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Young evangelicals and gay issues

WHEN BAYLOR University President Robert Sloan finished reading the school newspaper's editorial in favor of gay marriage last week, he was angry. In a statement that garnered much more attention than the editorial itself, Sloan explained, "While we respect the right of students to hold and express divergent viewpoints, we do not support the use of publications such as the Lariat, which is published by the university, to advocate positions that undermine foundational Christian principles upon which this institution was founded and currently operates."


But the guy who should have been upset is Karl Rove. Baylor is a Baptist university, serious about its commitment to the faith both inside the classroom and out, and its student body was presumably "energized" by President Bush's support of an amendment to the Constitution on same-sex marriage. If the Bush campaign is searching for the 4 million evangelical voters who stayed home during the 2000 election, they should know that the editorial board of the Baylor Lariat, which voted 5 to 2 to support gay marriage, is not unrepresentative of the views of younger evangelicals.

During my visit to the school a couple of years ago, the subject of whether a homosexual student organization should be recognized by the administration was a topic of much discussion. The faculty I spoke with seemed averse to the idea, but among the students it was easy to find a range of opinion.

Then-student body president Matthew Flanigan told me, "I sure don't think there should be a homosexual group. That would mean Baylor is promoting it. That's not in line with what the Bible says." Flanigan acknowledged that the issue of how to deal with homosexual behavior is a difficult one. He doesn't want the school to "kick you out if you're gay . . . We have to love them -- and we do -- but we can't say their behavior is all right."

Even though Juls Trinh is Catholic, her view is also a commonly held one at Baylor. "It's really difficult for me because I haven't decided if homosexuality is something that you're born with or whether you decide to lead your life that way," she said. "I know it sounds cheesy, but I believe everyone is a person and it's not my judgment. God is going to decide these things."

James Penning, a professor at Calvin College and coauthor of "Evangelicalism: The Next Generation," says that "students at evangelical colleges today are more likely to believe that homosexuality is something you're born with." (In fact, at no point during my visits to six evangelical colleges did anyone try to promote "conversion therapy.") Such people may be more sympathetic to the homosexual position than someone who believes it is a choice (such as, say, abortion).

The book, which compares attitudes on "moral boundaries" among evangelical students in 1982 and 1996, offers some interesting statistics. While the percentage of students who believed extramarital sex was always wrong remained the same over that period of time (97 percent) and the percentage who believed premarital sex was always wrong increased (from 89 to 92 percent), the proportion who thought homosexual relations was wrong decreased.

Though it was slight (from 94 to 91 percent), Penning believes that the trend has continued in that direction since 1996 and that now there would at least be "greater openness toward civil unions."

Several factors are at work here. First, we are all products of our environment to some extent and the public has become more accepting of homosexuality in recent years. Second, there is probably a greater awareness of the issues faced by homosexuals today, the result of more gay people being outspoken about their experiences. But the sense that homosexuals are people to be loved, and not necessarily condemned, is at least in part the product of current evangelical culture, and what Penning calls its "increased emphasis on grace and diminished emphasis on judgment."

But the growing support for gay marriage among young evangelicals finds its roots in another trend as well. These students are more likely to place some distance between their religious beliefs and their political views than their parents and grandparents did. The editor of the Lariat explained that the board's decision was based on legal grounds not moral ones. Putting it more bluntly, one young man at the evangelical Wheaton College told me, "Christianity should never be reduced to politics." Hardly the words of an energized voter.

Naomi Schaefer, an adjunct fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is writing a book on religious colleges.

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