Last October a chartered bus rolled deep through the South, its passengers college-aged young people drawing inspiration from the Freedom Riders of the 1960s. The black vinyl advertising plastered on the side broadcast the riders’ goals, “Equality Ride 2008: Faith in Action: Social Justice for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered People.” The bus brought young LGBTQ activists and their allies face to face with students at 15 Christian colleges in an attempt to generate more acceptance of homosexuality at evangelical schools.
2008 was the third year of the Equality Ride, a project of Soulforce Q, the youth arm of Soulforce, an organization Mel White cofounded “to cut off homophobia at its source—religious bigotry.” A former evangelical minister and speechwriter to Jerry Falwell (the founder of the Christian Right group Moral Majority), White was a closeted gay Christian who came out in 1993, left his evangelical ministry, and began work for the Metropolitan Community Church, an LGBTQ Christian community. He has made his life’s work the reconciliation of evangelical Protestant Christianity and homosexuality. Soulforce recognized that encouraging young people to engage in conversation with their peers who hold conservative views about homosexuality could be transformative for both sides. Since 2006, the riders have visited 50 Christian schools, welcomed by some and arrested for trespassing by others.
The Equality Riders hoped to meet people where they are and engage students in honest discussion—and, if that avenue is thwarted, protest the school’s anti-gay policies with direct action in the tradition of Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. As an added objective, they sought sympathetic media attention. The Ride won good notice in the gay press and stories in the local media in targeted college towns.
Capturing Evangelical College Students’ Views
Are the Equality Riders on to something more than a press opportunity? Where are evangelical Protestant students these days? While often characterized as homogeneously conservative, they are more diverse in their religious and political views than one might think. Evangelical college students are an interesting research niche. Despite the wealth of recent polling data about young evangelicals, accurate conclusions are hard to come by. Because current methodologies rely on land phone lines and internet questionnaires, students polled are overwhelmingly White, and what little we know about young evangelicals of color, the fastest growing group, is that they may have differing opinions from their White counterparts. This has been a problem for pollsters and their audience alike, and we will have to wait for research refinements. For the figures quoted here, then, we should assume they reflect younger White evangelicals.
Recently polled younger evangelicals seem more conservative in their theological positions than those polled in the 1980s.1 At the same time they are more inclined than their parents to support social justice efforts such as environmental stewardship, anti-poverty programs, or HIV/AIDS treatment. While they mostly believe that homosexuality is a sin, at least some of them support employment and housing rights for LGBTQ people.
Younger evangelicals are emphatic about being “prolife,” with a 2008 poll showing two thirds believing abortion should be illegal in all, or most, circumstances. This is about the same percentage as their older counterparts.2 To place this in context, a majority of Americans have supported the legality of abortion since Roe v. Wade.3
Same sex marriage remains a controversial topic in the country at large with the majority of Americans opposed to allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally and a slight majority favoring civil unions.4 Evangelicals in general oppose same sex marriage at predictably higher rates than the broader population, with only 10 percent in favor. They see same sex marriage as a profound threat to the traditional family and a useful rallying point. However, young evangelicals are more than twice as likely (24 percent to 10 percent) as their elders to support gay couples being allowed to marry, and another 32 percent supports only civil unions.5 So a majority of young evangelicals support some legal recognition of gay partnerships.
Marriage and women’s roles are symbolic issues for evangelicals of all ages who continue to struggle for indicators of social stability against evolving social mores. They worry about the growing acceptance of contraception, abortion, and changing family structures. The evangelical tradition in general perceives these trends as indicative of the destructive forces of modernity, such as increased tolerance of divorce and sex before marriage. For their leaders, these trends must be resisted rather than accommodated, and this tradition is nurtured at Christian colleges.
Of the over 4000 colleges and universities in the United States, perhaps 400 are Christian colleges that identify as evangelical Protestant schools. Students attending these colleges enter environments where conservative Christian values are celebrated, and often codified. Most of these schools explicitly prohibit drinking, smoking, sexual activity, and homosexuality, and some require students and staff to sign faith statements. Yet there is more diversity among these colleges than their stereotype might suggest. As Alan Wolfe, religion professor at Boston College notes:
Conservative Protestant colleges and universities have become too varied and interesting to pigeonhole into the categories of America’s culture war. They can no longer be caricatured as simpleminded defenders of the old-time religion and hostile to reason, any more than secular colleges can be characterized as globally hostile to religion and traditional moral values.6
Evangelical students’ views reflect this diversity. They seem to be able to hold both conservative and liberal views simultaneously. According to Alyssa Bryant, an academic who works with the well-respected Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA:
Revealing their conservative side, evangelical students are predominantly in favor of the pro-life agenda, whereas their liberal inclinations emphasize the importance of providing for the welfare of economically disadvantaged people, protecting the environment, implementing gun control, and abolishing the death penalty.7
John Skees, an evangelical student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas reflects a common belief among his peers in an op-ed published in his student paper:
For evangelicals, especially those who know at least one gay person, this issue [a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage] became greatly troubling. The vast majority of conservative Christians strongly believe that marriage should be restricted to between a man and a woman, but they also value human rights and don’t think that the government should treat anyone unfairly.8
It is safe to say that young evangelicals would be able to explain their positions by asserting that their faith justifies such dissonant views.
Over the three years of the ride, Equality Riders have met their share of hostile receptions, but media attention may have influenced a shift in administrative responses. In 2006, administrators at Liberty University, the Lynchburg, Virginia school founded by Jerry Falwell, arrested 20 riders for trespassing; in 2008 riders delivered books to the library and engaged in dialogue on campus with students. The Equality Ride visited Columbia International University, a Bible college in Columbia, South Carolina in 2008, after receiving letters from closeted gay students there who were scared to speak openly. Students who spoke to reporters responded in cordial yet firm ways, consistent with the school’s policies. “We don’t believe in what these people stand for, but we do love them…as people,” said 19-year-old Israel Markle, reflecting a common catchphrase of modern Christianity, which advises that Christians hate the sin but love the sinner. This is an idea that the Christian Right (which includes many evangelicals) promoted politically for at least the past ten years, but often in an abrasive and judgmental way that many younger evangelicals find offensive.9 At another stop, a Mississippi College student joined the Soulforce vigil on her campus:
It is out of my compassion for people—and the moral obligation that I, as a Christian, felt—that I got involved with their visit to campus ….I am a Christian and a straight ally and I am not afraid to love with reckless abandon.10
Her student paper at the Southern Baptist school reported that:
Some students thought Soulforce was making a conscious effort to stir up anti-gay sentiment and cause general unrest. One student asking to remain anonymous said, “I really don’t care if they walk all over campus, but it’s all a show. If they weren’t here we wouldn’t even be talking about gay bashing, we’d just get on with our lives.”11
Yet it was a student at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida who managed to articulate the contradictions evangelical students experience around homosexuality. Kelly Ribiero found herself challenged and inspired by the Soulforce riders.
As much as I know that homosexuality is sinful and wrong, my mind keeps wandering back to the many times Jesus met with prostitutes and thieves. Even though this was looked down on in His time, He still treated them with love and respect. We need to do the same for people of different beliefs today…. Soulforce’s visit did nothing to change my views on homosexuality….[But] how amazing it must be to believe in something so much you are willing to go through anything for it….Soulforce, thank you for coming to my school and challenging me in my Christian walk.12
It could well be that the current crop of younger evangelicals are influenced significantly by their peers as well as by their parents or their professors, which happens in many youth subcultures.13 For instance, 37 percent of young evangelicals report a close friend or a relative who is gay, about the same percentage of all young adults, according Public Religion Research, compared to 16 percent of people over 35.14 And knowing someone who is gay is closely linked to greater acceptance of same sex marriage.15 If this kind of peer influence continues, the trend of coming out as gay at younger ages may be a tipping point for young evangelicals’ views on homosexuality.
Who Speaks for Evangelicals?
Although often described in general terms, evangelicals across generations are not unanimous on social issues, even on abortion and same sex marriage. They hold a range of political views, some of which can be associated with age or religious practice. The tradition of evangelicalism has been a strong one in the United States, with especially rapid growth in the past 25 years among nondenominational church communities. The most commonly held religious beliefs are: a personal, redemptive relationship with Jesus through a “born again” experience, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the responsibility to share their faith with others. The Pew Forum on Religion and American Life estimates that about 26 percent of Americans identify as evangelical Protestants.16
But not all evangelicals hold the same conservative political views. Forty-one percent of all evangelicals, counting both people of color and Whites, voted for Barack Obama in 2008. Nor are they all motivated to join a conservative political movement. When conservative Christians do become active politically, and also become involved with one or more of the many Christian social movement organizations such as the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, or Focus on the Family, they are generally referred to as the Christian Right. This is a politically mobilized conservative movement of Protestants and Roman Catholics who often place cultural issues like abortion and same sex marriage as top priorities in voting choices.
Two important things to remember are that not all evangelical Protestants are motivated to act out their theological beliefs in the voting booth and that being an evangelical—even a conservative evangelical— is not equivalent to being a member of the Christian Right. John Green, at the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, estimates the size of the U.S. Christian Right is about 15 percent of the electorate.17 Moderate evangelicals, who are also politically motivated but place more emphasis on social issues like poverty and the environment, constitute another 10 percent of the electorate, according to Green. This latter group may have members who vote with the Christian Right in certain circumstances, but who are not as consistently conservative. Many evangelicals, even those with conservative views, do not vote regularly, just like the rest of the population. The millions of evangelicals who create this complex set of voting patterns are represented in Washington by the National Association of Evangelicals.
The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) is the public face of American evangelicalism. Based in Washington, D.C., NAE has coordinated over one hundred denominations, ministries, and academic institutions since its founding in 1942. Richard Cizik, Vice President for Governmental Affairs at NAE for 28 years, stirred controversy in early December 2008 by publicly siding with more open-minded evangelicals on a nationally broadcast NPR radio talk show. Referring to young evangelicals’ potential influence, he predicted, “[T]hey will determine the future of this huge movement that, well, by some surveys’ estimates, if you include children and the rest, a hundred million people, one-third of all Americans.” In fact, according to Cizik:
[T]hese younger evangelicals, they disagree quite strongly with their elders on [same sex marriage]…. The influence of their generational peers is clear. Four in ten young evangelicals say they have a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian. And so, much different than their elders, younger evangelicals they, well, 52 percent favor either same sex marriage or civil unions.18
Cizik aligned himself with younger evangelicals on same sex marriage, a “hot button” social issue for the Right, and went on to suggest that evangelicals need to clean their own house when it comes to heterosexual marriage before they continue to judge same sex marriage. “I am shifting, I would have to admit. In other words, I would willingly say I believe in civil unions. I don’t officially support redefining marriage from its traditional definition, I don’t think.”
In the interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Cizik attempted to shift the focus away from the divisive issue of same sex marriage and instead look other aspects of marriage among evangelicals. Divorce and unwanted pregnancies are nearly as prevalent among evangelicals as in the population at large.19 “We have become so absorbed in the question of gay rights and the rest that we fail to understand the challenges and threats to marriage itself, heterosexual marriage. Maybe we need to reevaluate this and look at it a little differently.”
For his attempts to position some evangelical attitudes as more open-minded than generally thought, Cizik came under fire from member organizations of his employer, the NAE. Its president Leith Anderson announced, “He cannot continue as a spokesperson for NAE, and the implication of that is that he resign.” Nine days after his interview, Cizik did just that.20 Although it’s unclear what Cizik’s goals were in bucking the evangelical leadership, it’s perhaps more clear that his opinions, also held by many moderates, including those in a younger cohort, are threatening to the politicized conservative evangelical establishment.
That establishment is aging. Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy, and Paul Weyrich, all founding fathers of the Christian Right, died within the past year and a half. While megachurch pastors, political movement spokespeople, and others are jockeying for media attention, evangelical Christian college graduates will be a major source of future leadership. They will be expected to maintain evangelical traditions and step up to direct evangelical social and political movements as well. A 1982 study of nine evangelical colleges by James Hunter uncovered students increasingly moving away from traditional conservative evangelical religious beliefs, an effect of growing secularization, even at these enclaves of evangelical thought. The update of the study, published in 2002, by James Penning and Corwin Smidt, revealed some interesting changes among students at the identical set of schools polled by Hunter.
The more recent study seemed to suggest that evangelical students had returned to more conservative religious views, in line with their parents. While students continue to believe that a personal faith in Jesus was the only hope for heaven and that the devil actually exists, a higher percentage of the more recent cohort of students believed that the Bible is to be taken literally.21 In fact Penning and Smidt suggest that by 1996, at least, younger and older evangelicals’ views had converged on most issues except homosexuality.22 In recent years, however, younger evangelicals appear to be once again shifting their attitudes regarding religion and politics in ways that currently are difficult to explain.
Since the mid-1990s the acceptability of homosexuality in the culture at large has shifted as well. What once was a debate over LGBTQ people’s civil rights in housing, employment, and health care has focused to a pinpoint on same sex marriage (thanks largely to opposition campaigns by the Right and a mainstream LGBTQ movement that frames gay marriage as a priority issue). As Richard Cizik said, young evangelicals appear to distinguish between their concern about same sex marriage within the church, which only a minority supports, and their more common support for civil unions as a civil right under the law.
But more importantly perhaps, younger evangelicals place less emphasis on issues like abortion and same sex marriage. Rather, according to David P. Gushee, professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University, they are attracted to “a broader agenda,” that includes the environment, poverty, and human rights, the very issues Cizik championed. Signs indicate some are moving into more moderate positions, or perhaps it shows that there are more moderates being mobilized to vote.
Who Speaks Most Effectively to Evangelical Youth?
Young evangelical voters are being organized both through top-down and bottom-up strategies. At one extreme is an organizing strategy embodied by theocrat Lou Engle, a seventh-generation Pentecostal minister featured in the documentary Jesus Camp who, balding and father of seven, is definitely not one of the young people he seeks to mobilize. Founder of The Call, a series of mass youth rallies billed as spiritual events warning about the end times, he deliberately mobilizes young people politically by encouraging opposition to abortion and same sex marriage, two powerful examples of evil in his mind. Engle joined forces with Proposition 8 supporters in California to bring his theocratic message of spiritual warfare to young evangelicals. Highlighted in this magazine’s last issue, Engle’s efforts indicate the importance of the youth vote to Christian Right leaders.23 Organizers of events like the November 1, 2008 rally in Qualcomm stadium in San Diego where Engle spoke in favor of Proposition 8 hoped to attract tens of thousands of attendees. The stadium was nowhere near full, but the fact that the rally took place at all signals the desire of major conservative funders who backed the event to attempt to reach religious youth.24 Robust attendance estimates at other Call rallies indicate that at least some young evangelicals are attracted to more demanding and judgmental voices.
By contrast, Shane Claiborne’s “A Simple Way” is an example of the kind of grassroots Christian organization that has resonated with some younger evangelicals. He arguably has done more to bring dialog about gay issues to young evangelicals than the Equality Riders. Claiborne, a 1997 Christian college graduate and self-described “radical Christian social activist,” has authored several books and cofounded an intentional religious community in inner-city Philadelphia. Attracting large crowds at any speaking engagement, he toured the country in a vegetable oil-run school bus during the 2008 presidential year with a campaign called “Jesus for President.” He visited campuses, primarily evangelical schools, asking students to choose to support a candidate based on their own Christian values. Further he asked the candidates themselves to endorse Jesus, whom Claiborne calls America’s Commander-in-Chief.
Claiborne’s hip appearance, from his dreadlocks to his hemp hoodie, is part of a package that has attracted many young evangelicals who seek more active congruity between what they believe and how they behave. “The most important camps for young evangelicals are not ‘Left’ and ‘Right,’” Claiborne told me. “They are ‘nice’ and ‘mean.’” He has attracted many who would call themselves “political misfits,” and he preaches the inclusion of all marginalized peoples. “Young evangelicals have done something really dangerous. We picked up our Bibles and we read them. It put us at odds with the evangelical establishment… When we looked at the Moral Majority [and other groups], we saw the inconsistency of the church.”
Claiborne identifies this movement as part of a “post-Religious Right America.” In a debate about the future of the church and politics at the 2008 National Pastors Conference, Claiborne distinguished himself from Chuck Colson, the born-again Watergate felon and prison reformer, about how to respond to the divisive conversations about homosexuality in evangelical churches. Colson’s traditional response was, “There is a natural moral order corresponding to the natural physical order. Something which is so plain on its face is not normative.” Adding that the church should not judge homosexuals but love them, Colson explained that, “We have to recognize that it is not the way men and women are made.” On the other hand, Claiborne told a story about a young gay man he once met. “He felt that God had made a mistake when he made him. He got that message from the church, from society. He wanted to kill himself. That breaks my heart. If that kid can’t find a home in the church, then who have we become?”25
Rather than organize through large pressure groups, Claiborne calls for individuals to create intentional religious communities. His speeches can be found on YouTube with hundreds of comments.26 His image is not always so attractive to the older Christians responsible for evangelical college students’ education. His politics aren’t always attractive to them either; while anti-abortion, he is anti-war, pro-gay, and pro-immigrant, and brings attention to economic inequality and environmental degradation (although not necessarily to governmental solutions), presenting all these issues together in a “support for life” theology similar to Roman Catholic “Seamless Garment” theology. He warns, “I don’t really fit into the old liberal-conservative boxes… My activist friends call me conservative and my religious friends call me liberal.”27
Although often welcomed by Christian college administrators, Claiborne’s 2008 appearance at Cedarville University in Ohio (also a site for the 2007 Equality Ride) was canceled because of his unorthodox theological and political views. A spokesperson for the conservative Baptist college explained, “There can’t be any confusion about our commitment to God’s Word and our historically conservative doctrinal position.”28
Is this clash, thoroughly discussed on evangelical blogs, emblematic of a generation gap as some would like to believe? Are younger evangelicals a kind of collective bellwether, presaging developments within the Christian Right and among conservative Christian voters? More likely we are witnessing a representation of the diversity of political and theological ideas across generations that constitute current evangelical Christianity. The Claiborne/Cedarville controversy is a sort of Jim Wallis vs. Mike Huckabee confrontation: any disagreements about politics remain under the umbrella of American evangelicalism. Indeed, Sojourner magazine editor Jim Wallis wrote the forward to Claiborne’s 2006 book The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. Wallis is a centrist who opposes abortion and gay marriage, yet shares positions with political progressives on issues such as peace, social justice, and poverty. On the other hand, Claiborne pushes the sectarian envelope by praising the Roman Catholic anarchist Dorothy Day as an inspiration, and those raised in the Catholic Church are members of Simple Way communities.29
We are at a moment when the broader public is just learning to distinguish among different sectors of Christianity and among different evangelical voices, including outright progressive ones from the African American community and the global South. Within the United States there are signs that a Christian Left is percolating and seeking alliances with spiritual and non-spiritual progressive activists.30
Without more reliable information about younger White evangelicals, it may be too tempting for liberals to categorize this group as across the board more liberal-leaning, if we use the litmus test of gay marriage as a core tenet of modern political liberalism and progressive thought. Leaping ahead of the incomplete research would be a mistake.
The Equality Ride targeted students whose identities as Christian are central to their lives. Such students’ choice of attending a Christian school probably helps them resist some of the social pressures of modern life. A loving confrontation by fellow young people with contrasting views on homosexuality was designed to challenge orthodoxy and certainty. It’s unclear what direct, long-term effects the Equality Riders will have on the evangelical students they met, but it will be important to pay attention to the political paths young evangelicals take. Those pathways will be influenced by who can afford to provide the asphalt. As long as spokespeople like Engle retain their funding, their visibility will upstage most modest efforts by the Shane Claibornes.
We do know that evangelical students will increasingly be taking stands on the social issues of the day and, as far as LGBTQ rights are concerned, they have moved past their elders into more tolerant territory. Ironically, it has not been the efforts of the evangelical leadership that has influenced their youth the most; it has been other young people. This shift in attitudes largely has happened because of the efforts of the LGBTQ youth movement.
In organizing itself, young members of this progressive arm of the LGBTQ community have succeeded in altering public opinion about their own issues—safe schools, being out, family acceptance, equal rights. Where students run gay/straight alliances (GSAs) in schools, for example, there is less physical violence against LGBTQ students. Where students know peers who are gay, they are more open to LGBTQ rights. Despite Christian colleges’ desire to protect their students from succumbing to undesirable aspects of modern life, young evangelicals at these schools are talking freely about issues that their predecessors could barely articulate.
It is hopeful news that a progressive political movement has influenced younger evangelicals’ views. It’s also enlightening to see that this influence does not necessarily take place through the most direct channels. It’s been twenty years since the first gay-straight alliances appeared in schools, and attitudinal change has come slowly. That’s why it will be so interesting to observe the direction young evangelicals take, not just with LGBTQ issues but in other arenas as well.