Brent Childers used to call himself a “Jesse Helms Republican” who justified his homophobic beliefs through biblical interpretation. But last weekend, as he marched in the Equality March in Washington, D.C., he stood alongside his lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender friends in support of their full human rights. As executive director of Faith in America, Childers works full time to incorporate an inclusive message of LGBT human equality into the Christian dialogue. His organization’s mission is to educate the public about the emotional and physical harm cased by “religion-based bigotry.”
Childers’s change of heart isn’t unique, either. It represents a growing shift in support of LGBT rights among evangelicals in the United States. The work of Faith in America also shows that progressive people of faith are developing LGBT supportive organizations to question and ultimately undermine the Religious Right’s ideological monopoly on biblical interpretation.
In the most recent national survey done by the Pew Research Center, more Americans than ever recorded (57 percent) support civil unions. Thirty-nine percent of this support comes from white evangelicals, and even though that’s not a majority, it shows there are definite inroads being made into that community. Given increasingly divergent opinions in the white evangelical community, a “biblical” opposition to gay marriage is becoming less tenable among them and simply a matter of their interpretation and personal opinion.
There is additional hopeful news. Young evangelicals are measurably diverging from the condemning views of their church elders on LGBT rights. In a recent survey during the 2008 presidential election cycle, 58 percent of young white evangelicals supported some form of legal recognition of gay partnerships, whether in the form of civil unions or marriage. Twenty-six percent supported full marriage rights.
The promise of this rising evangelical support of LGBT human rights cannot be overstated. If trends continue, evangelicals can no longer be counted on as a solid unwavering base of the Religious Right. And without the support of young evangelicals the Religious Right will become even more of a reservoir of aging bigots than a dynamic and growing grassroots movement.
But LGBT supporters should engage evangelicals and seek to expand their numbers instead of patiently waiting for the younger generation to outnumber the old. It is critical to work with young evangelicals, who can serve as effective messengers within their faith communities and age groups—and can broaden the language of LGBT advocacy to include faith messages that resonate with evangelical congregations.
Faith in America is one organization dedicated to working with faith communities, but there are others. For instance, Evangelicals Concerned and the Global Alliance of Affirming Apostolic Pentecostals are developing in once predominately socially conservative evangelical and charismatic denominations. Organizations like these know the spiritual motivation and language needed to mobilize younger evangelicals who may feel unsure or even guilty about their belief that all people should have the right to marry.
“Every person coming to Washington—whether they are religious or not,” Childers wrote in a Newsweek article, “does share one faith, and that is faith in America.” With his organization and personal leadership, Childers is helping to create a public space that more and more evangelicals can inhabit in good conscience and in good faith. And along with many others he is demonstrating to the larger LGBT movement that there is indeed a commonality among LGBT rights advocates and the large evangelical population in America—a commonality that may even form the foundation for a broad-based winning coalition.
Marta Cook is Special Assistant to the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative and the Progressive Studies Program.
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