It’s no secret in Christian circles that young people are leaving the church in droves, with Christian research firms finding over and overthat once there’s not a parent there to push them to church, the majority of high school kids drift away from religion once they move out of the house. Some come back, but some leave permanently.
One favorite solution is to try to make the church more hip by employing young, seemingly cool Christians who are in tune with modern pop culture as leaders. A lot of these young, hip Christians are actually quite progressive in their politics. In a lot of cases, however, the change from the cranky, judgmental church of old is purely aesthetic. If you scratch the surface of these seemingly with-it young Christian leaders, you’ll see they’re peddling the same old sex-negative, hyper-conservative intolerance that motivates their elders.
Here’s a list of some of the leaders who are trying to make conservative Christianity seem cool, and who generally fail because conservative Christianity is the exact opposite of cool.
1) Bradlee Dean. In many ways, Bradlee Dean epitomizes the Christian right overreaction to the fact that young people are ignoring religious fundamentalism in growing numbers. Many Christian leaders have taken to suggesting that Christianity should be more manly and aggressive to woo the young, and Dean took this to heart, starting You Can Run But You Cannot Hide International and the Christian rock band Junkyard Prophet, both of which embrace an over-the-top Harley motorcycle-influenced aesthetic. Dean had a habit of sneaking Christian propaganda into public schools by offering programs he portrayed as merely anti-drug to school administrators but once he was in front of the students, turned into Bible-thumping.
Dean, who has close ties to Rep. Michele Bachmann, is rabidly homophobic, and in keeping with his tough-guy pose, has endorsed executing people for being gay. He is prone to spinning all sorts of wild and often contradictory conspiracy theories, e.g. President Obama and Rep. Keith Ellison are part of some gay plot to take over America and a plot to impose anti-gay sharia law on the country. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but there is a lot of chest-thumping.
2) Ken Coleman. On the other side of the spectrum is Ken Coleman, who presents himself as an aw-shucks, practically apolitical guy who just happens to have a laundry list of Christian conservatives come through his radio program. It’s exactly the sort of thing that is believed to appeal to younger people who are tired of the fire-and-brimstone approach to religion. His website has the TED Talk aesthetic and the obsession with coffee that’s a big thing for young Christians these days (I guess in lieu of alcohol?).
But the fact that he’s still pushing religion in service of a conservative agenda isn’t too far from the surface, and not just because there’s Obamacare-negative ads on his site. After the aChick-Fil-A CEO went on Coleman’s show and said we’re inviting the wrath of God if we let gays get married, Coleman wrote a concern trolling article for Huffington Post that implied the real problem was not homophobia but meanie liberals who object when Christians say hateful things about gay people. He may look hip, but when the chips are down, he’s defending the hardline conservatives. But he likes coffee!
3) Tim Tebow. No one encapsulates the attempt of fundamentalist Christians to establish relevance in modern times, and no one encapsulates more why they fail than Tim Tebow. The Christian right largely expected that Tebow would have an amazing football career, and by the power of his popularity as a football star, would make his obnoxious devotion to hyper-conservative Christianity look cool to young fans.
That hope went belly-up for two reasons. First, no matter how great an athlete you are, the audience will not be hoodwinked into suddenly having affection for showy praying for the cameras and self-righteous anti-sex preening. That behavior is objectively irritating, and the sports media had a fine time mocking Tebow for it. Second of all, Tebow’s career, while not a spectacular flameout, was a deliciously satisfying disappointment, crushing any remaining hopes he could make Christianity cool by association.
4) Jessica Rey. Conservative Christianity’s obsession with female modesty tends to be associated with knuckle-rapping and insinuating girls are hussies if they show too much skin. Realizing how terminally uncool that attitude is, some young Christian leaders are stealing some of the aesthetic and arguments from hip young feminists to try to make modesty seem like it’s about self-respect and empowerment instead of telling women their bodies make Jesus sad. Jessica Rey, a former Power Ranger turned Christian fashion designer, is an excellent example of the trend. Rey makes speeches claiming that modern swimsuits show too much skin and therefore rob women of their dignity. Her solution? Buy from her line of somewhat more conservative bathing suits, of course!
Rey’s swimsuits, which are legitimately cute and look like something you could buy in a retro-hip store like ModCloth, are only “modest” in comparison to string bikinis. Most would offend the sensibilities of Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Muslims, as well as any Christians prior to the 1930s. (Indeed, some of them seem directly modeled on the raciest, most fashion-forward bathing suits of the 1920s.) Rey may have wanted to make modest clothes that are still hip and fashionable, but in doing so, she only ended up proving that the concept of “modesty” is an empty one, and one person’s idea of modest is another person’s idea of slutty.
5) Brett McCracken. Of everyone on this list, Brett McCracken comes the closest to actually convincing an audience that he really is pretty cool. Like any proper hipster, he has a keen sense of humor about hipsters,having written a book chronicling (and critiquing) evangelical Christian attempts to embrace a hipster aesthetic. He tweets about “Breaking Bad” and Arcade Fire. He doesn’t just drink coffee, but also loves beer and gourmet foods. He talks a big game about cultural engagement, but unlike many other Christians, he actually seems to deliver.
But digging a little deeper reveals that McCracken’s politics are still stuck in the misogynist, homophobic past. He’s dialed it down in recent years while building himself up as the hip-criticizing-hip Christian, but McCracken has spent plenty of time grinding the Republican ax, writing about “personal responsibility” as if there’s anyone actually opposed to it, denouncing Obama for having “far-left stances on abortion” and calling same-sex marriage a “moral distortion.” McCracken often writes about how it’s more important to put content over surface appearances, which is all the more reason to see his social conservatism as the throwback it is and not get distracted by casual references to fancy wines and indie rock bands.
Things are clearly changing when it comes to Christian fundamentalists and pop culture. Unlike the hoary old days of the '80s when Christian rock was a complete joke, young Christian leaders are doing a better job of aping various youth subcultures in an attempt to lure the young back to the church. Despite this, the lingering problem remains: As long as the Christian right keeps promoting anti-sex, judgmental attitudes, young people are going to turn away and find their communities with people who have more tolerant and accepting values.