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John Stonestreet of Summit Ministries analyzes why the young Evangelicals voted so high for Barack Obama

Tuesday, February 3, 2009
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HH: In a sort of related story, I mentioned last week a new Zogby poll had come out. And the new Zogby poll showed that young Evangelicals, ages 18-29, voted for Obama 28%. All right? 28% of young Evangelicals voted for Obama. That is double the number of young Evangelicals that voted for John Kerry four years earlier. That’s a lot of votes. That’s a huge amount of the Obama win. And I’m wondering what’s that say about young Evangelicals. To add that to my series of conversations I’m having about Evangelicals in politics, I asked John Stonestreet, who is the executive director of Summit Ministries in Colorado, www.summit.org, to join me. John and I got to know last summer when I lectured at Summit. I’m going to see him again at the end of March, or actually at the beginning of March when I go over to do the adult conference at Summit. If you want details on that, you go to www.summit.org. John, Happy New Year to you.

JS: Hey, Happy New Year to you, Hugh. It’s great talking to you.

HH: Great to talk to you, and I’m looking forward to seeing you first week in March. Is that going to be a well-attended conference?

JS: Yeah, our numbers are almost double what they were last year, and we’re letting a lot of people know that you’re going to be there, and that’s going to help us.

HH: Well, it’s going to be fun to talk about. I’m spending a lot of time focused on Evangelicals. But today I want to ask you specifically, you deal so much with young people. Are you surprised that 28% of self-identified youngsters, 18-29, not youngsters but young adults, votes for Barack Obama?

JS: Well you know, I mean, I’m kind of a young Evangelical myself. I’m 33 years old. So in one sense, yes, and then in another sense, no. The sense yes is I can’t understand it. I can’t understand why the polls tell us that young Evangelicals are as pro-life or at least as pro-life as their parents, maybe even more, still turned out for the most radically pro-abortion presidential candidate that we’ve ever seen. So in that sense, it’s shocking. But in another sense, I have conversations with these guys, and I know where they’re coming from, so no, it’s actually not.

HH: Where? You said I know where they’re coming from. Where is that place? And what do they think about the Obama abortion agenda, for example?

JS: Well, I think there’s two things on the abortion thing. One is I think a lot of Evangelicals think it’s an old issue. It’s just not in the forefront of their minds. Now it’s not because they don’t hear about it. I think they hear about it all the time. I just don’t think…and they care personally about it. I just think they don’t think that the government answer to that problem is going to work. The other thing is, and I really fear this, in fact this came up at a panel of a Christian college that I’m aware of during the election season, and that is that the abortion issue is a lost issue. And I think there’s a myth going around that in the last ten, fifteen years, no progress has been made on the life issue when in fact, the opposite was true, and within the first two months here, we might see Obama roll back just about all that progress.

HH: Well, you’re referring to the Freedom of Choice Act, and I honestly don’t believe they’re going to have enough votes to put that through the United States Senate, even if they pass it. But we’ll be watching and waiting on that.

JS: I hope you’re right, yeah.

HH: What about other issues, though, because obviously Obama is a generational shift, and he’s very charismatic. He was very cool. But do young Evangelicals, for example, oppose the intervention in Iraq to free a country and bring democracy there?

JS: Oh, yeah. I think here’s the issue. It’s what you said, is he’s cool. I mean, if you think about it, Obama looked like every image of a good leader that we see on TV all the time. And we’ve got to understand this is the most mediated culture ever, mediated generation ever. And so he just looked familiar to them, and McCain did not. I mean, you look at what a good leader is according to every movie, every TV show, you know, and so on, and that’s what Obama looked like. And McCain was never close to that. So I think he was really cool. And then of course, you’ve been harping on this the last several weeks, I don’t think we can overestimate the way Obama used the new media. I mean, it was astounding.

HH: Now how…obviously, Summit has been dealing with high school and young adults for how many years?

JS: 46 years.

HH: 46 years.

JS: Yeah.

HH: So they’ve seen generation after generation flow through their summer conferences, their conferences out around the country, et cetera. And they’re no different from anyone else. When I was there last summer, they’re all texted up, they’re all wired up. They’re all that. But are they less intelligent, John Stonestreet, when it comes to the world than previous generations?

JS: Well, that’s really a good question. I think there is. I mean, our students, I don’t think so. I think we see them, and we see that they want to be challenged. What I fear is that specifically in terms of the Evangelical world, we thought that they’re less intelligent, and so we’ve made them less intelligent. In other words, we think that youth group in church should only be about pizza and yo-yos, and we don’t really challenge them. And what we found is that if you really challenge them, they come alive. Now on the flip side, I think what’s true is that Obama did challenge them. He challenged them not only to vote for him, but to get involved. And he used the new media in a way that no candidate’s ever used it, especially Myobama.com, and Facebook and community groups and all that sort of thing. So I think they actually felt like they owned the campaign, those that did. The stats you threw out earlier about double the number of voters that went out for Obama as opposed to Kerry, I mean, Kerry was just so unattractive. That part doesn’t surprise me. What I haven’t heard, and I wish I could find numbers on this, is how many young Evangelicals stayed home.

HH: Well, the Zogby poll did not give us that. They didn’t talk about turnout.

JS: Yeah, and I’m not sure we could find it. But my suspicion is, because I have talked to a lot of them, is that the abortion thing was still enough to not go with Obama, but McCain just didn’t pull them in.

HH: What about the environmental issue, John Stonestreet? It’s interesting, when I was at Summit last summer, I didn’t hear much talk about it, but Zogby says the Evangelical environmental network is having a huge influence on young Evangelicals.

JS: Oh, absolutely. And I think part of this is that some of the young Evangelical speakers, and in fact, I was just on a blog a few minutes ago, one of them went to the inauguration, and just the absolute fascination, and dare I say pseudo worship of the Obama candidacy, I mean it was just really astounding. But I think what happened is that what some of these young Evangelical writers have done is that they’ve equated other social issues, and especially social justice issues and environmental issues with abortion and homosexuality. And so they put these on the same playing field, and so then the argument becomes well listen, Republicans are with us on two issues, Democrats aren’t with us on those two issues, but they’re with us on these other seven issues, and so then the choice becomes clear.

HH: You know, it’s interesting, John, I’m preparing obviously the adult conference at Summit, it’s a big deal, and so I’ve been doing a lot of work on this and researching what I think, but I want to ask you, as you talk to your faculty, Summit has the best faculty, I mean, you just bring in the smartest guys in the world of Evangelicalism to Colorado Springs to talk to these kids, to these young adults…

JS: Right.

HH: Are they discouraged? Are your faculty discouraged?

JS: No, you know what I’m seeing in a lot of these guys, and in fact, I was just at another meeting of a lot of Evangelical leaders a few weeks ago, and what I’m seeing is that there is an idea now that we’ve got to stop focusing so much on issue by issue by issue. I think the conservative right has done a good job promoting here’s what we believe about this issue, issue, issue. I don’t think they’ve done a good job doing some sort of long term systemic preparation of helping students think from a Biblical framework. And that’s what I’m hearing from our speakers, that is listen, we’ve got to back up, because if a student can’t distinguish between the moral significance of abortion and the moral significance of global warming, we haven’t done our job giving them the foundations from which to think. And that’s really what we’re going after at Summit, and a lot of our professors are doing the same thing, saying listen, I mean, these aren’t morally equivalent issues on any level. So let’s go back and say how should we think before we start approaching these issues? That’s the foundational work I don’t think was done for this generation.

HH: And it’s got to get done. John, I know you’re doing it, in fact. John Stonestreet from Summit Ministries. If you want to read about it, www.summit.org, and if you click on conferences, you’ll see the one I’ll be talking to you March 2nd or 3rd down in Colorado Springs. John, always a pleasure talking to you.

End of interview.

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