National Day of Prayer Love-Talk Rings Hollow to America’s Biggest Generation
This year, Millennials will overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation. Meanwhile, at National Day of Prayer events, mostly Boomer-led groups will try to soften Evangelicalism’s damaged reputation with the theme “love one another.” To quote the event’s promotional piece,
“Love can change America,” [director Ronnie] Floyd said in announcing the theme to a gathering of leaders from across the country. “We need a baptism of love by the Holy Spirit that will immerse the entire Church of Jesus Christ in America and a baptism of love that will immerse all of America today,” he added later.
All of this rings hollow in the ears of America’s (new) largest generation. And it rings hollow, especially, because evangelical love-talk is bad news for LGBTQ people.
I know this landscape. I founded a thriving Evangelical church in a University town (Ann Arbor) and was a national board member of a denomination that had a seat on the National Association of Evangelicals Executive Committee (Vineyard USA.) Vineyard was an outgrowth of the hippie Jesus movement, led by then-young and counter-cultural Boomers — the generation now in church of Evangelicalism. I spent years trying to help Evangelicalism make room for progressive views on climate change, evolution, and women’s ordination. My book, Letter to My Congregation was the first by an Evangelical pastor in the United States with a large church advocating full LGBTQ inclusion in late 2013. Soon thereafter I refused to fire my colleague, Emily Swan, when she met the woman who would become her wife, incurring the punishing wrath of the Evangelical powers-that-be. Together we started one of the first churches in the country expelled from the evangelical/contemporary worship orbit over LGBTQ inclusion.
The National Day of Prayer — founded by an act of Congress in 1952 — has been run for decades by Evangelical Baby Boomers. (Recent directors include family members of Billy Graham, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, and Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade.) No doubt there will be some Millennials in attendance, but their peers will not be listening.
While Millennials were developing their spirituality in childhood (as we all do), Evangelicalism took a hard turn to mean. By way of perspective, a few years before the first Millennials were born, Evangelicals elected Jimmy Carter, the first openly born-again President — and widely regarded as a man of character and kindness. The Religious Right was just forming to tap Evangelical energy for a host of wedge issues. Today, as Millennials overtake Baby Boomers as our largest generation, Evangelicals have elected Donald Trump, its new face.
But where it really gets personal for Millennials is with their LGBTQ friends and loved ones. It’s hard to find a Millennial who doesn’t have ’em.
So talk of “love one another” rings hollow when “love” means fighting with religious zeal against their friends’ right to marry. It rings hollow when love means fighting with religious zeal against their transgender friends serving in the military. It rings hollow when love means fighting with religious zeal for the “right” of the baker down the street to refuse service to their gay friends, or worse, health care workers whose religious convictions would turn them away. Millennials know that what Evangelicalism now stands for is mean treatment of their friends. (The Evangelical hipster churches know this better than anyone, and that’s why they hide their harmful policies — based, as they are, on the belief that same-gender love is perverse.)
I have five kids who were raised Evangelical and not a one buys any of the evangelical love talk, nor do their most of their friends, and I don’t blame them. Robert Putnam, the demographer who follows religion in the United States says that once a generation in early-adulthood leaves the church, most of them are gone for good. In every young adult generational cohort since the end of World War 2 (Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers, and Millennials) religious affiliation rates have been in decline — and with each generation the rate of decline is sharper. The Millennial early-adulthood decline looks precipitous, and post-Millennials seem hard on their heels in the same direction.
Prattling on about love while advocating policies that can only be described as mean — well, that’s not the way to get your message across when your chosen descriptor for that message is “good.” (“Gospel” or “good news” is the root of the word, evangelical.) Isn’t the point of calling your message “good news” the idea that it sounds like good news to the hearer, who then rejoices instinctively? Is it really good news when the newscaster says, “This news may sound awful to you, but trust me, it’s really good news, because I said so!”
Millennials are not rejoicing at the news that their gay loved ones are either consigned to a life of enforced celibacy (after failed attempts to “cure” them that can amount to psychological torture) or to an eternity of conscious torment. (If you think I’m exaggerating on that “psychological torture” claim — an evangelical mega-church pastor who hosts a “healing ministry” for gay people told me that he tells each new gay man in the healing ministry not to pray for healing, lest it lead to suicide. I kid you not.)
OK. I’m getting a little hot under the collar. But that’s because I was immersed in Evangelicalism and I know how the Evangelical Machine reacts when one of its own crosses the party line. But most Millennials are not hot under the collar, not at all. They will have heard nothing of the National Day of Prayer love-talk. To them, it’s just part of the religious background noise making life hard for the people they love.