The rhetoric offered at last weekend’s Values Voters Summit confirmed an Orwellian truth: The Religious Right has always been at war with Eastasia. Its manufactured culture war remains at the heart of its message – and it needs young people to take up the fight.
Viewed through this militant lens, the Religious Right’s fixation on the young makes sense. Armies recruit, and lately, recruitment is down. They're losing the younger generation.
I witnessed this cultural shift in action at one of the Summit’s final panels. Led by Josh Duggar of reality TV fame, the panel featured young leaders of the Religious Right, and youth dominated the audience.
But I heard nothing from the panel that I hadn’t heard repeatedly during my own years in fundamentalist Christianity. If these panellists represent the emerging face of the Religious Right, then the movement looks exactly like it always has: white, straight and predominately male.
The rhetoric hasn’t moved an inch, either. Duggar presented his young audience with outspoken, aggressive examples of Christian “leadership” that encouraged political engagement, civil disobedience and the active suppression of other views.
Roy Kostner, an 18-year-old public school graduate, proudly informed the audience that he delivered the Lord’s Prayer at his graduation in direct defiance of school regulations. The sensibilities of his non-Christian classmates didn’t rate a mention in his presentation, but when you’re on a mission from the Lord the perspectives of the lost don’t generally matter.
His fellow panellist, Texas State Rep. Matt Krause, works with the Patriot Academy in addition to his regular legislative duties. The Patriot Academy advertises itself as the “premiere political training program in the nation.” Translation: it’s boot camp for the next generation of fundamentalist Christian warriors.
Eric Teetsel of the Manhattan Declaration and Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life rounded out the panel. Teetsel and Hawkins are career fundamentalist activists, which means they’re paid to recite the same tired messages about “traditional marriage” and a “culture of life” that I could recite in my sleep.
Missing from the self-congratulatory speeches is a demographic reality unfavorable to the Religious Right: Despite all the church camps, the Christian and home schools, Millennials are the least religious generation in history.
Recent research reveals possible reasons for the trend. A Barna Group poll of non-Christians aged 16-29 found the most common impressions of Christianity were also the most negative. Ninety-one percent said the church had become too anti-gay. Seventy-five percent said it had become too involved in politics.
Pew Research has also documented a significant rise in the “nones,” Americans who are unaffiliated with any religious tradition. It’s a category dominated by Millennials.
But while many might be unaffiliated, they’re not necessarily secular, either. The prevailing trend indicates a growing number of young Americans who consider themselves spiritual, but have found no haven in the church. These numbers might not represent a death knell for evangelical faith, but they do spell trouble for dogmatic approaches to it.
That should concern our values voters. But if last week’s panellists accurately reflect the broader fundamentalist movement, there’s no evidence that they interpret this research as anything but further evidence that the faith of our fathers is under attack. That’s precisely why I found their presentations so remarkable – not for what they said, but for what they didn’t say.
Nobody acknowledged that young adults have grown weary of the culture war’s recruitment tactics. Nobody recognized that this never-ending drive to politicize religion causes real human damage. Silence can be louder than a shout and at the Values Voters Summit, it deafened me.
Here’s the reality panellists ignored: when faith is defined by conflict, battle fatigue becomes a social force. It’s what drove me away from fundamentalism.
If Duggar and his peers in the movement are truly concerned about preserving the Christian faith, it’s time for the Religious Right to abandon its dogmatic indoctrination of young people. Call a truce in the culture war. Otherwise, the end of the far-right church’s relevance will be a self-fulfilled prophecy.