Generation Next Shows Shifts on Social Issues Among Evangelical Youth

Generational attitudes about sexuality and reproductive health are shifting among evangelical youth in one of the most interesting trends to watch in terms of future politics and policy. According to a research study from Baylor University and a recent series of reports by Judy Woodruff on The NewsHour, young adults are trending more faithful and more compassionate in terms of public policy than their parents. Woodruff will host a PBS special about Generation Next this Friday, January 12 at 9:00 p.m. (ET).

Like the recent Guttmacher study revealing realistic experience with non-marital sex that Andrea blogged about in Sex Ed is for Life, the Baylor survey indicates a much more realistic attitude among intensely faithful 20-something evangelicals when it comes to sexuality, including attitudes about abortion and gay rights.

One young evangelical, Lisa Higaki, interviewed by Woodruff said,

I used to be very pro-life, but I don't know if I can really take a strong stance on it, just because it's just such a heated issue. It's hard, because I think, personally, I want to just say, like, OK, abortion is wrong, you know, it's not right. But then I've had friends that have been in situations where that became a really real part of their lives, you know? And I know what they've been through and the reasons why they would have to make, you know, a choice. And I think, in certain situations, it might be appropriate, you know?

While the stigmatization that comes with "it's wrong" still stings a woman for whom the choice might "be appropriate," her attitude demonstrates real potential for more common ground. Common ground that progressives working for sexual and reproductive health and rights have always held and now must extend further into the mainstream by demonstrating that extremist anti-choice leaders are out of synch with an America that seeks healing, not division.

Healing was a major theme as the nation honored President Gerald R. Ford, which took me back to my own idealistic youth as a Carter fan, drawn to his faith, service and humility. The Ford services tugged at my heart for a civil politics that reflected our civil society. In eulogies he was remembered as a man whose faith meant that he saw God in every individual and with that respected the individual choices of all Americans.

The current crop of presidential contenders is trying to figure out what increased attention to faith means for their campaigns, and reflects the generational shifts we see at play. At Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in December, Sen. Sam Brownback pridefully turned to Sen. Barack Obama and said, "Welcome to my house." When it was Obama's turn to speak, he offered a humble correction, saying to Brownback, "This is my house too, this is God's House." Brownback is old time religion, fanning the flames of social issues with evangelical furvor to support policies in line with his Opus Dei rigidity — like patriarchy on steroids. Obama gives a glimpse of healing and balance through the "personal relationship with God" that is more about introspection and compassion, favored by Generation Next.

Issues of sexuality and reproductive health have divided our nation and polarized our politics for a generation because of extremist rigidity, and all it has produced is divisiveness, ignorance and intolerance contributing to disease, not healing. But the 2006 midterms and attitudes of Generation Next indicate many Americans seek something different than the extreme right offers, they seek facts not fiction, and policies based on reality.

Another 2008 contender is struggling with sexuality and reality, but his daughters are not. John Edwards told George Stephanopolus that "he just wasn't there yet" when it comes to gay marraige. From the interview on ABC's This Week:

John Edwards in New Hampshire: My daughter who is 24 and goes to school in Cambridge — her generation and all of her friends believe this issue will completely disappear with their generation.

Elizabeth Edwards: And I have to say she's talked to … the children of our senators and politicians on both sides of the aisle and people who are her age, regardless of the political affiliation of their parents, all believe exactly the same thing.

"According to a series of studies by the evangelical pollster George Barna, young born-again Christians may be up to 15 percent more likely than their religious elders to claim that homosexuality is morally acceptable," the PBS series reported.

In Woodruff's interview Lisa Higaki said,

I even have friends that, you know, went to Christian college with us, and then they came out that they were gay. And I don't know, you know? I love them, and I know that they're strong Christians. But it's just kind of — and I've seen in the Bible, there's scripture that I guess that says that it is a sin, and I guess that's what I believe in, but it's always kind of been a confusing thing to me.

Last but not least, tying all these issues together, I would be remiss not to note expectant mom Mary Cheney, daughter of the current Vice President. Dick Cheney bridges all these generational shifts with his link to Ford, and he is a soon-to-be doting grandfather to a lesbian-born grandchild who will grow up with more compassionate leadership than he is able to offer. Too bad he can't see his way to ushering in that compassion now. Why should women and sexual minorities have to wait for the parents to acknowledge what their children already know? Politics aside, I bet the veep's a cool grandpa, but if it's a boy, I wouldn't let them go hunting, Mary.

Gerald Ford famously said, "Our long national nightmare is over." I couldn't help but think how appropriate that was to have repeated throughout the television coverage of his funeral, as a reminder of his decency and civility, and the healing he knew was the right thing to do in that moment. When it comes to sexual and reproductive health, the nightmare is not over for far too many women and sexual minorities in this country and around the world, but there seems to be more light, more opportunity for healing, more reason for hope as our politics and faith, writ large, evolve. The people are there, we just need the leaders to follow.

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