Evangelicals have gone through a good deal of handwringing over a younger generation that is less predictably faithful than their parents. Now, evangelical leaders in Washington are having trouble sending the kind of unified message that will entice them to follow.
While a handful of leaders was once able to rally evangelicals to flood Washington with phone calls about an issue, the younger generation has many more leaders to choose from, thanks in part to social media like Twitter.
This stymies the ability of an institution like Washington’s Family Research Council to reach them. Complicating things is the fact that increasingly young evangelicals are disagreeing with the tone of their message.
Seeking a young, fresh face, FRC in 2013 appointed Josh Duggar, the oldest of TLC’s show “19 Kids and Counting,” director of its political action committee when he was just 25. Duggar stepped down last week from his position while apologizing amid allegations that he molested multiple young girls during his teens. But during his short tenure at FRC, he often served as the face of the organization at many of its events. At gatherings, people would flock to him as though he were a celebrity.
Duggar’s profile was rising as he would post selfies with high profile Republican leaders, including potential presidential candidates. But fallout from Duggar’s resignation reflects a broader lack of unity among evangelicals in politics. Many evangelicals, especially younger ones, have been turned off by the strident remarks and actions of FRC officials and other national evangelical leaders.
For instance, FRC in 2012 gave its highest pro-family award to Baptist pastor Ron Baity, who has compared gay people with maggots and murderers.
“Could the Duggar scandal be the last straw for evangelicals?” said Jonathan Merritt, a columnist for Religion News Service. “This was their effort to capture young evangelicals, and it went down in flames.”
Even Christianity Today in 2012 published an editorial suggesting that the organization had abused its megaphone.
“Too often, its leaders traffic in flatly untrue statements,” the editorial stated. “(Among FRC president Tony Perkins’s claims: President Obama hates Christianity; his administration excludes Christians; and the military, under his command, bans Bibles and embraces bestiality.)”
FRC has served as a bridge for many social conservatives, including evangelicals, to high profile politicians. Its annual Values Voters Summit usually draws presidential candidates and media attention along with it. (This year, no candidates are confirmed yet. FRC declined to comment for this piece.) The summit’s actual influence on average evangelicals in the pews is unclear. By evangelical standards, most megachurches are drawing larger numbers on a weekly basis than the conference, often held in a hotel in Washington.
FRC’s brand is strong enough behind the scenes that the council will continue to play an important leadership role in Washington, said Wesley Goodman, former managing director of Conservative Action Project. But increasingly no one group, or even a handful of groups, can claim to speak for the evangelical masses, who have many more leaders to choose from.
“It’s easier [for anyone] to have a national platform now, to have a really good Twitter feed that draws followers and has a voice,” Goodman said.
This growing gulf between the evangelical leadership in Washington and evangelical voters surfaced in 2012, when 150 evangelical leaders, including Tony Perkins and former FRC president Gary Bauer, met behind closed doors in Texas to determine which candidate should receive their endorsement. They chose Rick Santorum, but in the end evangelicals voted for Mitt Romney at the same rate they voted for President George W. Bush in 2004.
“The top down model of engaging where you have two or three or four leaders who were able to give marching orders to the faithful, I don’t know that that’s a model that’s going to be successful in 2016,” Goodman said.
Of course, evangelicals, who make up about a quarter of the U.S. population and often serve as a key vote in Republican primaries, have never spoken or behaved as a monolith. But in decades past, leaders from evangelist Billy Graham to Focus on the Family founder James Dobson had a unique ability to rally leaders’ attention toward a candidate or an issue.
Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority organization were credited in part with President Reagan’s 1980 election, having registered millions of evangelicals to vote. And evangelicals remained an important constituency when Reagan first used his famous phrase “evil empire” to refer to the Soviet Union during his address to the National Association of Evangelicals in 1983.
For years, Dobson and other leaders convened meetings with people in Congress and in the administration to discuss issues, strategy and communication. Or the late Charles Colson, who went to prison over President Nixon’s Watergate scandal and became an evangelical, was able to serve as bridge builder between political leaders and evangelical leaders. Dobson has since left Focus on the Family, and Colson died in 2012. And the influence of Billy Graham, who is 96, has not translated to his children at the same level.
So if a Republican candidate wanted to reach evangelicals in 2016, where would he or she go? It would be very difficult to reach a large number of influential evangelicals in one place. Some might pay close attention to New York City megachurch pastor Tim Keller. Others might listen to California megachurch pastor Rick Warren. And still others might look to Atlanta megachurch pastor Andy Stanley. Thanks to online worship and podcasts, evangelicals are able to pick and choose from a wide range of popular leaders more than ever before.
Behind closed doors, a new generation of leaders of well-established groups have been quietly divided over differences in strategy and especially over tone. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, have chosen a decidedly softer tone on culture war issues. For instance, Moore has met with President Obama on immigration. Or Daly will praise the president on fatherhood.
FRC’s president Tony Perkins used to speak at the Southern Baptist Convention. And Moore’s predecessor at the SBC, Richard Land, used to speak at FRC’s annual Values Voters Summit. But the collaboration between two groups has ended under Russell Moore’s more recent leadership at the ERLC. And you won’t see Focus on the Family’s president Jim Daly at FRC’s summit, a shift from when the organization was led by Dobson, who started FRC.
Both Moore and Daly declined to speak on the record about Duggar’s resignation from FRC.
As organizations seek to rally the troops, the younger members have dwindled. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center suggests that about 20 percent of Millennials are evangelicals, compared to 28 percent of Baby Boomers. Still, younger white evangelicals (defined as those under age 35) are about as likely as older white evangelicals to identify as Republicans or lean Republican.
But even as the number of influential voices grows, it remains to be seen whether any one person or group will emerge that is capable of mobilizing young evangelicals in large numbers. The disagreement over how best to talk about issues evangelicals mostly agree on — like same-sex marriage and abortion — extends beyond Washington to evangelical church leaders and non-profits, said Michael Cromartie from the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
“Some are concerned that Christianity not be seen as a political religion, that it is a message of redemption and grace,” Cromartie said. They believe that “the way to convey that redemption and grace in public statements and public appearances is to come across less judgmental and self-righteous and win people over by persuasion instead of drawing sharp lines over cultural differences.”