AMAC Exclusive – by David P. Deavel
A new study by the conservative Christian pollster George Barna, conducted for Foundations of Freedom, has some worrying as well as some hopeful news about the largest adult cohort (78 million) in the population. The Millennials are a somewhat mixed-up generation—like every one since that afternoon in the Garden of Eden, I suppose—combining some very new and mistaken views with some very traditional ones. Less atheist than agnostic, less America-Last than they are marinating in cosmopolitanism, and less doctrinaire than they are leaning toward relativism, they are a generation that is still young and still open to being persuaded. While some Gen-Xers and Boomers might be tempted to write them off, it is a mistake to think these young-to-early-middle-aged adults have no hope. Every generation when young will carry the fevers of youth. Better to follow the example of one of the most successful initiatives of the last decade and try to treat the fevers with a dose of calm persuasion: Dennis Prager and Allen Estrin’s Prager U.
“Millennials in America,” which surveyed 600 millennials, defined as those born between 1984 and 2002, asked them questions in August about “lifestyle, politics, faith, relationships, and emotional conditions.” Though they have a positive view of Jesus, they suffer from a greater lack of belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus than other generations. Only 35% believe in the “all-powerful, all-knowing, perfect and just creator of the universe who rules that universe today.” The rest are divided up into beliefs in an undefined “higher power” (25%), a realization of human potential (12%), old-fashioned polytheism (8%), atheism (5%), a belief that “Everyone is god” (5%), and sheer agnosticism (11%).
This declining religious belief probably accounts for a tendency towards agnosticism about life itself. What characterizes 50% of them is the conviction that “life is what you make of it; there is no absolute value associated with human life.” 75% are “searching for a sense of purpose in life.” It may also account for a good percentage of them having a drift toward liberal/progressive views on sexuality and toward the political left. If life has no meaning or sacredness, it would be hard to identify any rules for how to treat it, yet people have a need for order and the Progressive left gives that without putting any brakes on the libido. The poll found that 40% of them identify on the left side of the political spectrum while 29% identify as conservatives. Only half have positive associations with the United States and with democracy. And half embrace socialism in the economic and political realm—even if atheism and other personal aspects of socialism are shunned.
All this adds up to a generation that is deeply confused and divided. And it is important to note that division. Younger conservatives are very conservative. And while that group looks to be a bit less than a third, one can see that there is a big group in the middle who are absolutely open to ideas of traditional faith, morality, ordered liberty, and free markets. To give one example, while the generation embraces newer ideas of sexuality in greater numbers, still nearly half (47%) think marriage is a relationship exclusively between a man and a woman.
The difficulty, one might observe, is that Millennials suffer from having not been taught a great deal about the Bible, religion, or the basics of our country. As a Gen-Xer myself, I observed in my generation’s public education the transition away from serious history and civics to “social studies.” And in the religious realm, Catholics and Evangelicals both had large contingents of their populations abandon serious teaching of Scripture and theology for baking cookies, platitudes, and entertainment.
And yet there is a hunger out there for serious things.
One of the most successful groups feeding that hunger is the non-profit media group Prager University, founded in 2009 by radio host Dennis Prager and his longtime producer Allen Estrin. The media behemoth began as a way to provide conservative and generally religious perspectives on and answers to big-picture and controversial questions. While Prager and Estrin initially thought of having a brick-and-mortar institution of some kind, they decided that providing videos that would be accessible online would have a greater effect more quickly. Leading scholars, journalists, and entrepreneurs have provided perspective on hundreds of questions in five-minute videos for over a decade now. Those videos on historical, political, economic, religious, and scientific topics, which anchor the company’s project, have now been augmented with: podcast shows with popular conservative figures including Candace Owens, Michael Knowles, and others; man on the street interviews and short documentaries by filmmaker Will Witt and others; first-person accounts of people who left progressivism and Hispanic/Latinos who love America; and educational shows on history and civics for children.
Today, Prager U, as it was eventually rebranded, has a $50 million annual budget funded by over 200 thousand donors. In their most recent bi-annual report, from which I’ve taken these statistics, they claim over 5 billion views of their videos and note that 45% of their current viewership began in 2020 or 2021. 32% of their viewership under 35 watches daily and 70% of their overall viewership agrees that they have learned more from watching Prager University than they did from their own university experience. The about page for the website adds the details that 60% of the YouTube viewership is under 35 and that 70% of viewers have had their minds changed on at least one topic by one of the videos.
As you might expect, such success has made the non-profit media company a big target for those unhappy with their perspectives. Prager U proudly points to some of the famous attacks on them in such places as New York Times., Media Matters, Vice, and Buzzfeed. One might add that the entry at Wikipedia, now a partisan online reference guide, reads mostly as a summary argument against the company, citing a series of attacks on particular videos for having inaccuracies. And as a number of the attack articles observe, an entire sub-genre of videos supposedly debunking Prager U has arisen. Some of these have poked holes in a few of the presentations, but most of them I’ve watched seem to involve sputtering disbelief that conservative views like the ones from figures such as former CKE CEO Andy Puzder, conservative academics Carol Swain and Jordan Peterson, or journalist Michael Knowles are allowed. It’s not the arguments but the conclusions that are being protested—that’s why you have so many accusations that videos are “dog whistles” or “alt-right.” When all else fails for the left, they usually call you a racist or a Nazi. And if not all else, a lot has been failing for the left with regard to Prager U. The more journalist attacks are all made with the tacit and sometimes explicit admission that Prager U has been successful in helping shift the positions of Millennials and even the teenage Gen-Z kids. The bi-annual report quotes from a Mother Jones article subheaded, “Inside the Right-Wing YouTube Empire That’s Quietly Turning Millennials into Conservatives.”
What’s the secret to the success of the Prager U videos? I don’t think it’s simply glitz or tech wizardry. One of the consistent complaints of many of the video “debunkers” is that the original Prager U videos have bad graphics and musical accompaniment. I don’t think that entirely fair, but when it’s true, it’s part of the charm. Barna and his research group say Millennials put a high priority on authenticity. Prager U presenters come from a variety of different positions, backgrounds, and kinds of expertise. One need not agree with every single video or every part of every argument to see that the presenters are passionate and informed but also calm, thoughtful, and not reliant on the wizardry of tech effects to get their points across. In short, the videos have an authenticity that, whether it is immediately effective or not, comes across to those who are open to listening. How else to explain somebody like Andy Puzder, the genial former lawyer and businessman whose videos “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Does Not Understand Capitalism or Socialism,” “Capitalism vs. Socialism,” and “Who Does a 15 Dollar Minimum Wage Help?” have 21 million, 16 million, and 9.7 million views respectively?
The great thing is that Prager U is not the only resource conservatives have for conversing with Millennials and others. But it is a really effective one. And, as Barna, notes, most Millennials still claim that the influencers they trust most to tell the truth and do the right thing are parents (46% say “always” and 32% “sometimes”) and friends (36% and 40%). While there are many areas of life in which persuasion has been made impossible, Millennials are still open to family and friends who will show them a video and reason together in search of the truth about God and a sane approach to politics, economics, and even the sacredness and meaning of life.
David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas (MN). He is the co-host of the Deep Down Things podcast.
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