In the 1960s, the boomers tuned into the Beatles, marched against the war, experimented with drugs, and then many turned to Jesus. Now, many of them want organizations that reflect their more conservative values. Some think that AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) is a bureaucratic Goliath that supports abortion, gay rights, and New Age ideas. Evangelical senior organizations, comparatively tiny, say they are the new Davids.
When President Bush signed the Medicare prescription drug benefit legislation last December, he praised key allies. They included not only the AARP, but also Charlie Jarvis of the United Seniors Association and Jim Martin of the 60 Plus Association. Other "value-based" or even Christian-oriented alternatives to the 35-million member AARP include Lou Sheldon's Christian Seniors Association, James Dobson's Focus Over 50, and the Christian Association of PrimeTimers. Not all are as politically oriented as United Seniors, which does not bill itself as a Christian organization. Jane Terry, the director of Focus Over 50, notes that her organization emphasizes meeting the everyday life challenges of being over 50. "I don't tend to directly respond to … the gay and lesbian approach of AARP. This is a public policy issue and not our issue."
The leading edge of America's 78 million baby boomers is approaching senior status. According to the Administration on Aging, the median net worth of households with members aged 65 or more is $108,885. For the total U.S. population, the median net worth is $55,000. Meanwhile, according to a survey by the University of North Carolina's sociologist Christian Smith, 35 percent of evangelicals are age 55 and above, making them the largest evangelical age group in America.
In a time of economic uncertainty, Christian and conservative organizations are turning to seniors—and finding many to be receptive joiners and givers. United Seniors claims 1.5 million members. The Christian Seniors Association has gained 125,000 members in less than a year. The 60 Plus Association has 4.5 million supporters on its mailing list.
Christian seniors have financial clout. "The heavy-end donors are now between 50 and 70," said Sheldon, who heads the conservative Traditional Values Coalition.
Jarvis, Sheldon, and other leaders of Christian-oriented seniors organizations say evangelical seniors reject AARP's pro-abortion, pro-gay stances. AARP pamphlets about pregnancy questions highlight abortion advocate Planned Parenthood. In the current issue of AARP The Magazine, an article sympathetically discusses the problems of homosexuals who can't legally marry.
The AARP, for its part, dismisses some of its upstart opponents as "ultraconservative" "tentacles" of the drug industry. AARP says United Seniors cares more about drug company profits than it does about seniors. The liberal advocacy group Public Citizen claims that United Seniors spent $12 million on issue ads—a third of it funded by drug companies—during the last election cycle. United Seniors reported $25 million in income in 2002.
Hugh Delehanty, editor in chief of AARP's publications, said the association recognizes Christians as constituents, too. "The biggest shared experience people in their 50s have is probably evangelical Christianity," he said.
In what some observers see partly as a bid to burnish its image among Christian seniors, AARP sided with the President's efforts to pass a prescription drug benefit that some critics said was too generous to drug companies.