04/01/2014 06:02 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2014

Young Evangelicals Change Look of the Culture Wars

PORTLAND, Ore. -- The culture wars might be heating up in these parts as the Oregon Family Council and allies mobilize for a ballot measure exempting Christian business owners from providing services for same-sex weddings -- or "participating" in these unions, as proponents prefer to phrase it.

We know how this campaign is bound to play out, don't we? The coordinated outreach to evangelical churches, the conservative-Christians-versus-liberal-heathens battle lines, the megachurch people marching in lockstep against "the homosexual agenda."

This might make for a tidy storyline and confirm what we think we know about evangelical Christianity in the public square. Big problem: It's less accurate by the day as evangelicals here and around the country continue to evolve away from a fixation on homosexuality and a fight against gay rights, whether the question is marriage, adoption, or freedom from discrimination. If you are guessing that social conservatives in Oregon can push a button and activate the evangelical vote for another go-round, you are likely in for a surprise.

True, for decades "evangelical," "politically conservative," and "anti-gay" have been virtually synonymous in the public's understanding of the intersection of politics and religion -- for good reason. Since the rise of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority in the late 1970s, and over the course of growing political activism by Focus on the Family and state-level spinoffs, evangelical Christians have been turning to conservative politics to shape the culture and stand strong against abortion and gay rights.

They've won some and lost some, as invariably happens in politics. But, as younger evangelicals are calling out, the riled-up politicized church has lost something vital in the process: the ability to transcend political hostilities and have conversations about the "good news" of the gospel.

As a result, we find a situation in which more and more evangelicals, especially those in the younger age brackets, are veering away from political fights against gay rights. These believers would rather do what Christianity does better: serve the community, support the poor and outcast, and demonstrate the love of their savior.

The Portland-area evangelical community has been doing a fine job of that, actually, as evidenced by the success of the Seasons of Service, now called CityServe Portland. Coordinated by the Beaverton-based Luis Palau Association, the project has activated dozens of area churches and Christian nonprofits, and hundreds of mostly evangelical volunteers, in staging free medical and dental clinics, supporting public schools, and carrying out numerous other forms of service.

This outreach has come without the divisive political edge many liberals have come to associate with evangelical Christianity in the public square. And it has come with no judgment on the sexual orientation of two gay civic leaders with whom the church people have coordinated and cooperated: Sam Adams, Portland mayor through most of the Seasons of Service effort, and Carole Smith, superintendent of Portland Public Schools.

It turns out that evangelicals here and elsewhere are dropping their weapons in all sorts of surprising ways when it comes to gay rights. Last month, I was witness to what could rightly be called the first-ever evangelical gay film festival. Held in Pasadena, Calif., under the leadership of two recent graduates of evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary, the Level Ground Film Festival brought together Christians of varying political stripes, many of them gay, for dialog around films exploring faith, gender, and sexuality. The festival is now organizing a Portland iteration to take place later this spring.

National polling data show that close to half of younger evangelicals support gay marriage. And many older evangelicals with more traditional views are tamping down their once-hot rhetoric and placing less emphasis on holding the line against growing social acceptance of homosexuality -- even Focus on the Family, whose current leader, Jim Daly, has spoken apologetically about the group's past demonization of gay people and over-emphasis on politics.

Friends of Religious Freedom -- the group promoting the religious exemption ballot measure in Oregon -- describes a campaign strategy to reach out to Oregonians of all faiths, and none. In an email exchange with me, campaign legal counsel Shawn Lindsay emphasized broad public support for the idea that no one should be coerced into involvement in a same-sex wedding against his or her convictions.

We'll see about that if and when Oregonians vote on the matter. What is clear from Lindsay's statement is that the campaign, at least in its public rhetoric, is downplaying evangelical mobilization. That's smart -- and another indication of the shift in the religious-political dynamic.

As this campaign tack seems to acknowledge, over-reliance on the evangelical (and conservative Catholic) base is not a winning play in political battles around gay rights. Why? Because, in large part, more and more evangelicals are unwilling to play the stereotyped roles of old.

This article was originally published in The Oregonian March 29, 2014