Evangelicals See an Evolution of Their Own

Younger generation seen as having new priorities.

ByBill Redeker

May 4, 2007 — -- The evangelical movement has long been considered a powerful political entity. An estimated 65 million Americans consider themselves conservative Christians. Their anti-gay, anti-abortion views are well known as is their support for mostly Republican political candidates.

But times are changing.

Now there are evangelicals speaking out on global warming and supporting adoption. Neither would have been endorsed only a few years ago.

"There's a great deal of foment in the evangelical community right now," John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life told ABCNews.Com.

"I do think there is a change afoot," said Randall Balmer, an evangelical Christian and professor of religion at Barnard College. "Finally, evangelical voices other than those on the hard right are beginning to make themselves heard."

The implications for the Republican party are not necessarily good.

"I think the Republicans can no longer count on evangelical votes falling into their laps," said Balmer. "There's going to be a die-hard core that will stick with it but on the whole, there will be some shifting on the issues."

The latest example is adoption. Prominent evangelical Christians are telling their followers to strongly consider adoption or foster care. But they deny suggestions they are doing so to answer criticism that their movement hasn't done enough for children without families.

"Absolutely not. We're not doing this to respond to criticism. This is all about the children," Mark Andre, Director of The Orphan Care Initiative at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colorado told ABCNEWS.com. "God wants us to care for the orphan, the widow, the prisoner, the sick and ailing and the stranger."

More than 500,000 children were in foster care in the United States as of 2005. About 115,000 are waiting to be adopted. Andre and his wife have adopted three chidren.

"They are the delight of my heart and my wife's heart too," he said. "There are kids who need homes, kids who need care. That's what this is all about."

Christopher Padbury, executive director of Project 1.27, a faith-based adoption project partnering with the State of Colorado, has also led by example and adopted five children. "If we are spending all our time complaining about homosexuals, then why are we not coming forward to adopt these kids" he told The Associated Press.

Padbury's group takes its name from a James 1:27 passage to "look after orphans and widows in their distress."

Andre concedes that it's a new issue for evangelicals. "Times are changing, it's time to roll up our sleeves and get involved, each one who sits in the pew needs to get involved," he said.

In addition to adoption and foster care, organizers are also suggesting the faithful provide support networks for foster families and sponsor orphanages.

There is also a generational divide in the evangelical community and that too could be problematic for Republicans.

"Younger evangelicals are looking for something different. They are not embracing their parents view," Rod Dreher, a conservative columnist for the Dallas Morning News told ABCNews.com. "They are looking for fresh thinking on where can we go as conservatives."

One of the more controversial avenues some of them are taking involves speaking out about global warming. Eighty-six evangelical leaders recently banded together and challenged the Bush administration on climate change. Their "Evangelical Call to Action" states there's no longer a debate about the dangers of global warming so the government should, among other things, create a federal law that would mandate lower carbon dioxide emissions.

The old guard did not approve.

A letter from several older evangelical leaders including James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, said they were not convinced that global warming has been caused by man or that it can be prevented. They went on to criticize the Rev. Richard Cizik, the National Association of Evangelicals' vice president for government affairs, accusing him of trying to lead the movement away from what they consider to be more important issues like homosexuality and abortion.

Some of those who signed the letter said they were concerned about the issue because they associated global warming with "leftists" and limits on free enterprise, which they have long opposed.

Columnist Dreher believes the letter was a mistake and doesn't take into consideration younger members.

"The young don't have a problem with gay marriage," said Dreher. "As the older conservatives die off, it's not going to be an issue anymore. It's futile to spend our time on this issue. As for abortion though, I'm glad to see 'partial birth' rolled back though we'll never totally get rid of abortion because this is generally a pro-choice country."

There is also an emerging consensus that the war in Iraq has undercut evangelical support for the Bush administration.

"I don't think they (the Bush administration) really cares about what really concerns social conservatives; the breakdown of family," said Dreher. "They treat religious and social conservatives like useful idiots."

In 2000 and 2004, evangelicals rallied behind Bush. There was a lot of enthusiasm which helped in getting out the vote. But the lingering war in Iraq and the failure to get its agenda passed has left many evangelicals disillusioned.

"It is so clear that things have collapsed around Bush, a lot of the independents who were leaning toward Republicans are now leaning toward Democrats -- especially younger voters," said Dreher. "Republicans are out of ideas and there's a lot of anger toward Bush regarding the Iraq war. The war made me realize the danger of being tied in as a religious voter to the Republican party. A lot of evangelicals are also upset about all the spending. We're looking for a Messiah to save us."

Handicapping Republican candidates is dangerous but Green of the Pew Forum offered the following. "First, our polling shows a lot of evangelicals are undecided but some like John McCain because he's a conservative candidate, many like Brownback but few have ever heard of him and the same for Huckabee."

What about Giuliani and Romney?

"Some surveys show 25 to 40 per-cent of evangelicals cannot support a Mormon candidate. This poses a challenge for Governor Romney. It's an issue he needs to address," said Green. "But if he were to win the primary a lot of evangelicals will vote for him because even being a Mormon he'd be better than a Democrat. Rudy Giuliani might be a good president but he won't press hard on the evangelical agenda."

Nearly everyone interviewed for this article pointed out that evangelicals are frustrated because they believe that their support for Republicans resulted in little change that would benefit their core issues.

That said, the chances for Democrats running away with the evangelical vote are slim.

"Our people aren't for Democrats," said columnist Dreher. "They are simply sick of Republicans, the so called grand coalition, the fusionist coalition that came about after Goldwater held pretty well since Reagan brought it to power. But now, that's out of gas, it's gone."

That leaves many conservative Christians in a quandary.

"Maybe some will stay home," said Dreher. "They've supported Republicans and nothing has happened. At this time, there is simply no consensus pick."

Aswini Anburajan contributed to this report.

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