Young voters of faith

Voters between the ages of 18 and 29 turned out in huge numbers in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections and according to several polls, their faith and values are playing a major role in how they cast their ballots. A 2013 Harvard University poll found that 45 percent of young voters with a religious preference (those that identified with a particular religion) said that religion is a very important part of their lives. However, the same poll found 24 percent of respondents cited no religious preference at all, numbers that mirror other recent data on the rising religious disaffiliation of younger Americans.

These developments have played and will continue to play a major role in the political landscape with the growth of young, non-religious voters as well as young, religious voters seeming to define their faith and values in significantly different ways than previous generations of religion-driven voters. While their parents were likely to be more concerned with abortion, same-sex marriage and stem cell issues, today’s young voters of faith are more likely to list poverty and other social welfare items as key moral issues. That puts the presidential candidates on a new playing field where young voters of faith are concerned. How can their concerns be addressed without alienating older religion-driven voters?


Why it matters?

With young voters turning out in higher numbers than they have since Richard Nixon was in office, their votes are likely to play an important role in elections for years to come.

Questions for reporters

  • How do you define and measure the religion and values of an entire generation of voters?
  • Do young voters of faith break down along party lines according to their faith backgrounds?
  • How will candidates reach and mobilize young voters of faith?
  • How do young voters of faith determine which candidates hold similar values?
  • If the new generation of religion-driven voters is less concerned with abortion, same-sex marriage and stem cell research, what will happen to those issues in the campaign and in future legislation?
  • How will the growth of non-religious young voters affect how candidates try to appeal to them?
  • How will candidates craft their message to appeal to both the religious and non-religious young voters?

Polls and surveys

  • Public Opinion Project at Harvard University

    The Public Opinion Project at Harvard University is one of America’s longest and most robust studies of the attitudes of young Americans toward politics and public service. Founded in 2000, the Project is a collaboration between undergraduates and Harvard University Institute of Politics polling director John Della Volpe. Each semester the group develops, conducts and briefs stakeholders on the latest views of this most important voting bloc.

  • “Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next”

    Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next” is a series of reports put together by the Pew Research Center to understand the beliefs and opinions of young Americans. Reports cover items including politics and values; media and digital life; and demographics and social trends.

  • “A Generation in Transition: Religion, Values, and Politics among College-Age Millennials”

    Results of the 2012 Millennial Values survey conducted jointly by Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. It provides an in-depth portrait of younger Millennials ((Americans ages 18-24) on faith, values, and the 2012 election.

  • “Diverse, disillusioned, and divided: Millennial values and voter engagement in the 2012 election”

    Oct. 4, 2012, analysis of the Millennial Values and Voter Engagement Survey, a joint study by the Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs which includes information on the roll religion plays in young voters’ choices. Includes link to full report.

  • “Young voters supported Obama less, but may have mattered more”

    Nov. 26, 2012, analysis of young voters influence in President Barack Obama’s re-election victory over Mitt Romney by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The analysis includes a breakdown of religious preferences of young voters and how young voters of different faiths voted.

  • “‘Nones’ on the rise”

    Oct. 9, 2012, analysis of a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey which finds that religious disaffiliation is on the rise, especially among young people.

  • “Religion among the Millennials”

    Feb. 17, 2010, analysis of a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life which finds that young Americans are less religiously active than older generations but still traditional in other ways. Includes link to full report.

  • The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life: Politics & Elections

    The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life provides a resource page on religion and politics. It includes links to relevant surveys and news items.

Articles and publications

  • “The GOP’s problem with young voters is only getting worse”

    Nov. 21, 2012, New Republic article about the Republican Party’s difficulty in attracting young voters due in part to their historic strategy of appealing to white evangelicals, a diminishing demographic among young voters, as well as young voters’ less conservative stances on social issues.

  • “Less religion equals more votes”

    March 6, 2013, The New York Times op-ed by Carrie Sheffield in which she argues that the Republican Party should shed some of their reliance on religion in order to attract younger voters.

National sources

Nonpartisan organizations

  • Black Youth Vote!

    Black Youth Vote! (BYV!) is a national grassroots coalition of organizations and individuals committed to increasing political and civic engagement among black youth and young adults between the ages of 18-35. It is a part of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.

  • Democracy Matters

    Democracy Matters is an organization that seeks to involve young people in politics. It is based in Hamilton, N.Y. Joan Mandle is the executive director.

  • HeadCount

    HeadCount is a nonpartisan organization that works with musicians to promote participation in democracy. Contact media contact Aaron Ghitelman.

  • works to educate and mobilize young people in civic engagement and political participation. Scott Stein is the executive director.

  • Rock the Vote

    Rock the Vote tries to engage young voters in politics through music and outreach. It publishes Winning Young Voters: A Handbook for Campaigns, Candidates, Political Parties and Organizations. Contact Chrissy Faessen.

  • American National Election Studies

    American National Election Studies produces high quality data from its own surveys on voting, public opinion, and political participation.

Partisan organizations

  • Young America’s Foundation

    Young America’s Foundation is an organization for young conservatives. It organizes conferences for students on colleges and university campuses around conservative issues. Email through the website.

    Contact: 703-318-9608.
  • Young Democrats of America

    The Young Democrats of America (YDA) is the largest youth-led, national, partisan political organization. It mobilizes young people under the age of 36 to participate in the electoral process, influences the ideals of the Democratic Party, and develops the skills of the youth generation to serve as leaders at the local and national level. Louis Elrod is the president.

  • College Democrats of America

    The College Democrats of America work on campuses across the country to engage college students on local, state, and national races. The communications director is Marcus Ismael.

    Contact: 202-863-8000.


  • Bill Devlin

    Bill Devlin is president of Redeem the Vote, a nonprofit organization that works to engage young people of faith in politics, especially through a voter registration drive. The group has been called the evangelical answer to MTV’s Rock the Vote. Contact Don Stillman in public relations.

  • Ethan Nichtern

    Ethan Nichtern is the author of One City: A Declaration of Interdependence (2007), a Buddhist political treatise about, among other things, youth and political activism in a post 9-11 world. He is the founder of the Interdependence Project in New York City.

    Contact: 917-675-7151.
  • Jim Wallis

    The Rev. Jim Wallis is a Christian author and commentator and the founder of Sojourners magazine, a periodical that tries to promote social change through Christian values. He has served on the White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and can comment on policies related to race, immigration and other religion-related issues. Arrange an interview through Meredith Brasher.

    His is the author of The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith & Politics in a Post-Religious Right America (2008). He has said in the past that he has been impressed with the political commitment of young people, much of which he says comes from their religious, ethical and moral convictions.


  • John C. Green

    John C. Green is a senior fellow at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, specializing in religion and American politics. He also serves as interim university president, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and distinguished professor of political science at the University of Akron.

  • Peter Levine

    Peter Levine is the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs in Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service and director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE)  which studies young Americans’ civic engagement. He is also the author of The Future of Democracy: Developing the Next Generation of American Citizens (2007).

  • Robert Wuthnow

    Robert Wuthnow is director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. He wrote the book Poor Richard’s Principle: Recovering the American Dream Through the Moral Dimension of Work, Business and Money and was the editor of the 2006 Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion. He is also the author of  After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion and Red State Religion: Faith and Politics in America’s Heartland. He can speak about hot-button issues including abortion, the separation of church and state and gun control.

  • David King

    David King is a senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

    He has supervised several polls and surveys on the voting habits of American youth, including the university’s 14th Biannual Youth Survey on Politics and Public Service, which found dramatic increases in the number of young people who voted in several state primaries. He has said that candidates who hope to capture this voting group must focus not just on issues, but on “fairness and morality.”

  • Corwin E. Smidt

    Corwin E. Smidt is a research fellow at the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics and a professor of political science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is author, editor or co-author of books on religion and public life, including In God We Trust? Religion and American Political Life; Pulpit and Politics: Clergy in American Politics at the Advent of the Millennium; and The Bully Pulpit: The Politics of Protestant Clergy.

    He oversees the institute’s semester in Washington, D.C., for undergraduates, which includes a course on integrating religion and politics.

  • Alan Wolfe

    Alan Wolfe is the founding director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and a frequent commentator on religion and politics. His books include The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith, which focuses on the impact of evangelicals on American religious culture. He has written widely on secularism.

    He can discuss the political involvement and interest of young voters of different faiths.


  • Burns Strider

    Burns Strider is the founder of the Eleison and The American Values Network. He has served in an array of high ranking positions within the Democratic party including as senior adviser and director of faith-based operations for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, director of religious outreach for the House Democrats and lead staffer for the Democrats’ Faith Working Group.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Carmen Sirianni

    Carmen Sirianni is the Morris Hillquit Professor of Labor and Social Thought at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. He is an expert on the role social networks play in youth civic engagement.

  • Shane Claiborne

    Shane Claiborne is a Philadelphia-based Christian activist and author. He is a co-founder of Red Letter Christians, a Christian group that focuses on people at the economic and social margins and organized a day of prayer in support of an impeachment inquiry.

  • Scott Keeter

    Scott Keeter is the director of survey research at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington, D.C. He co-wrote the book The Diminishing Divide: Religion’s Changing Role in American Politics.

  • Catherine Corrigall-Brown

    Catherine Corrigall-Brown is an assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of Western Ontario. Her research interests include social movements, political sociology, indigenous politics, the environmental movement and identity.

    • Cliff Zukin

      Cliff Zukin is a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. His research interests include public opinion, mass media & American politics, survey research and research methods.

      He has described young voters as “incredibly tolerant” in terms of race and gender and can comment on the voting habits of young people and how they differ from their parents.

    • Elaine Kamarck

      Elaine Kamarck is a lecturer in public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. She was a senior policy adviser to the 2000 Gore campaign for president and worked in the Clinton-Gore administration.

      In 2008, she wrote about the McCain campaign’s difficulties in reaching young voters.

    In the South

    • Melinda Lundquist Denton

      Melinda Lundquist Denton is an assistant professor at the department of sociology at the University of Texas-San Antonio. Her research interests includes family, adolescence & youth and religion & culture . She has researched the intersection of religion and family life in the United States with a focus on the religious lives of adolescents. Dr. Denton’s primary work is with the National Study of Youth and Religion, a longitudinal mixed-method study of youth and young adults in the United States based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Notre Dame University. She is a co-author of Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.

    • David P. Gushee

      David P. Gushee is a distinguished professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University in Atlanta. He is frequently quoted about evangelical perspectives on ethics and was the principal drafter of the Evangelical Declaration Against Torture. He describes himself as a “Christian centrist.” Gushee’s most recent book is Changing Our Mind: A Call From America’s Leading Evangelical Ethics Scholar for Full Acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church, in which he outlines his change of heart from opposing same-sex relationships.

    • Penny Long Marler

      Penny Long Marler is a professor of religion at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., with interests in the relationship between church and society and religious change. She has written about measuring growth in church attendance.

      She has tracked contemporary trends in religious behavior and has written about the attitudes of young adult Catholics.

    In the Midwest

    • Constance Flanagan

      Constance Flanagan is a professor of interdisciplinary at the University of Wisconsin. Her research concerns youth civic development, the transition to adulthood and opportunities for civic participation. She can discuss the role family and personal values play in the development of young people’s political views.

    • John Transue

      John Transue is an associate professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield. His research primarily involves social identity, public opinion, political participation and the relationships between political events and financial markets. His expertise includes the political participation of youth.

    • David Campbell

      David Campbell is a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame who has written widely on religion and politics. His books include, as editor, A Matter of Faith: Religion in the 2004 Presidential Election and, as co-author, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.

    • Bakari Kitwana

      Bakari Kitwana is a writer, lecturer and cultural critic. He speaks widely about hiphop culture. Formerly the editor of The Source magazinewhich covers hiphop music, culture and politics, Kitwana is the author of The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture (Basic Civitas Books, 2003) and Why White Kids Love Hip Hop: Wangstas, Wiggers, Wannabes and the New Realities of Race in America (Basic Civitas Books, 2005). Kitwana directs the hiphop discussion tour, which brings town-hall-style meetings on difficult dialogues facing the hiphop community to cities across the U.S. He is based in the Cleveland area.

    • Bob Cornwall

      Bob Cornwall is the senior pastor at Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Mich., a Disciples of Christ church. He operates a blog titled “Ponderings on a Faith Journey” which includes his reflections about young voters of faith.

      Contact: 248-644-0512.

    In the West

    • Kevin Bondelli

      Kevin Bondelli has been working in youth activism and Democratic politics since 2000. He has served as Young Democrats of America in numerous capacities including as communications chair and southwest region director. He has also worked as an internet and technology strategist for the Arizona Democratic Party.

    • Michael McDevitt

      Michael McDevitt is a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. His research interests include media and politics, youth political socialization and media sociology. He is an expert on youth civic engagement and youth engagement in elections and oversaw a 2006 study of the political activity of American teenagers.

    • Toby Crittenden

      Toby Crittenden is the executive director for the Washington Bus, which engages young people in Washington on their own terms, and empowers them through education, civic and cultural engagement, and hands-on democracy.

    • Wynton Hall

      Wynton Hall is a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. He is a frequent speaker at college seminars for young conservatives.

    • Caitlin Baggott

      Caitlin Baggott is the executive director of The Bus Project, an Oregon project which engages young people in democracy and works to make politics more accessible, more equitable and more innovative.

    • Dr. Elizabeth E. Carr

      Dr. Elizabeth E. Carr is a California and Paris based marriage and family therapist with a Ph.D. in spirituality. Dr. Carr has worked and lectured in nine countries across Asia, the Americas and Europe.

      She can discuss the political engagement of young people of faith on college campuses.

    • Eugene Cho

      Eugene Cho is the founding and lead pastor at Quest Church, a Seattle church with a largely under-35 crowd. He’s also the founder of One Day’s Wages, a non-profit organization focused on global poverty.

      On his blog, he has encouraged young Christians to look beyond issues, such as abortion, that he says have allowed them to be “manipulated” by politicians.