Reduce, Reuse, Religion?

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

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April 05 2009 11:00 PM ET

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."

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