Two of every three young American adults (66 percent) say that older Americans have better moral values than they do, according to new polling released by the Pew Research Center. A similar number, 67 percent, say their elders are more respectful of others. And 68 percent attribute a stronger work ethic to more experienced generations.
"[W]here perceived generational differences exist today about moral values, work ethic and respect for others, today's young adults—by heavy margins—believe that these differences have arisen because their generation hasn't lived up to standards set by older adults," the Pew Research Center noted.
The results vary significantly with only one other value that Pew polled. Americans younger than 30 are widely regarded to be more tolerant of races and groups different from them. Relentless public campaigns for diversity and acceptance of racial minorities and alternative sexual lifestyles have largely succeeded.
Mere Orthodoxy blogger Matthew Lee Anderson struck a nerve earlier this year when he identified young evangelicals as another group desperately seeking social acceptance. In a twist on the Pew data, Anderson sees his fellow 20-something evangelicals lobbying for acceptance by denigrating their elders.
According to Anderson's reading of evangelical youth, they believe older evangelicals were seduced by the Religious Right and didn't do enough to fight poverty and racism. They were preoccupied with a narrow set of values, such as abstinence from alcohol and sex outside of marriage. These same rubes even bought Left Behind books and watched The Late Great Planet Earth.
If young evangelicals had reached these conclusions for principled reasons, then Anderson might not be so concerned. But he suspects more nefarious trends at work.
"I get the sense that for many of my young evangelical peers, the doctrine of eschatology is less important not because of careful reflection upon the Scriptures, but because of the political and cultural scorn the doctrine has earned," writes Anderson, a 2004 graduate of Biola University. "For most young evangelicals, eschatology is cringe inducing not because traditional formulations are wrong, but because they are weird. That all Christians would disappear in a flash will hardly earn Christians cultural acceptability—and cultural acceptance, today, is their paramount desire."
Anderson worries that younger evangelicals miss their own shortcomings in the rush to judge older generations. Namely, their angst about individualism and consumerism is stoked by appeals to shed inherited community values in order to pursue the latest fashionable cause. While not specific about remedies, Anderson contends that the evangelical future depends on breaking this vicious cycle.
"Yet until evangelical leaders educate their laity on the importance of the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, the role and depths of the evangelical tradition, the importance of the body to the spiritual life and disciplines, and the wonders and glories of the Triune God—and then reform their ecclesiastical life accordingly—it will be difficult to keep our best and brightest within the fold," he writes.
John Mark Reynolds, founder and director of Biola's Torrey Honors Institute, responded this summer to Anderson in the first online edition of The City, a journal published by Houston Baptist University. Following the argument in his new book When Athens Met Jerusalem, Reynolds defends Christendom as an alternative to the contemporary hodge-podge of evangelical approaches to culture. It is easy to denounce fellow evangelicals as mistaken, but more difficult and productive to build a viable alternative.
"Cornel West, who strongly rejects Evangelical theology and social policies, can get a standing ovation at Gordon College for denouncing Christendom, even though Christendom created most of the colleges in which he goes about denouncing," Reynolds writes. "Poor Saint Constantine is blamed for things he did not do, like putting the state in charge of the Church, and given no credit for the obviously good things he did, like ending the persecution of Christians."
Baylor University philosopher Francis Beckwith sympathizes with Anderson's lament about the state of evangelical theology. Like Anderson, Beckwith does not attribute the change to deep, careful engagement with older evangelical scholars. Rather, young evangelicals are tempted to reject their parents' practices and beliefs, both good and bad, in a facile pursuit of authenticity. The result may be no more authentic than pieces of local flair in Applebee's.
"If you want to be an authentic real person," Beckwith admonishes, "put down your iPod and pick up your cross."
Anderson returns in The City to reconsider his thesis in light of the responses offered by Reynolds and Beckwith. Appealing to peers who would abandon the evangelical movement, Anderson argues that loyalty is a necessary precursor for constructive criticism and reform. He contends that whether evangelicals seek to engage, create, or transform culture, they cede vital terrain to secular visions. "If the Church is not a culture," he writes, "then it exists only in relation, and in response, to secular reason—and as such will not be able to escape its domain." Essentially, he is partial to Reynolds's remedy.
"Once the Church starts thinking of itself as culture, all the external behaviors of baptism, communion, and ceremony find a more natural home," Anderson says. "And the arts, music, science, literature, philosophy, architecture and, as Reynolds puts it, 'public policy' will all begin to take root, not as a response to secular culture, but as a response to the Word and Spirit, the foundation of the Church. In short: Christendom."
Is it possible that Christendom, widely regarded as the depths of Christian captivity to politics, could offer the way of escape from today's cultural morass? To be sure, Christians offer nothing compelling to their neighbors unless they carry on the time-honored, biblically mandated practices of baptism and communion. Thinly veiled imitations of current cultural trends may win temporal acceptance for us but few converts for God's kingdom.
Still, we should not be quick to denigrate younger evangelicals. Their impulse for reform legitimately redresses some past wrongs. In the right circumstances, their zeal inspires the rest of us to re-examine our lifestyles according to the gospel. And like their Boomer parents and grandparents who came of age in the 1960s, stern warnings might only encourage their worst impulses. But a life well-lived according to the inherited rhythms of grace is an effective apologetic in any generation.
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
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