Gen Z Christians are creating their own playbook when it comes to the intersection of faith and politics.
Whether they’re growing more cynical of partisan politics or finding hope in the power of political change, this generation sees itself branching out beyond the issues that have long driven the Christian Right.
Younger believers are quicker to name creation care, prison reform, and immigration as the political causes most influenced by their faith, rather than abortion or sexuality. But even those who seek to get involved in politics don’t align as closely with the two major parties in the US and aren’t excited at the prospects for 2024.
At Calvin University, Micah J. Watson has noticed a shift amongst college students.
“I do think there has been a weariness among Gen Z in some of the ways their parents and grandparents did politics in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s,” said Watson, associate professor and director of the politics, philosophy, and economics program. “Some of the culture war practices have been seen as problematic.”
For young Christians who have the chance to vote in their first presidential election next year, the milestone comes with trepidation, knowing the political polarization that surrounded the races in 2016 and 2020.
“Having gone through COVID and Trump and Biden elections, students have seen parents’ relationships going down the tube,” Watson said, “and there’s a fear of expressing one’s views and being canceled.”
Growing up, Rachel Smith remembers her mother adorning the family car with political bumper stickers to reflect both their party affiliation and their Christian values. But Smith, now a sophomore at Wheaton College, isn’t eager to cover her car with candidate names and slogans.
She hasn’t voted before, but, looking at the political landscape today, she doesn’t believe that just one party or person represents the principles of her faith.
“While I always saw how the Democrats were wrong—and I still think they are wrong about a lot of things—as I got older and did more research, I’ve seen how Republicans have done a lot of harm as well,” said Smith, a psychology major and cabinet member of the campus chapter of International Justice Mission. “I’ve felt closer to God in that my views are not indicated by what is important to a party, but what is important to God.”
Smith is among around half of Gen Z adults who don’t identify with either party in a new American Enterprise Institute (AEI) survey.
Gen Z and millennials grew up with the most skepticism toward politicians; more than six in ten said they didn’t see political leaders as trustworthy during their formative years, while the vast majority of Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation looked to politicians to do the right thing.
Daniel Cox, director of the AEI’s Survey Center on American Life, says members of Gen Z—born between 1997 and 2012—have been surrounded with high levels of cynicism and low levels of trust in America’s political leaders.
“People came to age when they didn’t believe there were adults in the room handling these big issues and considerable threats in ways that were effective,” he said.
For many in Gen Z, their adolescence was riddled with active shooter drills in high school and seismic political events such as the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. They saw the former president go through two impeachment inquiries in office, one on charges of inciting an insurrection.
The political landscape during Gen Z’s youth has led many to wonder whether politics are a meaningful arena for change or a “necessary evil.”
Looking ahead to the 2024 race, Jasmine Chan, a junior political science major at Pepperdine University, has already realized that her first vote for president won’t go to a candidate that she’s excited about or meets her expectations for the high office.
“I think Gen Z does a good job at pointing out that we should not just focus on two political parties, but … that’s the reality we’re living in,” she said. “It’s hard to be hopeful in times like these, but there’s not much we can do about it now.”
According to AEI, even as pessimism in politics has become ubiquitous, young people remain optimistic about their own lives: 70 percent of Gen Z adults say their best days are ahead of them.
While constant exposure to political content on social media and increasing polarization has proven overwhelming for some Gen Z Christians, others have felt ignited with a passion for politics.
“Governments are arguably the most powerful institutions that we have, and being a good steward of them is important,” said Rosalind Niemeier, a senior at Calvin. “We can help people through politics and international relations. We can leave net positives in people’s lives.”
Niemeier majored in international relations and Spanish, and she’s the president of the school’s Political Dialogue and Action Club. She sees an “aversion to politics” on campus and wants people to get involved with the club for the sake of advancing civil dialogue and ethics.
But even she has to fight off her own cynicism or frustration with the state of politics.
“We’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop,” said Niemeier, while following the recent congressional fights to avoid another government shutdown. “Particularly people in political science classes believe the way things are framed is never the way things are.”
Karie Riddle, assistant professor of political science at Pepperdine, notes that, while many of her students are fearful for the future, the political science major at Seaver College in Pepperdine University has been growing.
“There is a lot of loss of trust in democratic institutions,” Riddle said. “But I think that fear and uncertainty has prompted students to be excited to be involved.”
Chan sees the layered influences that led her to her own political stances and inspired her interest in studying politics. After an internship in Washington, DC, last summer, she plans to apply to law school and work as an advocate for women experiencing domestic violence, a calling inspired in part by the Christian call to love and protect the vulnerable.
“I find myself torn or not fully understanding how I can depict the relationship between my religious and political values in one sentence, because it’s more complicated,” said Chan. “You have to consider the intersectionality of everyone and their experiences, and it’s not a cookie cutter thing.”
She was raised in California by a Mexican Catholic mother and Burmese Buddhist father, then came to faith as a Protestant Christian in high school. She believes the opportunity her parents gave her to choose what she believes instilled an open-mindedness that permeates her politics.
Chan remembers sitting on the couch with her parents at age 16 and watching footage of the protests in Los Angeles after the death of George Floyd in 2020. “There were people fighting for their lives and rights, and they looked like us,” Chan said. “Even thinking about that now, it’s still shocking because not only did I experience that, but so many young Americans, or Gen Z in general, had to explain [to their parents] what that meant.”
Members of Gen Z are more racially and ethnically diverse than any previous generation, which also complicates their place in a two-party political system. AEI found that younger generational cohorts have more varied identities and experiences than previous generations.
Gen Z is also unique when it comes to how women and men engage with politics. According to AEI, when it comes to views on gender-related issues, there is a clear gender gap among Gen Z adults that is more pronounced than among older generational cohorts.
Political touchstones such as the #MeToo movement, Trump’s election, and the overturning of Roe v. Wade were uniquely influential for young women but not for young men.
“We did in-depth interviews with a number of young men and women,” Cox of AEI said. “For young men, when you ask them about the #MeToo movement, it wasn't as resonant.”
“There’s a lot more apathy among young men,” Cox said. “There’s no particular issue that we see young men care about. If anything, it’s loneliness and depression.”
Wheaton sophomore Bram Rawlings said his male friends seem just as politically aware and interested as his female friends, however. He admitted he hasn’t voted in a US election yet but still follows international politics.
“Maybe that does reveal some apathy on my part, or a certain apathy toward US politics,” Rawlings said.
While Rawlings is more hopeful about politics on the local level, he’s become increasingly cynical of any human-designed system’s ability to work for those most vulnerable. Instead, he’ll ask, “How can the church address the problem, or address the fact that there are people who are economically and financially vulnerable?”
Campus ministries like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship see potential for their discipleship programs to help support and sustain the next generation of Christian activists, advocates, and voters.
“If [we] don’t want to, other people will,” said Jonathan Walton, a senior resource specialist in InterVarsity’s multi-ethnic initiatives department and author of Twelve Lies That Hold America Captive: And the Truth That Sets Us Free.
Walton believes Christian institutions need to turn their focus from protecting their own longevity to becoming assets that “people actually need.” “That’s a fundamental problem to how we are approaching Gen Z,” Walton said. “They are looking for relationships, not membership.”
Walton believes campus ministries can help students who feel passionate about activism to “slow down and follow Jesus.”
“Communities are falling apart,” Walton said. “People are falling apart, and instead of falling apart together, we need to fall together. And land together. We need community as we do that.”