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09/30/2014 09:12 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

These Pro-Gay Evangelicals Think They Know How To Save The Megachurch

The mission is at once incredibly modest and completely radical. But Brandan Robertson, the 22-year-old spokesman for Evangelicals for Marriage Equality, a new group whose very name sounds like an oxymoron, has lived a life of many contradictions.

Although he is the public face of what he believes is the first pro-gay movement within the American evangelical community, for example, he doesn’t identify himself as a gay man.

“I identify as questioning,” Robertson said in a recent phone interview. “I don’t identify as gay, but I also don’t think its honest to identify as straight. It’s a fluid thing for me.”

Robertson also approves of Russell Moore, despite his work as the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention -- the evangelical denomination leading the fight to ban same-sex marriage around the country. Moore is “one of the people I respect more than anyone else,” Robertson said.

Next month, Moore and other evangelical leaders will gather in Tennessee to take what they say is their strongest stand against gay rights. Moore has derided Evangelicals for Marriage Equality, calling the group's mission "tragic" and predicting in an interview that it won't "get very far." Still, Robertson will be there, trying to engage Moore in deep conversation.

Robertson acknowledged he's unlikely to change the views of people like Moore on same-sex marriage. But he said he hopes to persuade them that attempts to prevent state governments from allowing gays to marry outside the church are destroying the faith.

“Every megachurch in our country is declining in numbers,” Robertson said. “Every seminary. Churches are falling apart. There are moral issues that keep coming up in evangelicalism, and it's time to start thinking. It's time to figure out what we’re doing wrong.”

When it comes to the state of churches, at least, Evangelicals for Marriage Equality has some numbers on its side. According the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan group that conducts surveys on religious and political trends, the number of religiously unaffiliated people in the South has more than tripled over the past decade, and evangelicals have not been an exception. From 2003 to 2013, the percentage of white evangelical Protestants shrank from 24 percent of adult Americans to 19 percent. (Millennials who still identify as evangelical are twice as likely as the oldest generation to support same-sex marriage.)

Robert Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute, said he sees church positions on gay rights as a driving force in membership decline.

"The youngest generation grew up at the height of the Christian right movement in the country," Jones told The Huffington Post in a recent interview. "They grew up seeing a very politicized version of Christianity. This kind of hyper-politicized religiosity is a real turnoff for younger Americans."

Robertson used to be a hyper-political Christian himself, back when people at his public high school called him “Bible boy.” Although his parents didn’t raise him in a Christian household, a conversion experience at age 12 took him to the streets once a week to warn the people of Baltimore about the perils of the LGBT agenda, among other things. He and six other kids would head to Baltimore’s waterfront to preach that “America was a Christian nation, built on family values, and the LGBT agenda was to dismantle American and dismantle these values.”

In 2008, when President Barack Obama was elected, Robertson was so dismayed that, as he recalled, he entered the phrase, “God, help us” in his journal. But two years later, in another journal entry, he wrote that working against same-sex marriage “just doesn’t seem right.”

By then, he had LGBT friends in Chicago, where he had moved to attend the Moody Bible Institute. “I began to realize there was a struggle between Jesus’ command to love our neighbors and the evangelical church’s position on civil marriage,” he said.

Robertson ultimately grew to believe that support for same-sex marriages performed by government officials did not contradict the teachings of the evangelical church. These days, he lives in Washington, D.C., and works as the evangelical organizer for Faith In Public Life, a progressive think tank and advocacy group. He got involved with Evangelicals for Marriage Equality about a year ago.

The group has nine board members, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who live all over the country, span the political spectrum, and work in industries ranging from tech to politics. They are all white and all but one are men. Robertson said the group is actively recruiting and trying to become more diverse.

Evangelicals for Marriage Equality is attempting to stake out “a middle ground” for evangelicals who may still believe that religious marriage should only be between a man and a woman, but nevertheless support changing laws to allow civil marriage ceremonies between same-sex couples.

Moore, of the Southern Baptist Convention, fully rejects the idea.

“I don't think this is a ‘middle ground’ at all," Moore wrote in an email. "I think it's a rather wholesale adoption of the spirit of the age on the meaning of marriage."

Moore said he likewise rejects the premise that the church is losing young members. “When one looks at actual church-going evangelicals, as opposed to those who self-identify on a poll, there simply is no drain of the younger generation from the church,” he said. “There is no serious debate among evangelicals about what the Bible teaches on sexuality, just the question of whether we will be obedient to it or not. In the end, I think these attempts to mute a Christian sexual ethic are tragic, but I do not think they will get very far.”

So far, most evangelical leaders seem to share this view. As the board members of Evangelicals for Marriage Equality prepared to launch the group, they attempted to place advertisements in the three most prominent American Christian publications -- Christianity Today, Relevant, and World Magazine. All three rejected the ads. Relevant and Christianity Today both told the organization they turned down the ad for political reasons. (An editor at Christianity Today sent The Huffington Post the publication's editorial stance against same-sex marriage when asked to explain why the ad was rejected.)

World Magazine said the group’s “stated goal of compassionate, respectful dialogue rather than name-calling or hostile debate is admirable.” Kevin Martin, World’s CEO, wrote in an email that he refused the ad not because of its position on marriage, but because of its association with the Washington public relations firm Berman and Co., led by a man once described by Columbia Journalism Review as "the PR powerhouse who specializes in organizing deceptive corporate front groups.”

“We're a little surprised a group identifying itself as evangelical would hire an organization with such a reputation, but that's their choice,” Martin said. Evangelicals for Marriage Equality’s “choice of PR representative is good reason to let time determine whether the goal is sincere.”

Robertson told The Huffington Post that Berman and Co. was only nominally involved in Evangelicals for Marriage Equality. A co-founder, Michael Saltsman, works for Berman and Co. "as part of his day job," and asked a coworker who regularly handles such work to contact the magazines on behalf of Evangelicals for Marriage Equality.

According to Robertson, the group is primarily funded by the Liberty Education Forum, a Washington-based advocacy group focused on outreach to conservative and religious communities on lesbian and gay issues.

Robertson said he’s been “praying a lot” in preparation for the conference next month, which is billed as “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage." He said many evangelicals have already offered to engage in public debate with him. But that’s not exactly what he has in mind.

"I'm looking to get in a room, sit at a table and just talk," Robertson said. “I'm hoping to make way for other people to be honest with their questions and struggles."

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