Evangelicals: New Notions on Gays

He is the nicest right-wing evangelical powerhouse you've never heard of. Jim Daly grew up the last of five children in what anyone would call a broken home. His mother died when he was 10 and he lived with, in turn, a stepfather, a foster family, his own alcoholic father and his divorced brother. He came to Jesus in high school, under the guidance of a football coach. His recent memoir, "Finding Home," has barely made a dent on the best-seller lists. Nevertheless, in 2005, Daly got the job of president and CEO of Focus on the Family, and although he denies this, it's clear that he was picked to be the yin to James Dobson's yang. While Dobson continues to threaten in the press, Daly chats amiably with a reporter about the fall weather. He sticks to the hard line on policy issues—gay marriage is bad for families, he says—but his presentation is all soft edges. "I'm sure there are wonderful gay parents out there; there's a poster child for everything." If one of his boys turned out to be gay, he says, "I'd love him."

Is the presence of Daly at the head of what is arguably the country's most politically powerful conservative Christian group more evidence of a shift by evangelicals toward the center? Or is this alleged shift simply cosmetic? Events of the past few weeks offer contradictory evidence. On the one hand, you have Dobson, creating a furor with a New York Times op-ed warning Republicans to deliver a presidential candidate with the right values—or else. On the other, a handful of new books and studies show some movement centerward, at least on the question of tolerance toward homosexuals. According to a new study by the Barna Research Group, 80 percent of churchgoers between the ages of 16 and 29 believe that the term "anti-homosexual" describes Christianity, and they complain that they don't get enough guidance from their pastors in how to apply Christ's message of love to their gay friends. According to another study cited in "After the Baby Boomers" by Robert Wuthnow, young evangelicals have grown dramatically more tolerant of gays over the past 20 years on issues like teaching in schools.

It is undoubtedly getting much easier to find evangelicals with authentic Bible-belt credentials expressing love and support for their gay friends and neighbors. Gabe Lyons, an author of the Barna study, says he has spoken privately with Daly about his dream of starting a meaningful conversation between the nation's gay and Christian leaders "and not just spout off our views." On Good Friday this year, a pastor named Timmy Gibson from Olathe, Kans., took 15 parishioners to a mall in downtown Kansas City, where all of them held huge pink signs that read GOD LOVES GAYS. Students on a handful of evangelical campuses—Samford University and Eastern University, for example—are starting gay student groups, some without their administrations' approval.

On policy, though, evangelical conservatives on the whole aren't budging much—yet. According to a Pew study done in August, 81 percent of white evangelicals oppose gay marriage. "More and more sensible evangelicals would say that we're all sexually confused and that we're all sexually broken. And that therefore tolerance is in order," says Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. "But tolerance doesn't mean approval. Across the board, people don't want marriage to be redefined, legally." This may change over the long term: the same Pew study shows that opposition to gay marriage is inching down among white evangelicals under 30 to 76 percent. John Green, a Pew analyst, surmises that for future generations this issue may be very much like divorce—an unwelcome fact of life. As Dobson heads into his final years, it is worth wondering whether his gentle No. 2 will be a man of decisive action or merely a more temperate relic of the past.