The Disciple Generation -- Kelly Baker

The Disciple Generation
Kelly Baker

While pundits are lauding the death of the Religious Right, Lauren Sandler, a journalist who has worked for NPR and was a fellow at NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program, suggests that this larger label occludes the rising generation of youth and young adults that live and breath conservative politics and conservative Christianity. In Righteous, she explores the ways in which evangelical youth culture subverts and reinvents the political tactics of their predecessors, like the late Jerry Falwell and James Dobson.

The “Disciple Generation” is her moniker for this movement, which includes disciples that like punk rock, Jesus tattoos, kitschy shirts about salvation, dreds, piercings and skateboards. These young men and women are unabashedly pro-life, Republican, pro-Intelligent Design (see Randall Stephen's previous post on ID), supporters of “traditional” gender norms, and often anti-institutions. Sandler documents skateboard preachers, pro-life concert organizers, Christian rappers and tattooed adherents that somehow have not found their spiritual needs fulfilled in the evangelical churches of their mothers and fathers (or sometimes, the lack of religion among their parents), but they support the religious and political ideologies of their parents. Moreover, Sandler believes that the tactics of the Disciple Generation are quite effective to recruit teens and disaffected twenty-somethings to this “emerging” movement. Rather than holding “old-time revivals”, the ministers that she documents hold concerts, skateboarding exhibitions, and create church spaces in which the young are more comfortable. (By this, I think she means those of my generation prefer to sip lattes, listen to rock, and have sacred space without traditional iconography of Jesus. Instead, we would, of course, prefer abstract, metal crosses, purple interiors, and “cool” lighting.)

What Sandler alludes to is simply that this generation is being ignored in larger discussions of the Religious Right. Instead, many (as we can see from the two previous posts by John Turner and John Fea) are seeing the old vanguard of the Religious Right as a dying breed. This, naturally, means that the Religious Right is declining, and that those of the religious left and the secular left can breathe a deep sigh of relief. However, if we take Sandler’s claim of a rising Disciple Generation that encompasses a multitude of subcultures in an attempt to reclaim Christian prominence in America, then maybe the label of Religious Right is not so effective any more. For Sandler, there’s a new movement a brewing, and it’s “scary.” She writes:

For all their oblation, one must not overlook the fact that the Disciple Generation is foremost a growing fundamentalist population. The apocalyptic imagination, the annihilation of the individual, the subjugation of women, the resistance to competing ideas—all these startling facets of the movement are conventional aspects of fundamentalism of any kind, anywhere (Sandler 239).

This generation is “slouching toward Babylon”, and Sandler is most concerned because they seem to be off the radar (Sandler 233). All of the teens and twenty-somethings imbibe the ideology of the Religious Right, but they use their own, possibly more effective, methods to accomplish their goals. Despite her insight into this “emerging” movement, Sandler’s work often reads as a nightmarish tale of what might happen if these movements take over, and I get a keen sense that she wants the reader to be terrified of these young evangelicals and their powers at grassroots organizing. Yet her book is provocative because of the population she sheds light on (the numbers of this generation seem to be murky) and because it leads me to question, as previous posts have, whether we should ring the death knell of the Religious Right. Or if we can deny that some movements still see the necessity of Christian prominence in America to right the wrongs, even if the adherents are skateboarders.


Anonymous said…
In quickly leafing through Sandler's book, it appeared to me to read as an expose intending (as you suggested) to scare people about evangelicals. I can't claim to have read it carefully, but it's interesting to me that it seems to conflict with many studies documenting a more progressive younger generation of evangelicals. I'm not fully convinced either way on the question, but I wasn't very impressed with Sandler's anecdotal reports.
Kelly J. Baker said…
Additionally, I was not impressed by Sandler's account because her information is at best anecdotal and her "quantitative" data is questionable. I think she overstates her case like many books recently on evangelicals, but I would like to see scholars analyze this population along with the "more progressive younger generation of evangelicals."

I definitely am not recommending the book (I picked up for all of $3 at Borders) as a thoughtful approach to the so-called "disciple generation" but rather to as a method to complicate the already ambiguous label of the Religious Right and what it is supposed to encompass. In other words, how do skateboarding ministers mesh with our current vision of Religious Right leaders in suits and ties?

It is not just about suits and ties, but about about ideology. Evangelicalism typically proports and exclusive claim to truth.

Kelly J. Baker said…

I didn't say that it wasn't about ideology nor does Sandler. She traces similar ideology among her informants to the folks that are usually viewed as the leaders of the Religious Right. What Sandler points out is that her informants approach this ideology in different ways than their predecessors, but they are still committed to spreading their understanding of religious truth.
I see. I have not read the book. I was simply scrolling through the blog and misunderstood your statement.

I see by your own site that our interests in religion and culture are somewhat similar.

Lindsey said…
I too would like to see what Sandler would say about the emerging progressive movement among young evangelicals. Authors like Donald Miller and Shane Claiborne have made quite a stir among young Christians, and their message isn't anywhere near the ideologies of the RR. As an insider, I have seen a rise in both movements, but among the younger generation there is a strong progressive movement that shouldn't be ignored.
Brian McLaren, a leader of the Emergent church, is a great source for progressive evangelicalism. In fact, some within this movement consider themselves post-evangelical.

Robert Cornwall said…
I'm new to your blog and don't know the book under consideration, but from what I've been reading this younger generation is much more liberal than the one preceding it. GenX was, apparently the most conservative generation in years, but the so called Millennials are much more open politically and theologically.

I've also read reports from within the Evangelical movement suggesting that within ten years only about 4% of young people will be evangelical -- there is in essence the fear that they (like we Mainliners) are losing their kids. Of course only time will tell!

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