New Evangelists Buck the Christian Right

Young evangelicals care more about poverty, AIDS than abortion, gay marriage.

Dec. 19, 2008 — -- It might be easy to guess the social views of Chris LaTondresse, the son of white evangelical missionaries who served as a Bible camp counselor and attended the Christian Bethel University in Minneapolis.

But LaTondresse, 26, favors civil unions for gay couples and takes a "pro-life" stance, worrying more about what happens to the child "after the womb" and how to help pregnant women in trouble.

He applauded a recent National Public Radio interview with the man who has been considered a "hero" among young evangelicals -- Richard Cizik, the chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals -- who said that religious attitudes toward abortion and gay marriage are shifting.

"I was cheering, 'Go for it, Rich,'" said LaTondresse, who twice voted for Bush, but supported Obama. "He's one of the guys who speak for the current generation of evangelicals, most of them my friends."

"My generation cares more about the fact that 30,000 kids died today of hunger, poverty, preventable disease than about gay marriage amendments in California," he told "We are pro life, but for us that definition is far broader than abortion. It includes poverty, AIDS, human trafficking and the war in Iraq."

But after that controversial Dec. 2 interview with Terry Gross on "Fresh Air," Cizik was asked to resign -- a "huge disappointment" and a "sad commentary on the current state of evangelicalism in America," according to LaTondresse.

The resignation illustrates a growing dissent among evangelicals and their political priorities. Some religious leaders say that a new generation of Christians is emerging that has a broader agenda than "wedge" issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

"What we are seeing is a religious right that is scared, period," said Jason Gedeik, a spokesman for Sojourners, a progressive group that was formed during the Vietnam War and whose mission is to "articulate the biblical call to social justice."

"They have lost their stranglehold on public discourse around religion and politics," he told "Their ratcheting is getting louder now because the only way they can rally their base is through fear."

"What we are seeing is almost a retrenching, digging their heels in further," said Gedeik. "I think it's because they don't have a choice. The majority of Americans want to end this culture war and find common ground."

Cizik, who has served with the NAE for 28 years as a moderate voice, was just named to the 2008 Time 100 list, sharing the "scientist and thinker" spot with Nobel-prize winner Eric Chivian. But he has been criticized for his outspoken views on global warming and world poverty, issues that the Christian right sees as "distractions" from their core pro-life, pro-marriage agenda.

Support for Civil Unions

His interview caused a firestorm when he said his long-held opposition to gay marriage was "shifting." "I would willingly say I believe in civil unions. I don't officially support redefining marriage from its traditional definition, I don't think."

"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," Cizik said. "Maybe we need to reevaluate this and look at it a little differently."

He told NPR that four in 10 young evangelicals say they have a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian; as many as 52 percent favor either same-sex marriage or civil unions.

Cizik disclosed that he had voted for Barack Obama in the primaries, that younger evangelicals "know gay people" and aren't as "threatened" as their parents. He also suggested that Sarah Palin's positions on global warming – which he defines as "creation care" – were like burning the Bible.

Cizik Not Representative of Evangelicals

NAE's Anderson explained to the members of his board of directors that Cizik did not "appropriately represent the values and convictions" of the 45,000-church strong organization.

"Although he has subsequently expressed regret, apologized and affirmed our values there is a loss of trust in his credibility as a spokesperson among leaders and constituents," Anderson said in a Dec. 5 letter posted on NAE's Web site. "Our NAE stand on marriage, abortion and other biblical values is long, clear and unchanged."

NAE President Leith Anderson and Cizik both declined interviews with

"The classical church feels a bit threatened by the emerging group who say, 'I think God cares about gay people: I have a gay sister or brother. I have faith in Christ and I feel great compassion for my family members,'" said Adam Hamilton, pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., the largest such congregation in the country.

"There are yesterday and tomorrow evangelicals and Rich captured the sentiment of many of tomorrow's evangelicals," he said of Cizik's resignation. "Rich may not be the cause of it, but NAE is going to look at lot more like Richard's view or it will be 10 percent of the size it is today."

Attacks From Focus on the Family

Until now, Cizik had survived attacks from James Dobson's Focus on the Family, which previously called for Cizik's resignation after he declared global warming a top priority.

Tom Minnery, senior vice president of Focus on the Family, concedes a growing awareness among evangelicals that so-called "creation care" is important, especially among the young.

"But Rich seemed to be saying that this issue was number one, and if you believe that abortion is the taking of innocent life and anything else is more important then he had developed a narrow agenda," he told

Pro-life still "resonates so deeply" with evangelicals, said Minnery. "It's still a vital movement this long after Roe v. Wade."

Minnery said that issue and the ban of gay marriage in three states show that Christians are resolute. But he acknowledges attitudes toward gays are "shifting" among younger evangelicals.

But a pre- and post-election poll conducted by the nonprofit Faith in Public Life showed religious voters placed a greater priority on the economy, healthcare and Iraq over same-sex marriage and abortion.

In this survey of 1,277 voters, 86 percent of white evangelicals said their elected leaders should find ways to reduce abortion, expanding adoption and increasing economic support for women who want to carry their pregnancies to term.

Only one in five evangelicals said an agenda focused primarily on abortion and same-sex marriage best reflects their values.

"The Christian right has hijacked the term 'family values' and used it as an anti-gay weapon," said Jacki Waring, a 25-year-old evangelical who lives in Washington, D.C. "I find this repugnant."

Like many others of her generation, she is not opposed to same-sex unions or gay marriage and said she believes that educational disparities and weakened families are closely linked to domestic poverty. This new coalition is "increasingly compassionate and accepting" toward the gay community, women in "crisis pregnancy" and "the poor and forgotten," said Waring.

Christian Tenets: Poverty, Environment

These young people and a growing coalition of moderates like Cizik, also want issues like global warming, poverty and military aggression more prominently addressed as core Christian tenets.

"I heard [Cizik's] interview with Terri Gross on Fresh Air and I thought it was wonderful," she said. "I felt very much 'represented' and I am disheartened to see him step down from the NAE. I don't think they have much of a future if they revert back to the Christian right agenda."

On some issues, Cizik has been more conservative. An ordained evangelical Presbyterian minister, Cizik drafted the letter to Ronald Reagan that brought the then-president to NAE, where he gave his "evil empire" speech, boosting the political clout of evangelicals.

He supported California's Proposition 8 to ban same-sex marriage and signed his name to an ad in The New York Times accusing gay advocates of "anti-religious bigotry," according to Christianity Today.

But his outspoken interview signals less rigid thinking, according to Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners. "Pioneers sometimes get into trouble and even pay a price for their explorations into new territories. But in the new moral center that is now visible, Rich's prophetic voice and leadership will continue to be heard and felt."

Wallis said Cizik will "continue to be a leader in the new faith coalition that is emerging now, and that will replace the religious right, without becoming a religious left."

"The old guard is literally passing from the scene and a new generation representing [evangelism] won't be turned back," he told

God Is Not a Republican

In his books, "God's Politics" and "Great Awakening," he argues that Christianity is not synonymous with the religious right and that God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat.

"The Bush administration was not pro-life," said Wallis. "The administration fought a war in Iraq that violated the ethic of life consistently. We don't accept that narrow, political partisan definition of life. This has been conservative politics put forth in a religious context."

Obama, on the other hand, addresses the abortion problem through education and support for low income women to prevent pregnancy, according to Wallis.

"This is the new common ground of pro life and pro choice," he said. "Does anybody think there's a better pro-family message than Barack Obama and the two kids coming up on stage in Grant Park?"

Many of these Christians also believe in equal protection under the law – for gay Americans and everyone else.

And they place a greater emphasis on heeding the actual words of Jesus – the ones once written in red letters in the Bible. They point to the parable in the Bible's Matthew 25, the obligation to care for "the least of these."

They use the Internet, rather than Christian radio, to spread their message. And their leaders have appeared on television's "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report."

"The only description Jesus gives on Judgment Day is how people respond to the poor: 'Did you feed me?' and the sick: 'Did you take care of me?'" said Tony Campolo, author of "Red Letter Christians." "It's a non-judgmental approach: 'I have not come to condemn the world.'"

'Don't Call Us Evangelicals'

"What's happened is that many of us have gotten to the point where we don't want to call ourselves evangelicals anymore if it means anti-women, anti gay, anti-environment and pro-war," Campolo told "That's not who we are."

But David Brody, senior national correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, said Cizik's ostracism from the religious right is not a schism among evangelicals, but a "crossroads moment."

"At this point [the religious right] is hunkering down, concentrating on the life and marriage issues more than ever before because they understand the concern about other issues," he told "What is compounding the problem is Barack Obama becoming president and having a soap box for talking about other issues like poverty and Darfur."

But, he said, evangelicals still stand by their "core" values. "Any time you talk about your support for civil unions in the evangelical community, you are persona non grata. The idea that Richard Cizik has been out there on many different issues, this was the last-straw scenario," he said. "At the end of the day, evangelicals are not going to budge on the life and marriage issues."

"The jury is still out on where this is going and how it's going to play out," said Brody. "It's going to be an intense battle coming up with the evangelical movement and also within the political environment as to which issues get rule of the day."

Living His Faith

But Chris LaTondresse is confident that his generation represents the new face of evangelicals. And while he talks about this, he is living his faith, serving as U.S. director of Questscope, an organization that helps the one million displaced Iraqis who have poured into Jordan since the American-led war.

"It's absurd to our generation that the state of civil unions would the moral issue of our time," he said. "The further you dive into the subculture, the less comfortable we are with the evangelical labels and the more comfortable we are aspiring to be a follower of Jesus."