Reduce, Reuse, Religion?

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Originally published on Advocate.com April 05 2009 11:00 PM ET

Jonathan Merritt doesn't want to talk about his own views on gay marriage or civil unions -- perhaps for good reason. Merritt is a young evangelical leader, a prominent writer on modern faith, and the son of a former Southern Baptist Convention president. The religious landscape of this country may be changing, but anyone who espouses equality could derail a future leadership role among evangelicals, who still vote overwhelmingly Republican and have viewed homosexuality as a defining social issue since the early days of the Moral Majority. Merritt prefers to zoom out during an interview and opine as candid observer rather than crusader.

My generation will not fight to preserve the platform for traditional marriage that our predecessors have fought for," the 26-year-old says. "Older evangelicals are so stubborn and unable to compromise or reach out a hand. And they're in danger of losing their legacy."

Whatever his personal beliefs on marriage equality are, you're not likely to hear him rail against a gay rights agenda in the vitriolic vein of Pat Robertson or James Dobson. On his blog Merritt criticizes a Starbucks-addled American culture that ignores the atrocities in Darfur. He renounces the use of torture. Most notably, Merritt recognizes the burden of 6.7 billion people on the world's ecosystems and chastises Christians who don't view conservation and carbon footprint reduction as godly mandates. "Environmental stewardship has been integrated into Christian thought since the beginning of time," he says. "Unfortunately, when modern evangelicals began associating themselves with a particular political faction, they were skittish about issues seen as leftist or liberal policy."

Merritt is not alone in his convictions. Over the past decade, a growing number of young U.S. evangelicals have started to shift the movement's focus from a two-pronged ministry against abortion and gay rights to a more holistic worldview that addresses environmental issues under the banner of "creation care." Scripture remains sacred, and sin and salvation are not trivial matters of the heart. But where their elders may preach about moral turpitude with a fundamentalist's zeal, the new generation's members are more inclined to accept ambiguity.

The real issues, they say, are climate change, mercury poisoning, and destructive coal-mining practices. Multiple religious environmental organizations echo the sentiment, and even commerce has caught up with the movement: You can now read Scripture passages from the Green Bible, a text released in October that underscores environmentally tinged verse in green, soy-based ink, printed on recycled paper. "So much of the [evangelical] agenda has come from the modern consciousness of the individual," says Matthew Fox, an Episcopal priest and theologian in Oakland, Calif. "Am I saved? Am I a sinner? Am I going to hell? But I think this generation has grown up with the realization that the planet is dying and that its survival is a little more important than whom people sleep with."

Though generational differences are inevitable in many groups, young evangelicals are currently changing the sociological fabric of their churches. They are more likely to have gone to college than their parents, and they have increasingly grown up in middle-class suburban households rather than rural, lower-income areas, says John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "The evangelical community is not as insular," he says. "There was a time when evangelicals tried to separate themselves from society. Now they're moving toward the mainstream."

Nor are they necessarily the "values voters" in lockstep with the GOP. Many see the war in Iraq and the erosion of environmental regulations as hallmark disappointments of the Bush administration, which carried 78% of the evangelical vote in the 2004 presidential election. Though Sen. John McCain carried a solid majority of evangelicals last year, 32% of those voters between the ages of 18 and 29 voted for Barack Obama -- twice as many as voted for John Kerry in 2004.

Richard Cizik x390 (Getty and handout) | ADVOCATE.COM

Leif Bergerud, a 28-year-old divinity student at Duke University, believes Bush's pro-oil environmental policies often belied his persona as a man of God. Sarah Palin was hardly a political remedy: The vice-presidential nominee's socially conservative worldview and "drill, baby, drill" mantra may have been a Republican attempt to galvanize evangelicals unenthusiastic about a moderate McCain presidency, but the rhetoric disenchanted many, he says. "Most of us know we've gotten to the point where the science behind [climate change] is just indisputable," Bergerud says. "We're playing a role in altering our climate for the worse."

On hot-button social issues, young evangelicals are a mixed bag. While most remain steadfastly anti-abortion, a majority are likely to support legal recognition for gay and lesbian relationships. According to a 2008 study, 58% of white evangelical Christians aged 18-29 support either marriage or domestic partnerships for same-sex couples, compared with 46% of evangelicals over 30.

Merritt says it's easy to see why. Four out of 10 evangelical youths say they have a close friend or family member who is gay, twice as many as their older counterparts. When the issue becomes personal, attitudes change. "Many older [evangelicals] are in disbelief when you quote that statistic," he says. "One man said to me, 'Well, I have a cousin who is gay.' I told him the difference is that I hang out with my friends who are gay on Friday nights. You just see your cousin at Christmastime."

But espousing progressive beliefs on gay rights and climate change remains a gamble in evangelical leadership circles. Richard Cizik, former vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, is an illuminating example. As one of the movement's most outspoken environmentalists, Cizik long drew fire from Christian conservatives who attacked his "relentless campaign" on climate change, according to a 2007 letter to the NAE calling for Cizik's resignation (Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, and Alan Chambers of Exodus International were among the 25 signatories). "We have observed that Cizik and others are using the global warming controversy to shift the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time," the letter read, "notably the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage, and the teaching of sexual abstinence and morality to our children."

Cizik held on to his job, but his "shifting" views on same-sex relationships were the ammunition his detractors needed for the kill. In a December interview with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air , Cizik said he believed in civil unions for gays and lesbians, though he did not support marriage equality.

"We have become so absorbed in the question of gay rights," Cizik told Gross, "that we fail to understand the threats to marriage itself -- heterosexual marriage. Maybe we need to reevaluate this."

Cizik resigned his position under pressure nine days after the interview aired. He later called his comments on civil unions "misunderstood," and he drew fire from gay rights activists for signing a full-page ad in The New York Times decrying "antireligious bigotry" against churches that publicly supported the passage of Proposition 8, California's anti-marriage equality ballot measure. (Through a spokeswoman, Cizik declined to be interviewed for this article.) Leith Anderson, president of the NAE, says in an e-mail response that the organization's stance on creation care remains the same, that a "God-given dominion is a sacred responsibility to steward the earth and not a license to abuse the creation of which we are a part."

Rev. Peter Illyn x390 (fair use) | advocate.com

The new face of evangelicalism, the Reverend Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Southern California, is hardly progressive on the issue of gay rights, though his broader agenda has helped to legitimize environmental activism among religious conservatives. But many young evangelicals look elsewhere for inspiration, beyond the ministers who spend inordinate amounts of time as talking heads for cable news shows -- particularly when there are more pressing matters for humanity, says the Reverend Peter Illyn. While the Prop. 8 campaign was reaching its frenzied climax in November, Illyn, founder of the religious environmental group Restoring Eden, led a tour of two dozen undergraduates from evangelical Christian universities through the Appalachian Mountains near Whitesville, W.Va. -- visiting areas that had been devastated by a form of coal strip-mining that levels forests, buries streams, and contaminates water supplies.

When word of Prop. 8's passage finally reached his group, Illyn and his students were dismayed -- even if some in the group had reservations about marriage equality. "While people were spending millions of dollars in support of Prop. 8, we were visiting communities where 90% of the people surveyed had had their gallbladders removed, where an elementary school is located 400 yards from a toxic earthen dam, where the water is undrinkable," he says. "Now, where is the outrage from evangelical leaders for these people? Why aren't we spending millions to protect innocent children from pollution?"

Today's evangelicals are not a unified front of "tree-huggin' Christians," as Illyn bellows on his voice-mail greeting. Like many of their leaders, they are skeptical about global warming and its causes. And like most Americans, they don't consider the environment to be among the nation's most pressing concerns. In the coming years, this may change. "Numerically, it's not at critical mass yet, but all signs indicate it will be," Illyn says. "There's always an internal struggle for defining the priorities in the hearts and minds of Christians. This is a great example."