The American religious landscape is being altered by what Mark Noll calls “a more pluralistic evangelicalism than has ever existed before.”
First, in the movement Marcia Pally describes, evangelicalism is no longer synonymous with white evangelicals. Conservative black churches have long held a pro-life, pro-marriage ethic in balance with energetic social activism. Immigrant churches, the fastest-growing segment of Christianity, tend to be conservative theologically while progressive on issues like poverty and immigration. The increasingly influential Hispanic community naturally aligns with this movement. As Samuel Rodriguez puts it: “Where Billy Graham meets Dr. King, that’s where you will see the Hispanic Christian community emerge.”
Second, this movement represents a dynamically different process of connecting faith and social engagement. Instead of a checklist of correct stands on selected issues, many evangelicals seek a consistent ethical framework rooted in core beliefs. Conservative blogger Eric Teetsel comments, “Rather than valuing other issues alongside life, Millennial emphasis on life explains their interest in other social issues. Caring for the poor is born from a foundational valuation of life.” Indeed, while young evangelicals remain solidly against abortion, two-thirds (63 percent) agree that poverty, disease and torture are also pro-life issues.
Third, evangelicalism is revising its strategies of social influence. New evangelicals tend to hold progressive opinions on some issues and promote (private-sector) social justice initiatives while maintaining a conservative political identity and voting GOP. Their activism deemphasizes top-down political strategies in favor of incarnational engagement on the local level. This makes the political and cultural influence of evangelicals less centralized, less coordinated, and more unpredictable. Whether it is ultimately more effective remains to be seen.
While a significant change is undeniably underway, it should not be overestimated or overgeneralized. New evangelicals are not on a journey toward becoming liberals; they are not likely to swell the ranks of Democratic voters; they have not abandoned abortion as a core issue. As sociologist John Schmalzbauer cautions: “While dreaming of what evangelicals might become, we must take a hard look at who they are.” What is clear is that “who they are” can no longer be captured by old labels and simple polarizations.
I generally agree with this, but I would caution against hard separations between “Millennial” evangelicals and those of previous generations. Surveys always showed that many evangelicals of all generations were suspicious of the so-called Religious Right. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell always polled poorly. Most were politically ambivalent. The Religious Right never took hold among evangelical academics.
To sum up: The Religious Right was always a mile wide and an inch deep among many sectors of evangelicalism.