Field of Science

Young evangelicals are greener... but no more liberal

During the last US presidential campaign, there was a flurry of excitement when pundits caught hold of the idea that some young Christian evangelicals might possibly vote for Obama (despite the fact that he is, apparently, a Muslim, or perhaps not even a Christian, or something). This would not be so surprising. After all, there is nothing set in stone about what the political and even moral beliefs of an evangelical should be. There would be nothing in principle to stand in the way of a bit of revisionism.

Well, it turns out that no, young evangelicals are just as likely to vote Republican as their parents. That's according to a new analysis, by Buster Smith and Byron Johnson, of the Baylor Religion Survey (which was conducted back in 2007). That's even more surprising given that non-evangelical youth tend to be more liberal than their parents.

Not only that, but young evangelicals are similar to their old folks on a number of other moral questions - most of them think that abortion is wrong, even in the case of a rape. They're against smoking dope, and also embryonic stem cell reseach. And they have a particular beef about allowing homosexuals to marry.

So much for issues of personal morality. What about broader political issues? Well, here it gets a little more interesting.

Here they found the only significant difference between young and old evangelicals - on green issues. Young evangelicals were more likely to think that the government should spend more to protect the environment. They were also more likely to think that climate change will be disastrous, and that we're going to run out of fossil fuel.

But that's it. The only difference. Young and old thought similarly about government health and welfare spending.

There's a couple of things that fascinate me about this analysis. It doesn't surprise me that views on personal morality are shared between young and old. I guess that means these are a core feature of evangelical identity. If you drop them, then you are no longer part of the gang. Although I don't see the religious link to maijuana use, I can see how religious ideals of purity (homosexuality confuses gender), procreation (abortion reduces fertility), and essentialism (embryonic stem cell research means changing one thing into another) are essential building blocks of evangelism.

Similarly, I can see how green issues could be up for grabs. The Bible doesn't really have a lot to say about anthropogenic climate change, but I'm guessing (I'm no expert here) it does have some bits that talk about looking after your patch.

But the results for health and welfare suggest that these, too, are a core part of the evangelical identity. Why should that be? Why should rejection of state welfare be linked to evangelism? Is this an inheritance of the old (and probably mythical) 'Protestant Work Ethic'?

The second thing that strikes me is that these evangelicals - young and old - actually support more government spending on the environment and health. I suspect that's not a view shared by many non-religious, fiscal conservatives.

Good evidence, all-in-all, of issue bundling. What we are lookgin at is poor, ill educated people who want the government to spend more on their health (if not welfare), but who vote Republican because their religious views on personal morality take priority.

ResearchBlogging.orgSmith, B., & Johnson, B. (2010). The Liberalization of Young Evangelicals: A Research Note Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49 (2), 351-360 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2010.01514.x

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. My second thought was that perhaps it is because all of those other issues are not quite exactly factual. AGW is an undeniable fact, so even if your ethics and morality are screwed up beyond all recognition, you still have to admit that it is taking place.

    But then I remembered that most of these young evangelicals are probably Creationists too. So much for facts.

    My first thought -- and this explains the cryptic opening to this comment -- was that opinions like opposing same-sex marriage and opposing abortion even in the case of rape are just so shockingly wrong to me, that it's difficult to step back and look at this analytically. I wouldn't react much differently if you posted a survey saying that "47% of young Evangelicals favor eating babies".

  2. The Baylor Survey is of such low quality that it can be dismissed for estimating real population parameters. Many of the estimates based on Baylor for other very basic religious indicators--such as church attendance and membership--are radically out of line from high quality studies like the General Social Survey. What little we can take from this "study" is that young sectarian Protestants are just like previous generations---and they are out of line with the political beliefs of other Americans.

  3. @Iranianredneck You've made an assertion that the Baylor Survey is of low quality. I neither agree with nor contest your claim either way, but am unwilling to much much merit in unsubstantiated assertions. On what bases can you demonstrate the the survey is so flawed? Please provide specific, mechanistic deficits that I should be aware of in order to consider marginalizing their results. Thank you.

  4. A couple of quibbles from a US perspective:

    Not all religious conservatives are poor and ill educated, surprised you'd use such a broad brush. Many are of course solidly middle class and have at least baccalaureate degrees from proper universities. Think, for example, of the significant subset of engineers that hew to both political conservatism and evangelical/fundamental Christianity.

    Also in the US, the objection to embryonic stem cell research has nothing to do with essentialism and everything to do with anti-abortion sentiment: "killing babies for godless science OH NOES".

    I am LMC American myself and live among them...

  5. As I mentioned, the Baylor Survey is quite out of line on several indicators, particularly in the distribution of non-affiliates and church members. The 2005 Baylor data suggest that a whopping 70% of Americans are members of a church—an astonishing outlier compared to the 31% found in the 2004 GSS. Baylor Surveys also found very few non-affiliates—tallying only 11% of respondents in 2005 and 2007, in comparison to 16% found in the 2006-2008 GSS. Part of this is likely a function of low response rates, Baylor garners about 20% of targeted respondents, compared to 70% for GSS.

  6. The Baylor Survey is also pretty small. The authors don't say how big it was, or what percentage were evangelicals (or even how many evangelicals were surveyed), it's clear from the tables that the interviewed <200 evangelicals.

    However Pew Research found something similar back in 2007. Although the young reported being less conservative, they did still hold strong conservative morality:

    "Younger white evangelicals express a similarly conservative opinion when it comes to capital punishment, with the vast majority (72%) favoring the death penalty for convicted murderers, compared with 75% of older white evangelicals but only 56% of all Americans ages 18-29.

    "And when it comes to abortion, younger white evangelicals are even more conservative than their older counterparts. For example, 70% of younger white evangelicals favor "making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion," compared with 55% of older white evangelicals and 39% of young Americans overall who share this view.

    "This strong allegiance to conservatism and conservative positions suggests that young white evangelicals' turn away from the president and his party may be the product of dissatisfaction with this particular administration rather than the result of an underlying shift in this group's political values and policy views."

  7. @bcoppola Yes, you're right of course I should've said "tend to be" rather than are. It's a statistical average (evangelicals are on average poorer and less well educated) although of course there are many individual exceptions.

    What I mean by essentialism is that these evangelicals consider a zygote or an embryo to be a baby. That is, even a ball of cells lacking a functional nervous system has the 'essence' of a human being.

  8. @iranianredneck & Tom: Thank you both for your response. Based on your statement that the response rates of the Baylor U survey were comparatively low and that their sample size was small would certainly lead me to concur with your assertion that it was of low quality and to be skeptical of the Baylor results. @iranian... As an aside, I noticed that you made a point to highlight the differences between the results of Baylor U. v GSS. Note that these statements were not effective in changing my mind (only the statement on small sample size did). The mere fact that there were discrepancies between surveys doesn't inherently make one of them of low quality. To be sure, however, small sample sizes with weak response rates certainly does make them poor. Thank you ever so much for qualifying your original assertion. I now concur with you.

  9. Are you sure these young conservatives believe in climate change? Here in the US, they are getting greener but still denying climate change.

  10. According to the survey, evangelicals are more in denial of climate change than the rest of the population, but young evangelicals are less in denial than older ones (if that makes sense!).


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