On a muggy evening earlier this summer, a hundred and fifty sticky worshippers poured out of the Clef Club, in Center City, Philadelphia. On Sunday nights, the jazz club hosts the Block Church, a group of young evangelicals who planted thriving congregations in Philadelphia, in 2014, and Mesquite, Texas, in 2017. Worship involves a lot of high-energy hopping around while Christian rockers shred onstage. “There’s no wall you won’t kick down, lie you won’t tear down!” the Block worship team sang before a congregation clad in black T-shirts with white crosses, Vans, and jeans ripped out at the knees.
After the service, the earnest crowd filled a block of South Broad Street, chatting about the beginning of the Book of James, the subject of that evening’s sermon, which Pastor Joey Furjanic, who was on vacation, had delivered by recorded video. James, he’d preached, had been speaking to a scattered church, early followers of Jesus who’d left Jerusalem and were wandering around the ancient world as “immigrants and refugees.” James was telling young Christians how to put their faith into action, which the Block Church attendees were discussing. Across the street, two firefighters, occupying lawn chairs outside a firehouse, looked on at the unusually effervescent and sober group. Although such images of hipster Christians have grown familiar, the spirit among them reflected something new.
At the Block Church, black, white, and Latino evangelicals were worshipping together, which is still a rare sight. During the past decade, evangelicalism has grown more diverse: as the number of white believers has declined, the Latino evangelical population has increased dramatically.
Even so, eighty-six per cent of evangelical churches remain segregated, a statistic from the National Congregations Study at Duke University, which Robert P. Jones cites in his book “The End of White Christian America.” From a distance, evangelicalism can appear culturally monolithic—nearly eighty per cent of white evangelicals support President Trump, according to the Public Religion Research Institute—but many young evangelicals are more diverse, less nationalistic, and more heterodox in their views than older generations. Believing that being a Christian involves recognizing the sanctity of all human beings, they support Black Lives Matter and immigration reform, universal health care and reducing the number of abortions, rather than overturning Roe v. Wade.
“We are Ambassadors of Heaven first, and Americans second,” Furjanic, the head pastor of Block Church, told me. Furjanic, who is thirty-two, was born in Bristol, Pennsylvania. When he was three years old, his family moved to Orlando, and he and his parents accepted Jesus and became born-again Christians at the Faith Assembly church. He attended Southwestern University, in Dallas, where he played football and served as a youth pastor. After college, he travelled through Europe and helped out in churches before moving to upstate New York, where he met his wife. Together they moved to Illinois, and then back to Philadelphia, five years ago, to start the Block Church, “a place where social, economic, religious and political walls are torn down,” its Web site reads. For young believers at Block and elsewhere, the ubiquity of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social networks in their lives, among other factors, have made it more difficult to live in the kind of theological, cultural, and political isolation that previous generations once did. And, as their secular peers embrace more fluid identities in regard to sexuality and race, young evangelicals are also beginning to see such positions in shades of gray rather than in black and white. There are other factors, too, related to globalization: the exponential growth of fellow-believers in the Global South; the growing diversity of evangelicals in the U.S., driven in part by the influx of immigrants who arrive in American churches with their own dynamic faith. The result is that younger evangelicals are speaking out on issues like family separation at the border, climate change, police brutality, and immigration reform––causes not typically associated with the evangelical movement. In the continuing moral outrage at the border, which includes nearly six hundred children still displaced in New York City alone, many see the faces of themselves and their families.
“The pushback I see is on the God and Country idea,” Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Billy Graham Center, at Wheaton College in Illinois, told me. “Younger evangelicals are not as ready to jump into patriotism,” he went on. “They love their country. They love their faith. They just don’t want those things inappropriately mixed.” Most of the young evangelicals I met don’t consider themselves liberal or conservative. Despite being ardently pro-life, they weren’t sure whom they’d vote for in the upcoming midterms or in the 2020 Presidential election. “I’m going to vote for whoever aligns with scripture,” Kassy Mayer, who graduated from Liberty University in May, majoring in women’s leadership, told me. “I don’t really know who that will be at this point.”
One evening this summer at the Block Church, I met Julio Colón-Laboy, a clean-cut and soft-spoken twenty-year-old who was manning a card table outside the Clef Club with a plate of chocolate-chip cookies. He had a sign-up sheet for a small discussion group, which would be reading the Book of James verse by verse together all summer.
Colón-Laboy left his post to sit on the stoop of the Jazz club, still warm at 8 p.m. from the hot June sun, and talk about the complexities and frustrations of being a young Christian. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in poverty in Philadelphia, Colón-Laboy grew up in a family that didn’t talk about God. At fourteen, suffering from severe depression, he attempted suicide, and spent a month and a half in a mental institution. When he got out, he told me, “I needed something bigger worth believing in.”
In 2014, the Block Church opened in his neighborhood, and he joined the congregation. Since then, he has graduated from high school and received a scholarship to the University of Vermont. It wasn’t easy to be an evangelical Christian up in Yankee Burlington. “When I say, ‘Hey, I’m a Christian,’ people think I have guns on me that no one can take and that I picket outside abortion clinics,” he told me. “As a young Christian who cares about social justice, it breaks my heart to be lumped in with this identity.” At the University of Vermont, Colón-Laboy is the vice-president of the Latinx Alliance. In 2017, the Trump Administration cancelled daca, the Obama-era policy that protected undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. After a federal judge issued an injunction, students had to reapply or risk deportation. Colón-Laboy successfully lobbied the university to pay the reapplication fee of five hundred dollars per student. But he also opposes abortion rights, which makes his politics difficult to classify along traditional lines. “My activism is very personal,” he said. “I’ve talked to numerous people considering options when they’re pregnant. They come to me, saying, ‘Hey, I know you’re a Christian. Can you help me?’ ” As a result of his quiet guidance, he said, “Lots of people have had kids they wouldn’t have.”
Among younger Christians like Colón-Laboy, it isn’t unusual to oppose abortion but support immigration rights. Many are no longer willing to ally themselves categorically with either the right or the left. Instead, they challenge all kinds of ideas of identity and tribe. The separation of families at the border, however, coalesced young Christians around a new level of outrage.
“It’s wicked and absolutely evil for this regime to treat children like they are disposable,” Ekemini Uwan, a thirty-six-year-old public theologian who recently completed a Masters of Divinity Studies at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, told me. “And I’m supposed to believe that Trump is pro-life?” For Uwan, who became a born-again Christian while at California State University, Northridge, in Southern California, being pro-life, rather than anti-abortion, also involves protecting people’s rights to health care and education. “If you’re weeping for the child who has been aborted, you should be weeping for Trayvon Martin and black mothers in Flint who are experiencing miscarriages as a result of lead poisoning,” she told me. Uwan is in many ways theologically conservative, yet she prefers to call herself a black Christian rather than an evangelical. “Historically, it really means white and Republican, and I am neither,” she said. Instead, Uwan is a Democrat and a public theologian and a supporter of Black Lives Matter who believes that, in addition to her faith, she must always consider the marginalized people for whom her votes matter. “I’m thinking about what’s going to be best for immigrants,” she said. As a black Christian, she sets herself in the tradition of women like Ida B. Wells and Sojourner Truth. Her faith requires her to reject politics that discriminate.
Uwan is also part of a growing trend of young Christians who view themselves as theological conservatives rather than political ones. To them, this shift marks a return to a more authentic way to follow the teachings of Jesus, without the taint of the conservative politics with which older evangelicals have imbued the text. These younger believers contend they aren’t looser in any way in their approach to scripture—in fact, they say the opposite. By following the words and actions of Jesus as revealed by God in the Bible, they believe they are being more faithful believers, eschewing worldly politics altogether. They remain deeply committed to the tenet of Biblical inerrancy, and the idea that the Bible, as a whole, is divine revelation. “It’s the inspired word of God,” Uwan said. “God’s gracious act of communicating himself in a way we can understand.” But their emphasis is different from that of older white evangelicals who frequently turned to scripture verses––often out of context or in isolation, believers like Uwan argue––as a weapon in the culture wars of the eighties and nineties. These younger believers focus more on the example of Jesus’s life in the Gospels. Jesus practiced a radical love, Colón-Laboy told me on the stoop. “This dude was breaking down gender roles and taking on racial issues that made people around him hate him,” he said.
For younger evangelicals, the political fights waged by previous generations no longer hold the sway they once did. Many told me that their focus in reading the Bible is on broader questions, such as, How shall I live? “Young evangelicals don’t have any skin in the game when it comes to fights over Biblical literalism,” Jonathan Merritt, the author of the recently published “Learning to Speak God from Scratch,” told me. Merritt, a journalist who writes for The Atlantic and the son of James Merritt, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, is accustomed to acting as a translator between the faith-based and secular worlds.
He calls for Christians to stop relying on old, culturally conservative terms, like “lost,” to define people who have different beliefs from theirs, and invites his fellow-evangelicals to reconsider the feminine aspect of God. After all, being “born again” invokes feminine imagery: only mothers can give birth to children, and yet “born again” Christians often consider God solely masculine. Merritt’s most controversial argument revolves around homosexuality—a word in traditional evangelical circles often encoded by “brokenness.” According to P.R.R.I., fifty-three per cent of evangelicals between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine now support same-sex marriage, but the theological debate over homosexuality is still a fraught one. Merritt was outed in 2012 after having a homosexual encounter with a gay blogger. He doesn’t believe, however, that being called “broken” defines his complex sexual orientation or that of thousands of other Christians like him. “Being called ‘broken’ is a source of shame,” Merritt said. It implies that something needs fixing when, Merritt argues, it doesn’t.
Yet no matter how progressive his positions on many social issues, Merritt continues to oppose abortion. “I’m personally pro-life,” he told me. “But would I pull a lever and overturn Roe v. Wade? The answer is no.” Merritt’s view is common among his fellow-believers: that abortion is wrong, and there are ways to work on reducing it without overturning the law of the land. Ekemini Uwan agrees. “I’m not pro-repealing Roe v. Wade,” she told me. As law of the land, the landmark decision should stand. “That’s why I oppose Brett Kavanaugh as well.” She went on, “Let’s move forward. Let’s not go back and fight wars we’ve already lost.” This was less of a political calculation than a practical reality. It would be nearly impossible to overturn the law, and there were more pressing issues. “We should be dealing with kids locked in cages right now,” she told me.
Since the 2016 election, Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University, has examined evangelical identity, separating its history from its current association with Trump supporters. In “Still Evangelical?,” a recent collection of essays by Christian leaders, Prior writes that for three hundred years being “evangelical” has involved making a conscious choice to be a Christian rather than simply being born one. She still firmly believes in this and other tenets of the faith, such as the primacy of scripture, which puts more emphasis on the Bible than on church tradition or personal experience—as well as the role of activism, which encompasses social reform, beginning with evangelicals calling for the abolition of slavery.
All of these aspects of what she calls theological, rather than cultural, conservatism keep her in the church.
“All my adult life, I’ve felt like a misfit,” she told me. “I don’t fit into the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. What I see is this new generation of evangelicals who are likewise.” Prior sees this youthful awakening, born out of the 2016 election, unfolding at Liberty, particularly among students in the humanities, where there’s a long tradition of questioning interpretation of language. “They’re deeply rooted in scripture and an activist spirit,” she told me. “Our origins were in eighteenth-century stances against slavery,” she said. “It’s taken us a few centuries, but we’re getting back to a more holistic approach on social issues.” But that doesn’t mean that either Prior or younger Christians were headed for a full embrace of the political left. “Those who push back against us call us social-justice warriors, which is hilarious,” she said. Prior is deeply conservative, but for her that’s not about politics; it has to do with reading the Bible and adhering to conservative readings of scripture, which include opposition to same-sex unions, among other issues.
“Ask the real progressives, because we are not.”
Reverend Samuel Rodriguez, who is forty-eight and was raised in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and the senior pastor of New Season Christian Worship Center, in Sacramento, California. On a given Sunday, he preaches to five thousand worshippers. Around fifty per cent are millennials or belong to Generation Z. When we spoke by phone earlier this summer, he described the shift between the older members of his congregation, whom he called the “Billy Graham generation” and younger members he called “the Martin Luther King, Jr., generation.” The older generation was more concerned with what he called “vertical” Christianity—issues like “religious liberty, and life and Biblical inerrancy”; the younger members “are more about social justice, police shootings, and mass incarceration,” he went on. “Here’s the irony, though,” he told me. “They’d also go out and march against partial birth abortions.”
Because an overwhelming majority of evangelicals helped elect Trump, Rodriguez sees both an opportunity and a responsibility to serve as what he calls “a prophetic firewall.” He told me, “The onus of making sure social-justice issues are addressed rests on evangelicals because of our political clout. The community that elected this President is now morally and Biblically responsible for issues of justice.” For Rodriguez, who served as a member of President Obama’s abortion-reduction task force, in 2009, justice involves a pro-life agenda, but it also includes safeguarding daca, and speaking out against the children torn from their parents at the border. Rodriguez didn’t support the election of President Trump. “I did not and will not endorse any candidate ever,” he wrote to me by e-mail later. But he believes that the evangelical community has substantial influence over him, given the large numbers who voted for Trump. On issues such as “prison and sentencing reform, religious liberty, and addressing religious persecution around the world,” the evangelical community could push Trump, and he’d already demonstrated a willingness to take action.
As Reverend Rodriguez and I spoke over the phone, I noticed his voice sounded scratchy and raw. The night before, he’d preached to a crowd of at least five thousand young evangelicals at the Church of God National Youth Convention in Indianapolis, he said. His son Nathan, who is twenty-four and often travels with him, was in the audience. Reverend Rodriguez asked what line had received the best response among his young listeners. Nathan repeated back the pastor’s exhortation: “We can’t be married to the agenda of the donkey or the elephant. We must be married to the party of the lamb.”
This emerging commitment to justice among his fellow-Christians went “far beyond questions of Democrat and Republican,” he said. Being a believer involved making difficult moral calls that didn’t align with left and right. Yet Pastor Rodriguez felt certain that young voters would continue to veer away from the Democratic Party and vote to reëlect Trump. Obama had represented a more nuanced position, calling abortion “a moral and ethical issue,” and said that the question of when life begins was “above my pay grade.” Since then, in Rodriguez’s purview, Clinton and the rest of the Democratic Party had slid to the left. As evidence, he cited her unapologetic and unqualified support for Roe v. Wade during the Presidential debates, which women’s-rights advocates loved precisely because it lacked the usual hedging of politicians. “Talk about building a wall,” he said. “The Democrats have built a massive wall between Bible-believing Christians and themselves almost exclusively on abortion.”
Meanwhile, as Reverend Rodriguez pointed out, President Trump has given evangelical voters much of what they wanted. On the issue of religious liberty and with the Supreme Court nomination of Kavanaugh, he has proved his support for the issues that evangelicals most care about. He has loosened restrictions that prohibit religious organizations from supporting political candidates, by signing “The Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” And Christians don’t have to endorse the President in order to vote for him. In an e-mail, J. D. Greear, the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention, whose election is widely seen as an embrace of a younger, more progressive strain in the country’s largest evangelical denomination, put it this way: “One person said to me, ‘I know that when you elect a President, we are electing a thousand people (in the form of judges and executive officials). I don’t really care for Trump, but I like the thousand that I think will come with him more than the thousand Hillary Clinton has promised she will bring with her.’ ”
For many younger and more diverse evangelicals, this political calculation isn’t as simple. Some, like Colón-Laboy, are still uncertain about their views on repealing Roe, which might further disadvantage the Latino and African-American communities. He is specifically worried about repealing “the law of the land,” for the unintended consequences, which are likely to disadvantage poorer communities. “For people of color, there are so many things that prevent people from succeeding. A poor kid’s life and a well-off one are both God-ordained,” he went on. “We need to look at the sanctity of life both in the womb and after. Since the government isn’t doing that, we as a church need to.”