun is that the students had so many good questions for us. Here is a representative sample:

  • How do creationists counter all the evidence for evolution and an old earth? Do they say that we simply have to take the idea of a young earth on faith?
  • How could Noah have had all those animals on the Ark for a year and they weren’t eating each other?
  • How do scholars of the Bible see the book of Revelation? If they do not see it as prophecy, how do they see it?
  • Are you fundamentalists? If not, what got you to write about them?
  • Will white evangelicalism remain such a powerful political force in America? Aren’t the numbers of evangelicals shrinking?
  • Is Donald Trump an evangelical?
  • Do evangelicals really think Donald Trump is an evangelical?
  • Isn’t it a problem for evangelicals that our generation has a really different view of homosexuality and transgenderism than they do?
  • Given that many evangelicals believe in patriarchy, how do they deal with sexual harassment? Is this a problem for them?

Quite frankly, we expected more questions on creationism and the Creation Museum. But as this list suggests, what many of these high schoolers wanted to talk about was politics and sexuality. And that’s telling.

The best research on the rapid rise of the “nones over the past few decades – Americans who have no religious affiliation – reveals that it is tightly connected to generational cohorts (the younger the cohort, the more religious disaffiliation). Moreover, a primary motivator for religious disaffiliation is unhappiness with the way in which Christianity has become – in very public ways – tied to a right-wing political agenda. In particular, the “nones” are – as the bright Oakwood student rightly suggested – unhappy with the way in which Christianity has become associated with a rigid opposition to homosexuality.

In short, as Robert Putnam and David Campbell noted in American Grace (2010), “young Americans [have come] to view religion as judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political” (121). The hypocrisy has really come into play over the last few years, as 81% of white evangelicals – most of whom take a hard moral line on homosexuality – voted for a man awash in sexual immorality. About the same percentage of white evangelicals in Alabama voted for Roy Moore despite his past sexual relationships with underage girls.

Referencing the above Putnam and Campbell quote, just this week Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne observed that

If you want a particularly exquisite hypocritical moment, consider that on Thursday, the very day when Trump had to admit his lies on the Stormy Daniels payoff, the president had a White House commemoration of the National Day of Prayer.

Dionne’s column was entitled “No Wonder There’s an Exodus from Religion.” Right.