PRINCETON, New Jersey (Reuters) - Matt Dunbar is not your typical evangelical Christian.
With his tousled hair, sideburns and a scruffy “soul patch” beard, the 26-year-old New Yorker belongs to a growing minority of young evangelicals who want to broaden their political agenda beyond the traditional opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
Evangelicals like Dunbar are eager to move on and tackle such hot topics as global warming and social justice.
As they move to the center of the political spectrum, they are deciding whether Republican presidential candidate John McCain or Democrat Barack Obama aligns best with their values and deserves their vote in the November presidential election.
A former Republican, Dunbar’s political views began to change with the war in Iraq. “I couldn’t keep my political affiliation with the Republican Party at that point,” he said.
Research shows many young white evangelical Christians are moving away from the Republican Party.
Surveys by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life show a 15 percentage point drop in the alliance of white evangelicals aged 18 to 29 with the Republican Party over the past two years.
“This group is going to be definitely worth watching,” said Dan Cox, a Pew research associate and author of the report. “If anything, they’re becoming more independent in their outlook.”
Most favor stricter laws to protect the environment, for example, an issue not typically associated with Republican platforms, yet remain conservative on issues like opposition to abortion and support for the death penalty.
Several hundred young evangelicals gathered last week at Princeton University in New Jersey to meet with Christian leaders, discuss the evangelical agenda and look at the role of religion in public life. The conference was called “Envision: the Gospel, Politics and the Future.”
Tattoos, scruffy facial hair and flip-flops abounded among the young attendees.
Shane Claiborne, author of “The Irresistible Revolution -- Living as an Ordinary Radical,” called on young Christians to get politically and personally involved on issues of justice.
“I see an entire generation of young people who want a Christianity they can wrap their hands around,” said Claiborne, who wears his hair in shoulder-length dreadlocks. “They don’t want to just believe stuff. They’re saying if you want to know what I believe, then watch how I live.”
Claiborne and others at the conference pressed the crowd to move beyond the typical platform of the religious right.
One in four Americans consider themselves evangelical Christians, and some four-fifths of evangelical voters backed Republican President George W. Bush as he sought reelection in 2004.
McCain is regarded with suspicion in conservative evangelical circles because of his past support for stem cell research, his failure to support a federal ban on gay marriage, and his support for immigration reform, among other things.
Both McCain and Obama will be hard pressed to attract voters like Tonya Grant, a 23-year-old Bible college student from New Jersey, who said she voted for Bush in 2004.
“It seems like he (McCain) is playing the evangelical Jesus card,” she said. But she’s not sold on Obama either, and she doesn’t favor his health-care reform proposals.
“I‘m completely torn,” she said.
Amy Coffin, 27, of Los Angeles said she is drawn to Obama because of his health-care plan and desire to end the war in Iraq.
She does not align herself with any political party and is critical of how so many evangelicals supported Bush. “I think a lot of that is apathy and laziness, letting people tell them how to vote,” she said.
She is not looking to the election to further social change, but is pushing for change in her own life. A year ago she moved to India, where she is helping start a church in New Delhi.
“Hopefully by living with the poor, you end up doing social justice naturally,” she said.
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Chris Wilson