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Mel Evans/AP

Evangelical shift?

Religion | Some younger evangelicals may be taking non-orthodox views on same-sex unions

Issue: "Schock factor," Jan. 31, 2009

Richard Cizik, the longtime vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, made waves in the evangelical world last month when he expressed support for same-sex civil unions on a national radio program. NAE president Leith Anderson promptly asked for Cizik's resignation, charging that such comments "did not appropriately represent the values and convictions of NAE and our constituents."

But Cizik's comments did not emanate from a vacuum. His new position reflects that of an emerging evangelical bloc, one eager to disassociate from the old guard of the Christian right. So just how many evangelicals did Cizik actually represent?

Barrett Duke of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission believes the contingent of evangelicals supporting same-sex civil unions remains marginal-especially within his conservative denomination: "I have no doubt that there are Southern Baptists who do support civil unions for homosexuals and probably also support same-sex marriage. But I can tell you that they are at best in the single digits percentage-wise compared to all Southern Baptists and it might even be a fraction of a digit percentage-wise. Southern Baptists just are not there. And my guess is that the vast majority of the rest of the evangelical world isn't there either, considering how quickly this developed with Rich. They got flooded with contacts at NAE's headquarters."

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Indeed, the response from NAE constituents, which include 60 denominations and some 45,000 churches, was swift and decidedly tilted against Cizik. But according to research over the past several years from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, about a third of white evangelicals and black Protestants likely would have cheered upon hearing Cizik's statement. A Pew survey from 2006 revealed that 30 percent of white evangelicals and 35 percent of black Protestants favor same-sex civil unions. Another Pew study from last year found that 14 percent of all white evangelicals and 15 percent of all black evangelicals support the more radical same-sex marriage.

What's more, a Greenberg Quinlan Rosner survey conducted for Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly in September found that 58 percent of white evangelicals ages 18 to 29 support either gay marriage or civil unions. For those 30 years and older, the number dipped to 46 percent. (The Rosner poll included those who identified themselves as as fundamentalist, evangelical, charismatic, or Pentecostal or who said they were born-again Christians.)

According to the Rosner poll, a full quarter of white evangelical young adults agree that "gay and lesbian couples should have the same legal right to marry as do a man and a woman."

The spike in such nontraditional views among youth suggests substantial movement on the issue over the past decade. But is a reexamination of Scripture driving that shift?

A recent Newsweek cover story attempts to make the biblical case for state-sanctioned gay marriage. In it, writer Lisa Miller contends that "the Bible is a living document, powerful for more than 2,000 years because its truths speak to us even as we change through history. In that light, Scripture gives us no good reason why gays and lesbians should not be (civilly and religiously) married-and a number of excellent reasons why they should."

With a literary flick of the wrist, Miller discards the Bible's condemnations of homosexuality as "throwaway lines." She then quotes liberal theologians such as Walter Brueggemann, emeritus professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, saying that the religious argument for gay marriage "is not generally made with reference to particular texts, but with the general conviction that the Bible is bent toward inclusiveness."

Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and an acquaintance of Miller, called the Newsweek article "political proselytizing," charging that it failed to "give even one representation of an orthodox, conservative New Testament or Old Testament scholar, not one."

Cromartie intends to tell Miller as much when their paths next cross. Scores of other incensed evangelicals already have. The online version of the article triggered such vehement reaction that Newsweek disabled the story's comments section. Cromartie hopes the combination of Cizik's remarks and the Newsweek piece will awaken awareness and concern on a critical issue: "This should begin another good and important conversation among evangelical leaders about what they do and do not believe about same-sex marriage."

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