Reduce, Reuse, Religion?

A new generation of evangelicals debates swapping an antigay agenda for a pro-planet one.

BY

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.

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