College-age evangelicals are leaving the GOP, looking outside the party — sometimes outside both parties — for a match with their socially conservative yet globally aware leanings.
Michael Dudley is the son of a preacher man.
He’s a born-again Christian with two family members in the military. He grew up in the Bible Belt, where almost everyone he knew was Republican. But this fall, he’s breaking a handful of stereotypes: He plans to vote for Democrat Barack Obama.
“I think a lot of Christians are having trouble getting behind everything the Republicans stand for,” said Dudley, 20, a sophomore at Seattle Pacific University.
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Dudley’s disenchantment with the GOP isn’t unique among young, devoutly Christian voters. According to a September 2007 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 15 percent of white evangelicals between 18 and 29, a group traditionally a shoo-in for the GOP, say they no longer identify with the Republican Party. Older evangelicals are also questioning their traditional allegiance, but not at the same rate.
But, Howard Dean, don’t count your chickens quite yet. College-age and 20-something Christians may be leaving the GOP, but only 5 percent of young evangelicals have joined the Democrats, according to the Pew survey. The other 10 percent are wandering the political wilderness, somewhere between “independent” and “unaffiliated.”
Shane Claiborne, a Philadelphia Christian activist and author of “Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals,” has a different name for these folks: “political misfits.”
Claiborne has traveled around the country the past several years, speaking and preaching mostly to college-age Christians who are “both socially conservative and globally aware.” That makes them disenchanted with both major parties, he said.
“It’s not about liberal or conservative, or Democrats or Republicans,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a new evangelical left. … There’s a new evangelical stuck-in-the-middle.”
UW communications professor David Domke said some young evangelicals are breaking with the GOP for the same reasons many people broke from the party in the 2006 legislative elections — the unpopular war in Iraq; the Bush administration’s abysmal approval ratings; or, now, because of the tanking economy.
Others broke from the party when John McCain, who hasn’t held much appeal for evangelicals in the past, became the presumptive nominee.
The Arizona senator hasn’t been a consistent foe of gay marriage, and he supports federally funded embryonic stem-cell research. James Dobson, head of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, announced in February that if McCain was the GOP nominee, he’d sit out the election.
But students at a recent bipartisan political union meeting at SPU say there’s something more going on with young Christians than disenchantment with McCain.
In an informal poll of the political union, the majority supported Obama.
“I think it’s a new movement starting,” said Amy Archibald, 19, a sophomore at the evangelical school. “Most of us would never blindly follow the old Christian Right anymore. James Dobson has nothing to do with us. A lot of us are taking apart the issues, and thinking, ‘OK, well, [none of the candidates] fits what I’m looking for exactly.’ But if you’re going to vote, you’ve got to take your pros with your cons.”
Eugene Cho, a founder and lead pastor at Seattle’s Quest Church, which caters to a predominantly under-35 crowd, urges young Christians to look beyond the two or three issues that have allowed Christians to be “manipulated by those that know the game or use it as their sole agenda.”
“While the issue of abortion — the sanctity of life — must always be a hugely important issue, we must juxtapose that with other issues that are also very important,” Cho wrote in his blog on faith and politics.
Polls have shown that young Christians aren’t any less concerned about the “family values” issues that have traditionally driven Christians to the Republican camp. (In fact, a study by the Barna Group, an evangelical polling organization, shows young Christians are actually more conservative on abortion than their elders.) It’s just that they’re also concerned about issues such as social justice and immigration, issues traditionally associated with Democrats.
Judy Naegeli, 25, who works at a Christian philanthropy, says easy access to information about the world via social-networking sites, YouTube and blogs is the reason her generation is more concerned with social justice.
“It’s changed our perspective. … Each generation chooses their cause, and ours is AIDs in Africa, or poverty or social justice,” she said.
Tyler Braun, 23, a Portland seminary student who opposes abortion and gay rights, said he’ll probably vote for Obama because, since he’d would like to see U.S. troops leave Iraq.
Anika Smith, 23, who works for a think tank in Seattle, said she’s concerned with the same issues, but she plans to vote for McCain:
“I’m worried about the war and the economy and social-justice issues. But, the abortion issue is still nonnegotiable.”
Nathan Johnson, the executive director of the King County Republican Party, says he is skeptical that young, socially conservative Christians will desert the GOP this fall.
He agrees young Christians appear to be looking beyond the two or three issues — abortion, gay rights, stem-cell research — that have made Christian voters loyal in the past. “But that doesn’t mean they’re no longer Republican.
“Once the primary is over, and we get into a head-to-head contest, Obama’s voting record will come to light,” said Johnson, 24. “Then there will be a lot of young conservative voters who won’t be able to tolerate what he’s stood for in terms of abortion and other socially conservative values.”
Young evangelicals are more of a swing constituency than they’ve been for decades, said Andy Crouch, an editor at Christianity Today, a national evangelical magazine.
“This could turn out to be the election where both parties realize that the evangelical vote is so hopelessly split down the middle that it’s not worth courting them at all because what parties need are blocs that can be appealed to en masse,” Crouch said. “Paradoxically, evangelicals would become less relevant than ever before.”
Braun, the seminary student, said he’s not totally committed to any candidate yet.
“I just keep thinking, if Jesus were alive now, he wouldn’t necessarily be voting Republican,” he said.
Haley Edwards: 206-464-2745 or firstname.lastname@example.org