The Intersection of Youth Activism and Faith-Based Values

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez stands with other students during the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., on March 24, 2018.

At times, young activists have been accused of being apathetic to the world around them, but history shows that they have played an important role in efforts to achieve critical change through progressive social movements. Today, student activists—some of whom are motivated by their faith—continue to drive such movements. On March 24, 2018, more than one month after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, students organized the March for Our Lives, a massive rally demanding policy change to prevent gun violence and increase public safety. With an estimated 800,000 people in Washington, D.C., joined by approximately 800 sister marches across the country and throughout the world, the March for Our Lives was one of the largest youth protests since the Vietnam War.

Faith communities support youth who demand action to prevent gun violence

Aside from advocating for specific gun safety measures—such as banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines—the march emphasized the importance of civic engagement through voting, which was especially relevant to many of the young marchers, who soon will be old enough to vote in the upcoming midterm election and the 2020 presidential election. Eleven million 18- to 20-year-olds were registered to vote in the 2016 elections, and the efforts of the march suggest that the number could increase in the coming years. Unfortunately, this issue is personal for many young activists, who have grown up with regimented active-shooter drills and in an environment where, on an average day, seven children and teens are killed by an act of gun violence. For African American children, the statistics are far more stark; they have the highest rates of gun-related homicides in the country—3 1/2 for every 100,000, which is nearly 10 times the rate for white children.

Inspired by youth activism against gun violence, many religious communities marched in support of the Parkland students, as an expression of their own religious values. For instance, roughly 3,000 members of the Union for Reform Judaism marched, including many youth group members of NFTY, the Reform Jewish youth movement. Motivated by his own religious background, Charles Goodman, a 15-year-old Jewish Parkland survivor, stated, “if we believe in our faith, then this is the right thing to do.” Additionally, the Christian social justice organization Sojourners held a premarch rally advocating for #ThoughtsPrayersAction, and the Islamic Society of North America joined the Friends Committee on National Legislation—a Quaker group—for a prayer service, advocacy training, and sign making. Before the march, many religious groups joined together by the United Methodist Building next to the Supreme Court for an interfaith vigil. By participating in the march as a form of prayer, young activists are fighting for a righteous cause that is rooted in their faith-based values.

Historically, faith has been a source of inspiration for young activists

It is important to remember that the connection between youth-led movements and faith-based activism is not new. One of the best-documented examples of youth-led activism is the 1960s civil rights movement. In an interview, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA)—a former youth leader in the movement—explained that many people became involved in civil rights because they viewed their engagement as an extension of their faith. He recalled that before sit-ins, the freedom ride, and the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, participants would sing and pray. Congressman Lewis was just one of many young people who participated in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. During the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963, more than 3,000 students between the ages of 12 to 18 years old protested against the city’s laws of segregation. The spirituality of these actions was evident, as the march commenced with song and prayer at the 16th Street Baptist Church. If working adults had joined the protest, they would have faced the threat of losing their jobs, so these children utilized their unique position in order to fight segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Police counteracted the nonviolent protests by targeting the young people with vicious attack dogs and unforgiving, high-pressure firehoses. Pictures of these events made global headlines, and the efforts of these children served as a catalyst for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination in public spaces and banned employers and government agencies from discriminating based on race, gender, religion, or national origin.

Although the civil rights movement was rooted in Christian theology, other faith communities played supportive roles in challenging Jim Crow laws and racial segregation throughout the South. In fact, Catholic, Jewish, humanist, and atheist college students all contributed by volunteering with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

The youth activists who participated in the March for Our Lives—similar to the youth activists of the civil rights movement—were empowered by their personal experiences and values to advocate for changes that would affect both their lives and the lives of those around them.

Despite political criticism, youth lead

Surprisingly, some politicians, including those with personal backgrounds in the faith community, have berated and belittled the students participating in the March for Our Lives. Only one day after the march, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) suggested that “kids” should not advocate for policy changes but rather take CPR classes, so that they can be prepared in the case of an active shooter. Doctors quickly countered this assertion, explaining that gun violence victims who go into cardiac arrest cannot be helped by CPR. Surgeon and health care columnist Eugene Gu called Santorum’s statement “simply unconscionable.” Santorum encouraged young people to ask themselves, “How do I, as an individual, deal with this problem?” Yet this is exactly what the young activists are doing: using their voices to amplify their values and experiences in order to, in his words, deal with this problem.

Although Santorum is Catholic, his comments of self-reliance without practical policies to avert gun violence appear to stand in direct contradiction with the values of the church. One of the most basic Catholic social teachings is the principle of respect for human life, which maintains that “every person, from the moment of conception to natural death, has inherent dignity and a right to life consistent with that dignity.” Santorum’s unwillingness to support legislative efforts to save lives threatened by gun violence does not align with this value.

In Pope Francis’ Palm Sunday sermon, which took place the day after the March for Our Lives, he commended all the young people who were speaking out and encouraged them to resist those who try to sedate their voices. Pope Francis quoted the Bible passage in which Jesus proclaims that he cannot silence the disciples who were speaking out against injustices: “If these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

Conclusion

The progressive movement must work to support young people and provide them with resoures that will help sustain their efforts to challenge unjust systems. As highlighted in a 2017 Generation Progress report, the progressive movement must implement a long-term strategy to more effectively invest in the work of youth by allocating funding for youth-led and youth-serving organizations. The activism and commitment of young people to fight for a righteous cause should be commended and supported; and it would be wise for people of all generations to follow their lead. 

Emily London is a research assistant for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. LaShawn Warren is vice president for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center.