The 2020 election is already a trying season for the American church. And among the dynamics at play is a growing generational divide among conservative evangelicals.
I’m hearing more and more young, conservative-leaning evangelicals express disappointment at the political behavior of their conservative parents—a growing concern that they’re being radicalized into the conspiracy-spreading far-right by a steady diet of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and Ben Shapiro. One young pastor shared that, as much as his peers want to glean from the wisdom of their parents’ generation, it seems there is little wisdom left. In the words of one pastor-friend: “They’ve all given themselves over to the foolishness of America.” When Michelle Obama said American kids are “looking around wondering if we’ve been lying to them this whole time about who we are and what we truly value,” her words resonated with many young evangelicals.
For many of us, the disappointment is not primarily that our parents, pastors, or role models would vote for Donald Trump. Given the extreme pro-abortion policies, Maoist enforcement of speech codes, and guillotine optics of the other side, we can understand why Christian voters might find Trump the lesser of two evils. What’s disappointing is when our elders don’t seem to find any evil in Trump; when they enthusiastically support him as a God-sent street fighter and protector of “Christian America”; when they refuse to denounce any of the morally debased words and actions they would have been quick to call out in a Democratic president. What’s confusing is how so many who—in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, for example—insisted on morality as an irreducible presidential qualification now see it as negotiable. What’s alarming is how not alarmed many older Christians seem when Trump trots out a Bible as an apparent photo-op prop, or when Vice President Mike Pence riffs on Hebrew 12:1–2 to suggest we “fix our eyes” on Old Glory alongside Jesus.
Again, reasonable arguments for Christians to vote for Trump can be made (as can arguments to vote for other candidates). What’s frustrating is when our leaders suggest true Christians must vote for Trump—thereby anathematizing the many believers who can’t square a vote for Trump with their faith. On top of all that, when prominent “evangelical leaders” who defend Trump’s extramarital affairs turn out to be engaging in their own sordid sexual triads and alleged predatory behavior, it all starts to feel like a sham. Can we trust our faith leaders? Or was everything really just about political power all along?
Even as younger evangelicals ask these valid questions, they should also ask themselves some critical questions. If you’re frustrated by your parents’ or older leaders’ politics, ask yourself: How can I follow the biblical commands (not suggestions) to love, honor, and respect them (e.g., Lev. 19:32; Matt. 15:4; Eph. 6:1–4; 1 Pet. 5:5) in spite of my frustration?
Be Disappointed Without Being Disrespectful
Seek to understand. Don’t assume the worst. Don’t instantly ascribe their political preferences to racism, xenophobia, greed, or some other vice. Be slow to chalk up their politics to idolatry. While their political leanings may indeed be partially rooted in sin and idolatry, recognize that yours likely are as well (more on that below). Instead of judging them, give grace and engage in conversation. Chances are, some aspect of their background informs why they lean one way or another politically. So listen to their stories. Many baby boomer parents who lived through the 1960s are likely reading today’s events through that lens. If your immigrant parent fled to America from some volatile or oppressive regime, inquire how their experience of this nation informs their current politics. Everyone has a personal story that shapes their politics. Begin your engagement on that level.
Everyone has a personal story that shapes their politics. Begin your engagement on that level.
Also vital is a posture of humility rather than arrogance. I hate seeing young evangelicals post graceless and presumptive pronouncements on social media whenever some older Christian expresses political opinions they dislike. Certainly there are times when it’s appropriate for the younger generation to confront and correct their elders. When Paul tells Timothy to “not rebuke an older man” (1 Tim. 5:1), the particular Greek verb is an especially intense version of rebuke (translated “rebuke harshly” in the NIV and “sharply rebuke” in the NASB). The point is not that we should never rebuke our elders, but that we should avoid harsh, sharp, disrespectful rebuke. Sadly, social media is not often a good forum for loving and respectful—that is, biblical—rebuke. If you want to challenge an older person on their politics, take it offline. Send a respectful email or treat them to coffee. Enter the conversation not just ready to challenge or “teach,” but prepared to listen well and learn.
History Repeats Itself
The dynamic of being disappointed—even incensed—by the older generation’s politics is not new. It happens in almost every generation. A half-century ago, many Baby Boomers were in the streets protesting while their parents watched on TV and shook their heads. Generations react to one another, and the pendulum keeps swinging. What’s happening now between younger and older evangelicals (as one subset of the larger generational divide) is not historically unique.
The cyclical dynamics of generational political swings should lead young evangelicals to ponder whether our frustrations with the older generation’s politics are pushing us faster in the opposite direction than we otherwise would go. If it seems our parents are being radicalized in one direction, are we self-aware enough to recognize if we are becoming more radical in the other direction? If we complain that our parents have prioritized politics over faith, are we so sure we are not on the road to doing the same thing, just with different politics?
If it seems our parents are being radicalized in one direction, are we self-aware enough to recognize if we are becoming more radical in the other direction?
This point should be a caution for the older generation too: If you make politics ultimate, to the point that it becomes a sort of secular religion, don’t be surprised if your kids do the same, just with different politics.
Younger evangelicals, recognize that when we ourselves become parents with adult children, it’s likely that our kids won’t completely share our politics either—whatever they happen to be. The likelihood of this outcome should temper our anger now and lead us to have more grace for our parents’ politics, however disillusioned or frustrated we may feel.
What We Share in Common
Instead of letting politics drive you away from the older Christians in your life, focus on what you share in common. Immaturity is thinking your parents or grandparents are totally wrong about everything in politics and are wholly driven by sin-born blind spots. Maturity is admitting you are just as prone to blind spots yourself, even if they are different ones. Maturity is recognizing you are just as sinful yourself, and both of you have a lot of growing to do in the direction of Christlikeness.
Instead of endlessly debating politics at the dinner table or on social media—and growing more frustrated with one another—perhaps spend more time singing hymns together, studying the Bible together, serving in church together. For Christians young and old, black and white, of whatever partisan persuasion, remember that what you share in common with a fellow member of Christ’s body is more significant (and eternally longer lasting) than your differences. Remember that as much as politics is a powerful wedge between generations, Christ is an even more powerful bond.