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Evangelicals and voting: speakers encourage young Christians to engage in politics

Faith and politics: the topics that make for interesting and often unwelcome discourse around the table during Thanksgiving. Conversations on these topics are somewhat polarizing and John Fea, speaker at the Reimagining Faith in Political Engagement at JBU, said, “The two things you are never supposed to discuss in polite company, we’re here to spend an evening discussing.”

Fea is the author of “Believe Me,” a book describing the evangelical road to President Donald Trump’s election. The book expounds on the well-known statistic that 81 percent of white evangelical voters supported President Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

Fea, a historian for over 20 years said, “The argument goes something like this: ‘white evangelicals turned to Donald Trump in such large numbers because they have privilege.’” Fea said he thought evangelical voters voted with, “Fear over hope in their politics. They have privileged the pursuit of political power over a politics driven by humility. And they have privileged nostalgia for a golden age that may or may not have ever existed.”

Jonathan Leeman, long time pastor and advocate, also weighed in on the subject during the forum. “[Americans need to] loosen their grip on the fact that they are Americans just long enough to let Jesus define who we are for us, and then use that for the good of others, whether Americans or those who are not Americans,” Leeman said.

Fea encouraged voters, especially young voters, to use the midterms as an opportunity to share their voice. Actual turnout among voters under 30 has been about 26 points lower than the turnout rate of those 60 and older in presidential election years — and about 38 points lower in midterm years, according to the Washington Post.

Fea said this is because of  cynicism regarding the election process. “If you’re talking about millennial and Gen Z Christians, I think people are getting fed up with the culture wars,” Fea said. “Young people are saying there’s such polarization in society; I think they’re looking for common ground for some kind of authenticity in the people they want to represent them.” Fea has children aged 17 and 21, and he said he sees this trait in them. “They can see right through people,” he said. “You can see right through when someone is out there for political gain or disingenuous. If there’s anything that describes that generation, it is for sort of an authentic democracy, authentic Christian faith and they’re not seeing it, and they’re cynical.”

Leeman encouraged young people to get involved in their local community and local government as a way to spur political interest and remind themselves of their purpose as advocates. Also, Leeman said that to better understand the world we live in and those he can give voice to through his involvement in politics, he tries to build relationships with people who are different than him.

“I think quite often it’s actually a sense of responsibility in that I know a lot of young people don’t want to vote casually, they want to vote in an informed way,” Rachel Maxson, a John Brown University research librarian, said about young voters not turning out to vote. “If they don’t have time to do the research or if they don’t have the local paper so they don’t have the access to the research, or if they’ve moved and don’t know what the local issues are, a lot of times they will choose not to vote precisely because they value voting. Other priorities push it aside.”

“Don’t just think about your voting in terms of national elections: senators and congressmen and so forth. Think about it in terms of what kind of local change you can make voting for school boards and state legislature. Those choices will have much more of a direct effect and you can actually tangibly see changes in society based on those local kind of elections,” Fea said, “I think most college students vote every four years or maybe every two years. But, if we could start to see politics in a more local context. . .and I would say the best way to get energized about electoral politics is to volunteer. You find a candidate that you believe in, go stuff envelopes. Go sign up, a couple hours a week. It energizes you about the process. Get involved in something greater than yourself.”

“I don’t believe that my one vote is going to sway the outcome of the election, but it’s a way of showing support for and investment in the society of which I am a part,” Maxson said. “A vote is a pretty simple part that we all can do, and if we have the right to do that, then it’s worth it to take the time and look over the local issues and make a choice to participate in that way.”