The Moral Majority Is No More: Millennials and a New Social Witness

They are born after 1980. They don’t know much about Thatcher, but they do know about Bieber. They take “selfies.” Much discussed, oft-misunderstood, they are the Millennials.

A December 2013 poll of this much-fretted-over demographic offered fresh light on their political views. Harvard University’s Institute of Politics conducted the poll and found that 35 percent of Millennials approve of Democratic congressmen and just 19 percent of Republican congressmen.

This data leads to rumination both sociological and theological. How, exactly, will Millennial Christians—in a jaded generation but not of it—engage with politics, with the public square? The way Millennials answer this question will play a vital role in the public prospects of Christianity in America and the West.

A hard night’s day: Public Christianity after the Moral Majority

With apologies to the Beatles, the last thirty years have left many Millennials with some baggage. The fire-breathing model of engagement practiced by some leaders of the “Moral Majority” left many Millennials with a bad taste in their mouth. The disillusioned and justly confused Millennial masses include many young pastors and scholars who find their identity in the vibrant “big gospel” movement of the last decade (like the New York Times, you may have just heard of it). Young Christian leaders today often express a desire to distance themselves from the Moral Majority and its ilk, adopting an “apolitical” or relatively indifferent political stance.

This is a partly helpful and partly unhelpful response to their heritage. It is helpful because it means that many young church planters and pastors and thinkers will avoid reducing the faith to a policy position. They will focus on making friendships with people not like them and living a “missional” way-of-life. The church will be the listening church, a spiritual body of believers that gathers to hear the lion of the Scripture roar from His Word each week.

This response is unhelpful because young Christian leaders might forget that the church must also be the speaking church. Many Millennial leaders understand the dire need for evangelization of lost friends, but fewer grasp the importance of public square witness. Few of us Millennials will emulate the Moral Majority at its apex, but we also must recognize that, in their imperfect way, various figures of this group spoke courageously on behalf of the unborn, the natural family, and the moral fabric of their nation. There was real bravery, and real sacrifice, in this witness. It came at a real cost in a culture and society that now reads any attempt, however noble, to intervene in others’ lives as hostile and injurious.

Unlike the Moral Majority, many Millennials are quiet as a church mouse on public square issues, save for a vocal rejection of past tactics. Let me get down and dirty here: If your only significant act of public square proclamation is a sneering disavowal of Jerry Falwell, you’re doing it wrong. A church inspired by the gospel, aware of its claim on all of life, and in tune with a historic tradition of figures like Augustine, Wilberforce, and Colson cannot content itself with exquisitely calibrated public neutrality. Neither can it accept the velvet muzzle its opponents offer. It cannot dance like a celebrity cha-chaing his way back to the C-list when a confused church member asks for guidance on cultural questions of grave import.

It must speak. It must offer a new social witness.

Not only this, but that: four paths toward a new social witness

How, though? How can younger evangelicals who have no inclination to start a PAC or accost people on the sidewalk while holding impressively weathered clipboards engage in public square witness? Let me suggest four broad ways forward.

First, young Christians can recover a sense of social agency. I find a striking paradox in the mind of many Millennial Christians today. We love Bonhoeffer, and we thrill to Wilberforce’s daring and spectacularly successful efforts. When it comes to our own moment, though, we feel beaten down. The culture seems so big and bad and scary and foreordained, and so we toggle back to Facebook and retreat to our Bon Iver playlist. Something’s not clicking here. Millennial Christians need to recover a sense of agency in the culture. Almighty God is our benefactor, and He’s got way more power than any billionaire the New Yorker might profile in 8,000 skeptical words.

I have utterly no idea what the future of America and the West looks like. Things in general are not promising, to be sure. Much seems to be slipping away from us in our day. But I resist a narrative of our culture suffused with gloom and written in stone. In the face of some jaw-dropping defeats, we also are seeing some enlivening gains, especially in the pro-life realm. God is unstoppable, and of the reign of His kingdom there is no end. Let’s get to it, shall we?

Second, young Christians can speak up for truth on behalf of flourishing. Part of what has pushed some Millennials away from being the speaking church is that we have not always heard our leaders make the biblical connection between rightness and health, truth and flourishing. But what is true is always what is best. We need to make this elegant connection on moral matters.

Millennials have an opportunity today to speak on matters of sexuality and gender, for example, from the perspective of both rightness and health. It is wrong to change God’s super-intelligent design for the family, for example. But we also must make clear that altering the family will not lead to human flourishing. Let this message ring out from a thousand missional pulpits (or elevated coffee tables, as it were).

Third, young Christians can count their lives and reputations as nothing. Millennial believers are cursed by a desire to be popular. We want friends, virtual and actual. We don’t want to be tagged with the epithet greater than that which cannot be known: awkward.

I understand this desire. It’s no good thing to be hated for its own sake. But we must not forget the long, bloody and glorious tradition of courageous Christian public witness. It starts with Moses holding court in a pagan Egyptian throne room, extends to Daniel praying in public and thereby facing down a horde of Persian courtiers eager to see him torn limb from limb, jumps to the grisly martyrdom of John the Baptist for offering a short course in public ethics, and peaks with Christ before Caesar, sacrificial and triumphant in death (Exod. 5-11; Dan. 6; Matt. 14; 27). However nimble and winsome we young evangelicals must be, we also must shake the heavens with our prayers for courage, the courage to speak even in the face of persecution so that evil and death might lose and righteousness and neighbor-love might win.

Fourth, young Christians must play hardball when necessary. In practical terms, this means not only engaging the culture when a particularly momentous vote or decision is at hand, but in the many smaller events that lead to the historic ones. Our new social witness must be marked both by love and by an appropriate evangelical Realpolitik. Not every issue is created equal. But we must not consent to a death by a thousand cultural cuts, either.

Millennials have extensive and often-overlooked biblical precedent for this kind of action. We can cite Joseph acting shrewdly as an administrator of the state for the goodness of his people, Esther using her queenly position to advocate for the salvation of the Jews from genocide (working closely with Mordecai), and the Apostle Paul appealing to his Roman citizenship as just a few biblical examples of the kind of gracious hardball we can play in the public square (Gen. 41-47; Esth. 2-10; Acts 22-26).

Conclusion

Few of us can predict what the future of America will be. Whether poll numbers on social questions rise or fall among youngsters, I am not most concerned with data. I am most concerned with the church and its future. Extraordinary and altogether necessary attention has been paid to our identity as the listening church. More attention needs to be devoted to our tricky, historically problematic, but hugely important identity as the speaking church. May we do so in coming days, speaking love and truth, never giving up, never abandoning our neighbor, never falling silent.

About the Author

Owen Strachan is the author of Risky Gospel: Abandon Fear and Build Something Awesome (Thomas Nelson, 2013). He is Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College and Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood. He is writing a biography of Charles Colson for Thomas Nelson.

22 Comments

  1. Randy Reply

    What seems to be missing in your article is an understanding that one cannot engage in the public conversation from a Christian perspective without getting lampooned as “fire breathing”. The thing is, the “little m” moral majority never engaged in the tactics or pursued the agenda that the cool people successfully planted in the imagination of the public, and gathering from your article, the minds of the current generation of evangelicals as well.

  2. dghart Reply

    “A church inspired by the gospel, aware of its claim on all of life, and in tune with a historic tradition of figures like Augustine, Wilberforce, and Colson cannot content itself with exquisitely calibrated public neutrality.”

    None of these examples are from Scripture. If you are going to live by the constraints of an inerrant Bible, you need to show where the NT says the church must have a social witness. You might even try to find examples where Christ and the apostles speak about public matters.

    • Jim Reply

      The word “witness” appears more than 40 times in the NT. You may want to read it and learn exactly what it means to be a witness to the truth and the way. It was that witness that cost the disciples their lives and what is expected of you will scare you to death.

    • Ken Reply

      Ever wonder why John the Baptist got his head cut off?
      Scripture tells us not only to rescue people from Hell by preaching the gospel, but also to care for the poor, the orphan and the widow. It calls us to “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). It calls us not only to bring people to faith and baptism, but also to teach them “to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20), which includes the pursuit of mercy and justice among human beings.
      As God’s Spirit penetrates people’s hearts through the gospel, those people become new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17). They take their faith into every sphere of life, including the workplace, politics, economics, education, and the arts. And in all these realms, they seek to glorify God. They hear Paul’s exhortation in 1 Cor. 10:31, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” They obey, imperfectly to be sure. But their incipient obedience leads to significant changes in society.

  3. Cody Reply

    “fewer grasp the importance of public square witness.” This needs to be defended from the Bible and not from Church history. Where is the New Testament mandate for such things in a context larger than a personal relationship with another person? Jesus publicly engaged religious institutions that claimed to worship God while more intimately showing grace to the most openly sinful. This is the opposite of the Moral Majority era. On a spectrum of cultural engagement with Jesus on one end and the MM in the other, your exhortations to my generation seem to lean toward the MM than Jesus.

  4. Bryan Reply

    Why are American Christians (especially evangelical leaders) so concerned and obsessed with the millennial generation? It’s as though if we lose the millennials we lose this country! Hogwash! I was born 1982 and I can seriously careless what the millennial generation thinks, feels, and acts. I’m tired of my generation getting a pacifier to quench all of our silly so-called “righteous” outbursts against “the man” and cultural norms. We whine like little babies who don’t get their way and everyone (including the church) listens to our cries. We are the most spoiled, privileged, and wealthy generation in American history, yet for the majority of us we are nothing but little wimps. I’m sorry, but this is the truth. We know very little of suffering, responsibility and leadership. Yet the church constantly tries to cater to our every whims.

    Ok, enough with the rant and back to the article. Didn’t make sense to me. Had no idea what the author was trying to communicate, nor what his solutions were. Deer in the headlights. Here’s an easier solution for the mill. generation

    1. Preach the gospel
    2. Strive for holiness and separation from the World
    3. Serve your local church
    4. Be content when the Lord has placed you.
    5. Trust in the sufficiency of scripture.
    6. Stop playing the victim mentality and “act like men”

  5. Caleb Reply

    Funny, I’ve always heard that “Millennials” (enough about this already; you should read the concerns about the baby boomers when they were young) are the ones who care too much about social justice issues, according to Gospel Coalition types? And now they (we) “are quiet as a church mouse on public square issues, save for a vocal rejection of past tactics.” Well, which is it? Or is it that you don’t like the positions that Millennials are taking on “public square issues”?

  6. Caleb Reply

    Given the sordid history of the SBC with race, it is kind of rich to put yourself in the “historic tradition of figures like Augustine, Wilberforce…” If you were writing this 50 years ago, you would be exhorting the younger generation not to compromise on racial integration.

  7. Caleb Reply

    Unless Jesus Christ wrote it Himself (or unless the article is 100% Scripture reference), people are always going to–ALWAYS GOING TO–find something to critique. “What’s missing from your article is this…” “What you said here about so and so should be supplemented by saying xyz…” Even if these observations are accurate, we need to understand two things.

    1) It is utterly impossible to fully tackle huge topics in article form. Therefore, when an article addresses a topic, but doesn’t cover the holistic scope of the topic, there is NO NEED to leave critical comments. If you want to see someone cover the full scope of a topic, read novels and dissertations. In these situations, let’s just deal with what the writer DID say. Was there anything said that is worth seconding? Learn how to second.

    2) When we look at articles and PRIMARILY seek to critique it, we end up releasing ourselves from the humbling work of actually applying the good things that WERE included. Say I write an article about seeking God. I include prayer and counsel from people as methods for seeking God. However, I left out other great methods such as scripture reading. When you read that article, the best thing for YOUR benefit would be to take what WAS written and apply it so that your own life can be enriched. Instead, people skip that whole process and complain about what was left out. So all we have are these digital arguments where people basically enjoy hearing themselves talk; and NO ONE allows themselves to be changed.

    We all need to learn to shut it and actually take in the good things that people say.

  8. Brutus Reply

    The best thing that can be said for Millennials is that they are not reproducing themselves. God is visiting the iniquities of the Greatest Generation on the third and fourth generations of them that hate him, as they hated him. The Greatest are the ones who stopped saying No. Now your selfies are your only progeny, your reward. Once you are gone, America as we who can still remember it for what it was will completely cease to exist, but you don’t care because you don’t even have a memory of it because your parents couldn’t teach it to you, in turn because their parents deliberately didn’t teach it to them. Your inheritance perished long ago, and all you can do is posture about the unsuccessful moralism of your forebears. Good luck asking your selfie to change your bedpan when the time comes.

    • Nick Reply

      The reason ‘us millennials’ aren’t ‘reproducing ourselves’ is because we can’t find jobs, thanks to your generation….unless we want to see our children starve to death or become wards of the state in your perfect ‘Amerika’.

      Thank you.

      - N

      PS. I would say God bless, but I’ll settle for ‘See you in Hell.’

  9. David Naas Reply

    I suspect the American Protestant Church model is doomed. The intrusion of politics into religion is one cause (as you state, it ought be the other way around, but politics dominates all other forms of expression these days). Another cause is the lack of depth. Those who base their religion solely on selected Bible verses may preach effectively to the choir, but not to anyone else.
    Without appropriating the treasure found in the 2000 year old history of Christianity, the church is desperately impoverished, and lacking in effectiveness.
    By all means, peruse Augustine, Aquinas, and writers like them. In context.
    And be willing to change to meet the needs of the gospel, rather as so many do, trying to force the gospel into a box of their own contrivance.

  10. Brian Reply

    I agree with all 4 points noted, in general, but specifically on point 2 I would comment. Human flourishing is a key component of the current sexual preference commentary. Logic tells me that perpetuation of one’s family does not come “naturally” out of a homosexual lifestyle. Albeit, one can adopt or have surrogates but, minus that, one cannot have a legacy or truly flourish as humanity within that realm.

    My second comment would be that many Christians in this “millennial” generation are surely taking a stand on some level and I understand the audience focus of the article are “millennials” but the charge should be made to all generations alive today. For example, my generation, (born in late 60′s), saw some Christian leaders, fathers, and friends disregard the biblical principles against adultery and divorce and today we see broken families litter the SBC church scene.

    Semper Reformanda

  11. Hugh H Wilson Jr Reply

    BTW, didn’t Jesus stand before Pontius Pilate, not Caesar?
    I’m older than the Baby Boomers, with no more clarity of vision than when I was the age of today’s millennials.
    I salute prior comments pointing out Christ’s work was more in interpersonal relationships than in grand policy. I strive for world changes one person at a time, using a simple aphorism to define my Christian work: “I’m in sales and service, not management.”
    Nonetheless, I applaud those eloquent believers who can cogently and tirelessly promote the Truth broadly to an often unaccepting world.

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