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A New Generation Of Faith-Based Activism

Young people are finding new ways to bring together their faith and progressive values.

CREDIT: Flickr user Daniel Bentley.

This guest post was written by Lauren Kokum, special assistant for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress, and Erica West, former intern with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of Generation Progress. 

Older generations often deem Millennials as lackadaisical or noncommittal towards religion. This criticism can largely be attributed to a rising number of young Americans who choose not to formally identify with a religious tradition. Typically referred to as “nones,” this increasing general population of Americans forgo a specific religious affiliation and may shun religious institutions or criticize overtly religious rhetoric in the public square. The nones are young—roughly one in three Americans under 30 (32 percent) identify as such. Yet while religiously unaffiliated Millennials may be skittish to associate with a formal religious group, they are not necessarily anti-religious.

The values that influence the political priorities of nones are shared with affiliated Americans of many religious traditions. A survey from the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life finds the overwhelming majority of the religiously unaffiliated (78 percent) think religion brings people together and helps strengthen community bonds, while 51 percent express concern churches and religious organizations are too concerned with money and power. Many Millennials are simply frustrated by cultural divisions wrought by religion, but still turn to faith as a source of inspiration for achieving a more just world.

Faithful Millennials are finding common ground with supposed adversaries and pointing to a new way forward, as evidenced by the present landscape of young activists working towards LGBTQ equality, racial justice, and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Leading The Movement For LGBTQ Equality

Millennials have been at the helm of historic progress to ensure equal rights and opportunity for LGBTQ people. Beyond engaging in local and national pushes for marriage equality, youth are working towards measures to protect LGBTQ individuals from pervasive discrimination in all vital areas of life. According to a Generation Progress poll, Millennials strongly support—at 65 percent—comprehensive nondiscrimination protections in employment, housing, and public accommodations.

Our nation’s seismic shift away from intolerance and towards full equality for LGBTQ people has been strengthened by voices leant by our nation’s young faithful. A rising collective of Millennials are resoundingly dismantling the view that religion is incompatible with LGBTQ acceptance—embracing equal treatment for all Americans not in spite of, but because of, their faith.

The first openly transgender person to head a mainline Protestant organization, Alex McNeill currently serves as the executive director of More Light Presbyterians. McNeill’s journey to ordination will be chronicled alongside other LGBTQ people of faith in the upcoming film, “Out of Order,” which takes place against the backdrop of the passage of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)’s measure to include same-sex couples in their definition of marriage. McNeill was influential in PCUSA’s vote, and has also organized faith communities in support of Maryland’s same-sex marriage legislation and local ballot measures to promote equal rights for LGBTQ people. Reverend Cameron Partridge, an Episcopal priest, says his transgender status has not hindered, but helped him in his role as one of the first openly transgender chaplains at a major university. Because of his identity, he says, he is able to navigate the diverse intersections of faith and sexuality many students wrestle with. Partridge utilizes his various platforms to foster understanding between congregants and religious leaders in an effort to assimilate transgender people into all forms of ministry.

Matthew Vines, author of “God and The Gay Christian,” is regarded as influential for engaging older, evangelical leaders in the growing acceptance of gay rights. Vines is also president and founder of The Reformation Project, a group that trains clergy, lay leaders, and congregants to provide support for LGBTQ people navigating various aspects of church life. Meanwhile, Justin Massey is encouraging LGBTQ advocacy in another unlikely space: the conservative, evangelical Wheaton College. Feeling isolated as an undergraduate, Massey co-founded Refuge, the first administration-approved campus support group for non-heterosexual or questioning students. In Massey’s words, his sexual identity is “not only compatible with his faith, but absolutely critical.”

Pursuing Racial Justice

Millennials are witnessing a major demographic shift; by the year 2050, people of color will comprise more than half of the nation’s population. Despite being the largest, most racially diverse generation in United States history, many Millennials reject the notion we’re living in a post-racial society. A majority of young people believe race matters and shapes American life. Moreover, they agree racism continues to pose a threat to a harmonious cultural milieu.

A prime pundit on the intersection of race and ethics is self-described “tweetologian” Reverend Broderick Greer. A vocal clergy member giving rise to issues such as police brutality, voter discrimination, and sexual orientation or gender-based violence, Greer amasses his vast social media following to elevate the charge of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Also amplifying her activism through an online presence, Bree Newsome first participated in a sit-in to protest North Carolina’s discriminatory voter ID law in 2013. In June, she garnered public attention once again after being arrested for removing the Confederate flag outside the South Carolina Statehouse. She believes the action was a command of faith:

My prayers are with the poor, the afflicted and the oppressed everywhere in the world, as Christ instructs. If this act of disobedience can also serve as a symbol to other peoples’ struggles against oppression or as a symbol of victory over fear and hate, then I know all the more that I did the right thing … I see no greater moral cause than liberation, equality and justice for all God’s people. What better reason to risk your own freedom than to fight for the freedom of others?

In wake of the public’s moral debate about the Confederate flag, a string of predominantly black churches in the South fell victim to an onslaught of arson attacks. Faatimah Knight, a Muslim theology graduate student, responded by mobilizing her community to fund-raise church rebuilding costs. Her project, Respond With Love, called on a network of Muslim organizations and activists to raise over $100,000 for African American churches impacted by the burnings. Knight’s campaign earned presidential recognition at the latest White House Iftar Dinner, and issued an interfaith call to action to confront nationwide racial tensions.

FaithAdvancing Sexual And Reproductive Health

Millennials have helped build national momentum around the need for access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights for both men and women. Young people are disproportionately affected by poor healthcare coverage, burdensome costs of contraception, and a lack of sexual education or misinformation. What’s more, female Millennials are more likely to be victims of sexual assault or obtain an abortion than any other age group.

According to a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, nowhere is Millennials’ tendency to reject black and white opinions more prevalent than around religion and reproductive health.

That is, Millennials are the “don’t judge” generation when it comes to sexual morality. They respect that one’s personal circumstances guide their reproductive health decisions—even as they vary from their own. Plus, most acknowledge sexual and reproductive healthcare as morally good and essential to the prosperity of families and communities. As Reverend Emma Akpan, a Planned Parenthood organizer and ordained deacon in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, implores: “We must not be silent anymore because the numbers are clear: reproductive health disparities affects women in our pews, and attacks on women’s health nationwide will affect health outcomes of women in our congregations.”

Hope For The Future

Youth activism is a bellwether for social change. Young people may indeed be diverging from the strict adherence to religious doctrine generations before them held. However, this does not dent their pursuit of the values religious leaders profess and faith-based groups are anchored to—justice, equality, and dignity for all. Millennials’ tendency to empathize with the circumstances of their peers challenges the apathetic stereotype levied against them, as well as archaic cultural norms. This bodes well for overcoming societal injustices that have long plagued our nation’s progress.

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