Sexuality Politics No Trump Card for Younger Evangelicals

If Rick Warren were able to convey the diversity among evangelicals at the upcoming Saddleback Civil Forum, maybe we'll actually get some honest conversation.

Tomorrow will be the first–and last–time that presidential
candidates BarackObama and John McCain will appear together before they’re nominated
by their parties for top executive office.

The draw? It’s the Saddleback Civil Forum on Leadership and
Compassion. Rick Warren, founding pastor of Orange
County’s 22,000-member Saddleback Church, and author of the bestseller The
Purpose-Driven Life
, will moderate back-to-back conversations with Obama and
McCain, focusing on "faith and the common good."

pitches the Saddleback forum in press materials as an opportunity to transcend
"partisan ‘gotcha’ questions" in
conversations that will focus on poverty, HIV/AIDS, climate change and human
rights. Obama and McCain will each spend an hour with the pastor. All questions
will be Warren’s

But the Saddleback Forum isn’t significant merely for its
high-profile participants. It’s also a manifestation of how the traditional
evangelical platform–so conflated with Republicanism that the term "religious
right" was coined–is broadening beyond opposition to legal abortion and
same-sex marriage.

It’s been four years since gay marriage bans were put on the
November ballots of eleven states, and four years since President Bush won 78%
of the white evangelical vote–a larger percentage of that electorate than any
candidate had ever received. Many
evangelical voters have long considered abortion and same-sex marriage to be
deal-breaker issues for any candidate running for office-even offices that
couldn’t possibly make any influential policies on them, such as mayors and
school boards.

"Local politicians are still in their positions to represent
their constituents, so I still find it important that their decisions stem from
similar core values as those I hold," says Kari Gates, a 30-year-old
evangelical voter from Fort Worth, TX, explaining why she has prioritized,
without exception, any political candidates’ position on abortion and same-sex

Gates follows the traditional pattern of an evangelical who
identifies as a Republican (she offers the caveat: "if a candidate were running
who met my criteria and was of another party, I would vote in their favor").

the broad picture is getting complicated these days, as evangelicals expand their
political platform beyond the issues that have thus far defined them. The
Saddleback Civil Forum’s emphasis on poverty, HIV/AIDS, climate change and
human rights is indicative of this. In the promotional materials of one of the
evangelical movement’s most prominent public spaces, facilitated by one of its
most popular pastors, there’s not even a mention of the sexuality politics.

To be sure, Warren and other evangelical leaders maintain
staunch and public opposition to legal abortion and gay marriage, even as
traditionally progressive concerns become part of their advocacy, including
anti-war activism and the Evangelical Call to Action on Climate Change, signed
by more than 130 influential evangelicals. In the lead-up to the 2004 election,
Warren issued a
letter to 136,000 pastors and laity that said "pro-life and pro-family issues"
should determine their vote.

While some leaders of the older generation, such as Jim
Wallis of Sojourners, have spent decades calling for a broadened evangelicism,
its young evangelicals who fuel it today.

In an election season that recognizes young voters to be as
powerful a force as they ever have been, white evangelical voters aged 18-29 are
significantly less likely to identify as Republicans, according to a Pew
Research Center study from last fall.

Since 2005, there has been a 15% drop in GOP affiliation
among these young voters, bringing the total down to 40%. Meanwhile, there was
only a 5% drop in the older evangelical generation’s Republican Party

The Pew study directly ties the falling numbers to
dissatisfaction with President Bush’s administration, despite the strong
evangelical support Bush received in his 2004 re-election campaign.

But this political shift among young evangelical voters
doesn’t necessarily translate into support for Democrats or progressive
politics. The Pew study contends that while this group has grown less
Republican, it’s still conservative. On some matters, its actually grown more conservative, as measured by, among
other things, the 70% that support "making it more difficult for a woman to get
an abortion," compared to the 55% of older evangelicals.

research study doesn’t speculate about why there’s such a gap among
evangelicals on abortion in particular, but it does suggest that "strong
allegiance to conservatism and conservative positions (of young white
evangelicals) … may be the product of dissatisfaction with this particular
administration rather than the result of an underlying shift in this group’s
political values and policy views."

At the same time, the study reveals that young evangelicals
are less bothered by gay marriage and are more concerned about health care and
the environment.

"Republicans now have only a two-to-one advantage over
Democrats among younger white evangelicals, compared with a nearly four-to-one
edge in 2005," the study declares. As a recent New Yorker article points out,
43% of white evangelicals in Ohio voted in the
Democratic primary, along with one-third of Missouri
and Tennessee

It’s too simplistic to say that young evangelical voters are
growing more progressive or more conservative, but it is fair to say that they are generally more contextual: sexuality
politics don’t carry trump-card weight all the time when it comes alongside
concerns about the environment, poverty, and war.

Trish Stack, a 28-year-old evangelical from Boise, says that she seems conservative
compared with the wider world, but among many evangelicals, she’s considered
liberal. She takes that as her cue to
call herself a moderate.

"I do not agree with drilling for oil in an arctic reserve
and I do believe that we should be less dependent on oil. These are issues that
are not traditionally Republican," Stack says.
"On the other hand, I have tended to lean pro-life and pro-traditional
marriage, as well as free-trade."

Mark Longhurst is a 28-year-old graduate of Harvard Divinity School
who grew up in an evangelical family. He ceased to identify with the movement
because he differs with its stance on gender and sexuality.

"It became clear to me that I couldn’t be pro-gay and a male
feminist, and be taken seriously as an evangelical," Longhurst says. "And vice

At the same time, Longhurst says that he "loves
evangelicals." He remains a Christian, working with the Boston Faith and
Justice Network, which is an ecumenical community working to, as Longhurst put
it, "bring evangelicals and mainliners together." This fall, the BFJN is launching a fair-trade campaign,
which Longhurst said is something that "brings people together, people who
wouldn’t be in the same room together."

Longhurst says he is excited to see the changes in
evangelical political patterns. "It’s tapped into the younger generation more,
but not exclusively," he says.

Jessica Davis is a 24-year-old evangelical from Pigeon
Forge, TN. While she is a conservative, she saw the broad political differences
among her evangelical peers while she was a student at Duke University.

"Most of my evangelical Christian friends at Duke were
liberals," Davis
says. "This astounded me."

Davis adds, "I think some Christians tend to focus on personal
integrity and morality, and end up on the right, while some focus on the
societal justice and equality side (of Christianity), and end up on the left."

No longer representing the single-issue voting bloc that
Republicans have been able to consider as their base for years, the Saddleback
Civil Forum is doing well to focus today’s questioning on several issues that
are of the utmost importance for the next presidential administration. Poverty,
in particular, has been a buried conversation for too long in this campaign.

But as both Obama and McCain reach out to evangelical voters
at Saddleback, Rick Warren has an opportunity to make plain the tectonic shifts
in their movement and, for a change, without the triggers of sexuality politics.

would be all too easy for Warren
to use his questions to imply a stock list of priorities among all evangelical
voters, and let the candidates pander. But if Warren were able to
convey the differences among evangelicals–even those who differ with the
prominent pastor on his own anti-gay rights agenda, for example, as part of the
forum’s emphasis on "human rights"–maybe we’ll actually get some honest conversation
(dare I say, "straight talk?").

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