Rock of Ages: Subcultural Religious Identity and Public Opinion Among Young Evangelicals

Jeremiah J. Castle, Central Michigan University

While evangelicals have been the backbone of the Republican Party for the last half-century, media accounts suggest the emergence of a new generation of young, liberal evangelicals.  Are young evangelicals actually becoming more liberal?  Fusing sociological understandings of evangelicalism with John Zaller's (1992) RAS theory of public opinion, I argue that the evangelical subculture holds the power to affect public opinion on political issues because it builds evangelical identity, discredits issue considerations from the secular culture, promotes the distinctive beliefs of the evangelicalism, and engages in direct political messaging.  However, evangelicalism's influence on public opinion is strongest (a) on identities and issues that are more salient within the evangelical subculture, and (b) among those who are more immersed in the evangelical subculture.  I test my theory using both nationally representative survey datasets as well as an original series of interviews with evangelical students at five colleges, ranging from evangelical liberal arts colleges to comprehensive state universities.

Overall, I find little support for large-scale liberalization among young evangelicals.  Partisan identification and ideology have been nearly constant among young evangelicals since the 1980s.  Young evangelicals are actually more conservative than previous generations on the faith's signature political issue, abortion.  Even on issues where young evangelicals are becoming more liberal, such as same-sex marriage,  most of the change is concentrated among infrequent attendees. In short, I find far more evidence of consistency than change in the political attitudes of young evangelicals.

Additional chapters explore how evangelicalism changes public opinion, demonstrate evangelicalism's impact on a variety of issues, and profile liberal young evangelicals.  Overall, there is strong evidence that the evangelical subculture helps reinforce continuity in public opinion among members, particularly when it comes to Republicanism, ideological conservatism, and attitudes on cultural issues.

For a longer preview of the findings, you can see my short article "Younger evangelicals look an awful lot like older evangelicals post-2016" on Vox's Mischiefs of Faction blog (co-written with Ryan Burge and Paul Djupe).

Table of Contents



Chapter 1. A Subcultural Theory of Public Opinion Among Young Evangelicals


Chapter 2. Winds of Change or Still the Same? Political Identities and Issue Attitudes Among Young Evangelicals


Chapter 3. Inside Out or Outside In: Explaining Liberalization Among Evangelicals


Introduction to Part II: Methods of Understanding Public Opinion Among Young Evangelicals


Chapter 4. How the Evangelical Subculture Influences Public Opinion


Chapter 5. Testing Subcultural Immersion's Impact on Public Opinion


Chapter 6. Public Opinion Among Liberal Young Evangelicals


Chapter 7. Conclusion

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