The Kids Are Alright

Want to see a progressive society? Just wait. Each new generation gets less uptight about gay marriage, evolution, abortion rights, and gender equality. Right? Maybe not. Controversy-loving sociologist Mark Regnerus has produced another study sure to provoke more outrage. In this case, Regnerus claims to find that young conservative evangelicals are not swinging toward a glowing progressive future.

Regnerus first came to culture-war attention with his 2012 study of gay-marriage parenting. Unlike most other sociological studies, Regnerus found that children raised by same-sex parents did not fare as well as children raised by their biological parents.

In his new study of attitudes towards sex in America, Regnerus concluded that young conservative evangelicals are bucking the trend toward youthful progressivism. While young Americans in general might be more welcoming toward gay marriage, abortion rights, and gender equality, young conservatives are not, Regnerus claims.

Conservative Baptists Russell Moore and Andrew Walker take great solace from Regnerus’ findings. Moore and Walker, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, celebrate the “sexual counter-revolution” heralded by Regnerus’ study. Conservative Christians, Moore and Walker noted recently in the pages of National Review Online, can trust that the new generation will cling to tradition. As they put it,

Regnerus’s research suggests that younger Evangelicals aren’t hewing to the culture’s expectation that they conform to its values. That’s a welcome reality, especially given the significant cultural pressures that young Christians face in today’s culture. This lines up with what we, as conservative Evangelicals, see happening in our own congregations across America.

As American culture secularizes, the most basic Christian tenets seem ever more detached from mainstream American culture. Those who identify with Christianity, and who gather with the people of God, have already decided to walk out of step with the culture. Beliefs aren’t assumed but are articulated over and against a culture that finds them implausible. Evangelical views on sexuality seem strange, but young Evangelicals in post-Christianizing America have already embraced strangeness by spending Sunday morning at church rather than at brunch.

Certainly, ever since the birth of conservative evangelicalism as a dissenting identity in the 1920s, young evangelicals have stayed true to conservative ideas. In the 1920s, as I argue in my 1920s book, young members of the new “fundamentalist” coalition defied new stereotypes of “flaming youth” to assert a proudly traditional, religiously orthodox youthful conservatism. And as I’m exploring in my current research, in the 1960s conservative evangelical college campuses were hotbeds of a different sort of student activism, the “sexual counter-revolution” noted by Moore and Walker.

An Earlier Generation of Youthful Counter-Revolutionaries: YAF, 1967

An Earlier Generation of Youthful Counter-Revolutionaries: YAF, 1967

But just as Regnerus’ gay-marriage research seemed too pat, too comforting to conservative activists, so this finding does not seem to deserve the celebration lavished upon by Moore and Walker. Young conservatives may be more traditional than their young contemporaries. But those young conservatives might also be more progressive than their elder evangelicals. The times might not be a-changin’ as fast as some progressives have often assumed, but it seems a little weird for conservative evangelical leaders to conclude that young evangelicals are not moving toward the new mainstream on sexual issues.

 

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