Why you should care
Because maybe this movement is what Christian millennials have been waiting for.
A. J. Swoboda sat shaking in his bedroom in Portland, Oregon. The young, conservative pastor had just binge-watched news covering President Donald Trump’s executive order banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States. With a pit in his stomach, the evangelical Christian picked up his phone to do something he had never done before: call his congressional representatives to express his dismay. Aside from voting, it was his first political act — and for a leader of a politically diverse congregation, it was a daring one. “Something cracked. I just felt like God wanted me to call my senators,” he says. The hardest part came toward the end of the call, when Swoboda was asked his name. “I almost wanted to lie,” confesses the pastor, who says he’d long held politics and theology apart.
But he gave his name, and more: After hanging up, Swoboda texted about 50 of his pastor friends. Nearly 20 of them decided to make calls too. And now a group of conservative pastors is penning a public letter to Portland’s mayor in support of refugees.
Swoboda leads an unusual congregation in which Trump supporters and a large refugee community worship together. He’s part of a new slice of Christian conservatives engaging in a political “coming out” of sorts, spurred by their faith in Jesus and what they see as gross injustice. These evangelicals are asserting pro-life beliefs entail holding human life sacred from the womb to the tomb — which to them necessitates a pro-immigrant, pro-refugee stance. The result is the stirrings of a new Christian coalition. “For evangelicals to be able to come together around something, it takes a miracle. In a weird way, this is going to bring Christians together,” he says.
Amid nationwide protests, phone calls and letters may seem like small acts, but for many people of the cloth, it’s a radical departure from the status quo. The evangelical approach to social justice has typically consisted of private charitable works, not political advocacy. “In North America, churches have been well trained to just be ATMs,” argues Jason Fileta, director of the Micah Challenge. The refugee ban, he says, brought a long-simmering movement to a boil. Take April Kletke, a 28-year-old conservative, pro-life Christian from California’s Central Valley. “Especially with the election, it’s hard to continue to respect certain people I know and used to respect,” she says. But when she posted on Facebook about her pro-life, pro-refugee stance, she was surprised by who and how many people from her faith responded positively.
For many conservative Christians, Trump’s campaign and election spurred a crisis of faith. The old guard, the Christian right, backed Trump publicly during the election, while some millennial conservative Christians felt a disconnect. “These policies are not right with the Christian faith,” says Kletke, who voted Republican until the 2016 election, referring to limits and bans on refugees. As in the Catholic Church, now led by a pope with roots in liberal theology, a deep divide among Protestants has become evident. There are two pro-life movements, says Fileta. On the one hand is a “political” pro-life movement focused solely on abortion and the desire to overturn Roe v. Wade. On the other is “theological” pro-life, which, Fileta says, opposes abortion but also is dedicated to “the flourishing of all things.”
Trump’s executive order may have been a catalyst, but the ingredients for a next-gen Christian conservatism have long been latent, with a growing generational divide between older Christian conservatives and their children and grandchildren. By 2015, the percentage of people who identified as evangelical Protestants was down 8 percent from 2007, according to a study by Pew Research Center. That’s coupled with the fact that millennials generally are leaving religion behind, according to the study, with the proportion who call themselves religiously unaffiliated up from 25 percent to 34 percent over the same time period.
One factor, according to observers, is that millennials don’t necessarily see their religion as relevant. Some realize, rather suddenly, “Oh, my doctrine of not smoking and not drinking doesn’t do anything about things like Syria,” as Fileta puts it. Others dislike what they describe as a focus on restrictions. In some Christian churches, faith is “described in negatives — don’t do this or don’t do that, as opposed to the idea that the Christian lifestyle should be life-affirming and positive,” says Stephen Christy, 32, who is deeply involved in youth ministry and two churches in Dallas.
Research, meanwhile, shows millennials at large want to associate with causes, brands and even religions that hold clearer-cut convictions. “Young people overwhelmingly say, ‘I appreciate when brands make their values clear,’ ” says Rob Callender, director of youth insights at research organization Kantar Futures. For many, the most pressing cause is the plight of refugees, and not abortion, which saw rates fall by 35 percent between 1990 and 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Swoboda considers Trump’s immigration executive order as a redemptive opportunity for Christians, a moment to do the right things in a long history of sometimes doing the wrong thing. His inspiration? Mother Teresa. Now, when he looks out to his congregation of 30 Congolese refugees and families from Iraq and Syria, they’ll know he’s on their team. “I’ve always been on their team quietly, but more and more they need to know people around are going to stick up for them,” he says.