Among this growing throng of youth climate activists are some you might not expect: young evangelical Christians.
It goes something like this. A young Christian is raised in a close family, is regularly involved in various church activities and often even attends a Christian K-12 school. She is taught values like compassion, love of neighbor and a high view of scripture. Yet, she is handed few tools for how these values should be brought to bear in the public square. Her political formation is uneven, mostly implicit and almost wholly yoked to Republican politics.
Because no political party can completely capture the fullness of the values she was taught, her community’s embrace of partisan politics creates in her dissonance and disillusionment. The tension is most pronounced when it comes to issues that seem so clearly close to the heart of God — like environmental protection and the humane treatment of refugees and immigrants — yet seem so far from the political priorities of her community.
Case in point: in 2017, I brought a group of 20 or so Christian college students to meet with staff in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office. When asked how many of them were Republican, student after student shared how they had grown up conservative and still held many conservative values but could not claim the Party because it had left them behind on climate change.
For young Christians to say this inside the office of one of the most powerful Republicans in the country is significant. It is a direct challenge to the majority of leaders within institutional evangelicalism — including many of our own pastors and denominational leaders — who remain fully aligned with the Republican Party.
The challenge of bringing our values to bear in the public square is nothing new, and it is not unique to Christians. We all possess nuanced values that do not fit neatly into the binary two-party system of modern American democracy. Yet for young evangelicals, this task is especially hard. It includes the potential for alienation from friends, family and worshiping communities. Psychology tells us what we all intuitively know: isolation from those we love is painful, and we avoid it if we can.
Still, many young people — including some young evangelicals — choose separation anyway because it is ultimately healthier and more sustainable. Many other young evangelicals are forging a new way forward by leaning into the evangelical tradition itself.
And this year, they are getting registered and making plans to vote. Republicans have been able to comfortably rely on evangelical votes for decades, largely by claiming the moral high ground on abortion. Abortion still factors significantly in the electoral calculations of many young evangelicals. Yet more and more, it is being incorporated into a more holistic ethic of life that recognizes climate change and the inhumane treatment of refugees — among others — as threats to the sacredness of life too.
Many of our peers have simply left the evangelical tradition behind, fed up with how selfish some of the followers of our famously selfless Savior have become. Those of us who remain are fashioning a new way forward. One steeped in evangelical values, marked by unapologetic testimony, and shaped by a holistic ethic of life that understands climate chaos, the abuse of immigrants, the demonization of our LGBTQ neighbors and the termination of unborn life as equal assaults on the image of God.
And we’re voting like it.