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Young Evangelicals Are Ditching the Christian Right's Bigoted Agenda

Evangelical students have moved past their elders into more tolerant territory.

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. 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. To place this in context, a majority of Americans have supported the legality of abortion since Roe v. Wade.

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. 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.

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