Evangelicalism's bitter 20-somethings
by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Wednesday, January 26, 2011, at 3:45 pm
Is it me or does it seem that many kids reared in affluent conservative evangelical communities become bitter people in their 20s? I've recently read blog posts and articles by 20-somethings reared in suburban evangelicalism that seem to be committed to doing one thing: attacking the very community that raised them and doing it bitterly. I call them "the Bitters."
How the Bitters communicate fits Ronald Inglehart's thesis from the early 1970s about post-materialist young people. Inglehart wrote that when children grow up in abundance, like many suburban evangelical kids, they are more concerned as young adults with "self-expression" than they are hard work and survival-the concerns of those who grew up struggling with scarcity.
Adding to that, Bill Bishop, in The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, writes that children of abundance become post-materialist young adults who lose interest in organized religion and become increasingly focused on personal spirituality. Economic growth and military security decline in political importance and are replaced by issues like personal freedom, abortion rights, social justice, and the environment. These young adults are less inclined to obey central authority and lose trust in hierarchical institutions. Finally, they harbor resentment for the big organizations that created America's modern, industrial society: big business, traditional church denominations, traditional family structures, and so on.
The Bitters, who tend to gravitate toward Christian hipster culture, are on a mission to expose the "conservative conspiracy" wherever they can find it (or create it) under the guise of "healthy critique." Bitters define themselves by what they are not. If their parents are Republicans they become staunch Democrats. If their parents are in a conservative church, Bitters will find a more liberal church. Bitters choose "the left" because it's not "the right." There is no greater sin for Bitters than sounding like you might be "conservative."
To define one's identity in terms of being "not like them" seems cowardly. The longing for self-expression Inglehart discussed in his thesis may be a longing to be heard and affirmed, because many kids of affluence are ignored in homes where meaningful participation in family life is communicated as optional. Bitters likely feel deeply insignificant, like they don't matter. They probably weren't "cool" in high school. Craving affirmation, Bitters want someone to pay attention to them-finally. The easiest way get attention is to protest things dear to the hearts of their elders. "You're paying attention now aren't you," the Bitter protests. The great irony is that Bitters still want connection to their formerly conservative communities. If you're really "done" with something you don't waste time attacking it; you just ignore it and leave it alone. I could be wrong about the Bitters. I hope so. But what I do see is a group of 20-somethings wasting their time on a quest that will never deliver the revolution that it promises. You are what you are, not what you are not.
Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.