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 ABCNews.com. "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 ABCNews.com. "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.
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.