In late March of 2012, Richard Land—the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and one of the few remaining scions of the Religious Right—watched his career unravel over the span of a few months. Just weeks after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, Land responded to a question about racial profiling on his weekly radio show by launching into a denunciation against African-American leaders, who he said were using Martin’s death to “gin up the black vote” before a presidential election. Prominent Baptist ministers immediately called for Land’s head, but the worst was yet to come. Two weeks after the broadcast came the revelation that Land hadn’t even come up with the offensive remarks himself. He had plagiarized much of his comments about the Martin case from a Washington Times columnist.
By June, the SBC had reprimanded Land and canceled his radio show. Two months later, he announced his retirement. In a long-form profile at National Journal’s new magazine, journalist Tiffany Stanley chronicles Land’s decline, writing that “if Land has moved on from his role as a leader of the Religious Right, the reverse is also true: The Religious Right is in the process of moving on from him.” Stanley argues that the Christian conservative movement is scaling back, eschewing the political wheeling-and-dealing and inflammatory remarks that characterized Land’s style. His successor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Russell Moore, still opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, but Moore tells Stanley that Christianity shouldn’t fit so neatly into the mainstream culture—rather than driving the Republican Party’s platform, it’s okay for Christianity to seem “freakish” or “strange.” His pullback from political action, according to Stanley, may stem from one plain fact: The Southern Baptist Convention is hemorrhaging followers, in large part because of its inability to keep Millennials in the pews.
There’s no question that younger Americans are wary of evangelical Christianity. This is due, in part, to evangelical leaders like Land who remain pugnacious about gay rights issues, despite younger Americans’ overwhelming support for same-sex marriage. Nearly 7-in-10 (69 percent) Millennials (age 18-33) support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, including 50 percent of Millennial Republicans. Only one-quarter (25 percent) of Millennials agree that evangelical Christian churches are somewhat or very friendly toward gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. Meanwhile, in a survey of younger Millennials (age 18-24) conducted in 2012, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) agreed that “anti-gay” describes Christianity somewhat or very well. More than 6-in-10 (62 percent) younger Millennials also agreed that present-day Christianity could be described as “judgmental.”
Younger evangelicals, too, aren’t necessarily willing to step back into the trenches of the culture wars. As Stanley notes, PRRI research shows that 43 percent of young white evangelicals support legalizing same-sex marriage. They lean away from their elders on other hot-button issues like marijuana—nearly 6-in-10 (59 percent) Millennial evangelicals favor legalizing pot.
Moore is betting that wooing young Christians back into the fold will require just a simple fix: dialing down the fiery rhetoric and taking a step back from politics, without abandoning the political process entirely. But it may take more than a gentler tone to bring Millennials into groups like the Southern Baptist Convention. As PRRI Research Director Daniel Cox noted last week in a piece for the Huffington Post, the appeal to protest affronts on “religious liberty”—a tactic that Stanley says is the Religious Right’s replacement for “family values”—won’t resonate among most young adults. Only 41 percent of Millennials agree that religious liberty is being threatened in the U.S. today, compared to 61 percent of seniors (age 65+).
Land, who took a job as the head of a small Southern Baptist seminary after leaving the SBC, is focusing on training the next generation of culture warriors. The question is whether his strategy will resonate across a profound generational divide.