Why Young Evangelicals Voted for Obama

V.Doug Paul was born in July 1981 in Richmond, Va.—demographics that make his birth, in a sense, historic. He was born, six months after Ronald Reagan's inauguration, to conservative Christian parents who knew for the first time the thrill of voting for a candidate who represented their values, Christian values. Graduates of Oral Roberts University, Gregg and Glenda Paul had thrown themselves into the Reagan campaign, canvassing and making calls. "I liked the direction he was going. I liked his ability to communicate," remembers Gregg. "I liked that he was very much pro-life, less government." When Reagan won, the Pauls felt they had contributed to his landslide.

In Doug's childhood home, a prayer was said over every meal. The family went to church so frequently that Doug imagined it was never closed. He didn't knowingly hear a secular pop song until he was in the ninth grade: he thought Michael Jackson was a Christian singer. His life and values were shaped by what his parents and pastors taught him about the Bible: Scripture was the divine word of God and clearly sorted righteous acts from sinful ones. Doug grew up not just believing, but knowing that abortion and homosexuality were wrong. It went without saying: when he grew up, he would vote Republican.

In 2008, another historic wave swept the country, and this time Doug Paul was no longer a child. He voted—against his parents, against his pastors, against his history—for Barack Obama. More wrenching, he left the church in which he was born, baptized and married to start his own congregation. His mother, especially, remains bewildered by his choices. "My big question," she says, sitting on a landing in her suburban house, "is why do you think this way?"

"It's hard," says Paul in a separate conversation, "because you want the people you love to understand and to validate what you think is right—and that doesn't always happen."

So much has been written about the Joshua Generation, the young white evangelical Christians who pundits predicted would usher Obama into office in overwhelming numbers. Following such high-profile do-gooders as Rick Warren and Bono, moved to action by global poverty and environmental decay, these Christians were supposed to turn away from their parents' obsession with abortion and gay marriage and pull the lever for Obama. The truth, as always, is a lot more complicated. Young Christians liked Obama much better than Kerry: a third of white evangelicals ages 18 to 29 voted Democratic this time, compared with 16 percent in 2004. Still, a third is hardly a majority. And their grandparents liked Obama less: a quarter voted for him, compared with a third for Kerry. On the whole, Christians shifted negligibly to the left: 24 percent of them voted Democratic, compared to 21 percent in 2004. Exit-poll data then demonstrate not a political sea change among evangelicals—who remain more socially conservative than most other religious groups, especially on abortion— but painful generational divisions within their ranks. Disagreements revolve around priorities: how best to express Christian values in a fast-changing world.

Obama fought more aggressively than John McCain for every centrist vote—especially in contested states like Virginia—and in the end succeeded in capturing enough of the Joshua Generation to make his win decisive. But behind each evangelical vote is a story like Paul's: a young person, wrestling with culture and conscience, hoping in the end that hope will prevail, aware that friends and relatives will see the choice as a betrayal. The gravity of Paul's choices, he says, "has caused some pain for me, but a lot of redemption as well. It was a breaking from what I had always known, a moving into unfamiliar territory."

Doug Paul struck out into unfamiliar territory during high school, after he read Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." The fatalism of that novella, its hopelessness about human redemption, made Paul question the value of Christian worship. With such doubts in his mind, he went on to Wheaton College in Illinois, the alma mater of the evangelist Billy Graham. There he met other Christians like him—questioning, politically engaged news junkies who confessed to each other that they were confused about God. "I basically became a functioning atheist," Paul says. "I hit reset, bulldozed my childhood education and started new." (Located in DuPage County, Wheaton exemplifies the kind of community that flipped for Obama. In 2004, Bush won DuPage by nearly 40,000 votes; in 2008, Obama won by 50,000.) In 2003, Paul was forced to leave Wheaton in disgrace. He had cheated his boss, for whom he worked summers selling books door-to-door, out of thousands of dollars by lying about his sales figures. (He eventually repaid his debt.) Infuriated, his parents yanked his tuition and allowed him to come back home on the condition that he return to church.

Southside Nazarene is not the most inviting of structures: it resembles a sports complex more than a place for intimate communion. But its senior pastor, Jerome Hancock, welcomed Paul home, invited him back to church and guided him on the path to ministry. In 2004, Paul founded a study group for 20-somethings. The next year he started a ministry called Ephesus, which offered a perspective Paul felt was lacking at Southside: a broader reading of the Bible and a practical discussion of social-justice issues including poverty and human rights. "We weren't talking about abortion every week," says Paul.

For Paul, as for so many evangelicals of his generation, the issue of gay rights drove a wedge in the already-widening gap between his elders and himself. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 26 percent of white evangelicals ages 18 to 29 support gay marriage, compared with 9 percent of white evangelicals older than 30. In 2006, as Virginia was preparing to vote on an amendment banning gay marriage, Southside Nazarene posted a sign near the road urging people to vote yes. SAVE OUR FAMILIES was emblazoned on the banner. Doug Paul remembers a particular Friday-night dinner with his parents that ended in silent fuming. He and his new wife, Elizabeth, were expecting a houseguest that weekend who was gay, and he expressed irritation that their church would propagate the idea that gay people preyed on children.

"I'm pretty sure I just burst out during the meal," he remembers. "I was like, 'Does this really make people feel welcome? Would we put up a sign that says SAVE US FROM ANGRY PEOPLE, or whatever other people we say have sinned?' " The table fell silent. "You could hear the clink of ice cubes in our glasses," he says. His parents say they don't remember the incident.

Paul credits Obama's campaign slogan—"Be the change you seek"—with helping him realize his dream of starting his own congregation. He prayed on the decision for months, going weekly to the driving range to think. He found the theology at Southside too punitive, its social outreach too limited. He and his peers were still pro-life, he explains, but tired of the narrow lens through which his pastors viewed the world. (On abortion, according to the same Pew study, under-29s remain as conservative as their parents: more than 70 percent believe it should be illegal in most or all cases.) Paul prayed for a "return to the Christian tradition that existed before Roe v. Wade," he said. "It's because I'm pro-life that I have to talk about poverty, clean water, AIDS, the environment. [It would be] paradoxical to talk about giving a voice to the oppressed and not to care about people who are actually born." In February he told his mentor, Pastor Jerome, that he would be leaving the church. In March he started Eikon Community, taking a dozen former Ephesus members with him. Today, he preaches to about 40 people each Sunday in a one-room church on a busy strip.

One of these is D.J. Glisson, a 27-year-old graphic designer who signed his absentee ballot for Obama in the presence of his 10-member prayer group. Unlike Doug Paul, who voted for Kerry in 2004, Glisson had never voted for a Democrat before. Raised in a conservative suburb of Richmond, Glisson went to a Christian college and voted for George W. Bush—twice. But Obama's speech on race resonated with Glisson's own view that there are many paths to God, and Obama's position on abortion—legal but infrequent—made moral sense. As he signed his ballot he thought, Wow, things have changed a little bit. He now avoids politics as a survival tactic at family functions. "If it's not going to open minds," he says, "I'm not going to bother."

Pastor Jerome and Doug Paul haven't spoken since Paul announced his departure—though both insist the silence is unintentional. Jerome expresses dismay that the Eikon congregation has moved so far from his church's fundamental teachings, that many drink alcohol, for example, and are willing to vote for a pro-choice candidate. "My faith in God creates a certain logical base," he says. "Does killing a baby make sense? No. Does homosexual marriage make sense? No." He compares Paul's defection to a childish rebellion and expresses conviction that maturity will bring the young man back toward conservative values. With this analysis, Hancock, who is 59, fails to consider a critical fact. He was young and idealistic once, too.