Rachel Pater poses for a portrait during the Colorado Queer Youth Summit at Auraria Campus in Denver.
Rachel Pater poses for a portrait during the Colorado Queer Youth Summit at Auraria Campus in Denver. (Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post)

For a rising tide of the righteous young, faith is more about doing right than being right, including being politically "Right."

This growing representation of young Christians — who either formerly or currently identify with aspects of evangelicalism — are drifting away, and sometimes divorcing themselves from the conservative politics handed down to them by their generational predecessors.

Frequently discussed in the past decade, but often dismissed as a temporary wave of angst, the metamorphosis of this Christian movement has been subtle but strong. What surfaced at the dawn of the 21st century as an amorphous dialogue of questioning, has gradually organized and established itself as a cultural game-changer, now reaching a level of political relevance.

If this gradual shift continues, it may eventually result in a fragmentation of the evangelical bloc, which makes up 26.3 percent of the voting population, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Compared with their older counterparts, young, white evangelicals, ages 18 to 34, are more pluralistic, supportive of an active domestic government and inclined to favor diplomacy over military might abroad, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

"This group, in as much as it's a group — be it 'emergent' or 'post-denominational' — is not one we can really put a name around, but I think it has some things in common," said Robert P. Jones, chief executive of Public Religion Research Institute.

Rise of Christian RightChristians in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s felt under attack by the secular world, giving way to the rise of the Christian Right, Jones said.

"I would say that that posture and style of engagement is not what the younger evangelicals and Christians are about," Jones said. "They're really more positively engaged than reactionary ... (and) relate to public life differently."

Highlands Church, 3241 Lowell Blvd. in Denver, prides itself on accepting anyone and everyone, whether they are married, divorced, single, conservative,
Highlands Church, 3241 Lowell Blvd. in Denver, prides itself on accepting anyone and everyone, whether they are married, divorced, single, conservative, liberal, gay, straight or bisexual. "(This movement) is just disentangled from the belief that 'if you take the Bible seriously, you have to be a Republican,' " says the Rev. Mark Tidd, pastor of Highlands Church. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)

Tony Jones is a leading theologian and thinker of one particularly well-known branch of this movement — "the emergent church." In 2008, President Barack Obama's campaign staff called him in bewilderment.

"Four years ago, the Democrats didn't really know what to do with a bunch of young evangelicals who wanted to help out and promote the campaign," Tony Jones. "They don't know what to do with that, and they don't know the language."

According to a 2011 study by the Public Religion Research Institute, more than half — 52 percent — of white evangelicals under the age of 40 believe gay and lesbian relationships should be accepted by society, compared with 33 percent of white evangelicals over 40. Other polls show a similar gap on other social issues such as the environment and foreign policy, and it is beginning to show up at the ballot box.

"Politics is a lagging industry. This is something culturally that's been happening for decades, and it's just now catching up to politics," said Harris Kenny, an analyst for the free-market Reason Foundation and a young Christian.

The movement is a collision of culture, theology and politics that could exemplify the likely future of the American public square.

"(This movement) is just disentangled from the belief that 'if you take the Bible seriously, you have to be a Republican,' " said the Rev. Mark Tidd, pastor of Highlands Church in Denver. "It is a very subtle and deep movement that has us all going, 'I believe things very differently from what I believed 10 years ago.' "

For the faithful who have stared down their "demons" — the questioning and doubt — something had to change when they could no longer reconcile their faith system with the inherited political ideology.

"I didn't have any reason to throw the baby out with the bath water," said Tidd, a graduate of an evangelical seminary.

"I think that the terms we see in the media saying the 'Christian Right' doesn't resonate with the younger Christians. They're smarter than that," said Gabe Lyons, author of "The Next Christians" and founder of Q Ideas, an organization that seeks to merge church, culture and public life through open conversations.

Rachel Pater and her personal journey in many ways reflect the broader movement. Raised in a conservative Christian home, Pater attended a Christian college in Michigan and now lives in Denver. She has spent her entire adulthood questioning the "God politics" of her surroundings.

"A lot of my friends ... are trying to figure out how the church can again be a voice for the hopeless, a voice for the marginalized, and not a voice of power marginalizing other people," said 28-year-old Pater, a case manager at Denver's Urban Peak, a support organization for homeless youth.

Bob Massey, 42, a screenwriter and Christian in Los Angeles, struggled for much of his life with feeling disconnected from the organized church. That was, until he found Tribe L.A., a church community with members from across the political spectrum.

"Christians have been dealing with politics forever. The danger to our faith is really from what I call 'Christianists' — people who use their faith as a political tool and forget that it's really about giving yourself away, not taking more," Massey said.

This "giving of self" approach to faith and politics has sprouted from a new theological position that is more open to alternative views.

"With the willingness to question the ecclesiastical authority, there's the willingness to question the 'tried and true' politics of Christianity," Tony Jones said.

"Progressive politics talk a lot about caring for the poor. There are six verses about homosexuality (in the Bible), and over 3,000 verses about caring for the poor. There's nothing in the Bible about free-market capitalism," Jones said.

Jones — involved with an emergent church in Minneapolis, Solomon's Porch — said that these young Christians are often bothered by the assumption that being a Christian means being a Republican. They aren't anti-conservative, Jones said, but they just don't see the correlation.

Both of the major political parties recognize the changing priorities for younger voters, including Christians, and realize how it may impact their strategies.

"There certainly is a shift with young people," said Alyssa Farah, communications manager for the College Republican National Committee. "If we're going to win any future elections with the youth vote, it's going to be bringing in people who don't necessarily fall along on party lines, specifically on social issues."

Political winds shifting?The Democratic Party, initially surprised by this group's support in 2008, thinks they still have an advantage with them.

"I think they absolutely have recognized this shift. I think that Barack Obama is uniquely qualified to speak to this group of people," said Matt Inzeo, spokesman for the Colorado Democratic Party. "I think from the Democratic politics perspective, one of the big shifts he has ushered in is a movement away from baby boomers dominating the political stage."

While many in this group may hold liberal social views, that doesn't always mean a liberal theology.

"It isn't tracking the same way of the liberal church that has existed for decades," Tidd said. "These are young people who believe that their faith is important and that are so passionate about using their skills for the social good."

Much like their religiously unaffiliated peers, young Christians may have reframed their political viewpoints but are not ready to be claimed by a specific political party.

"Politics as an extension of faith is changing. Young Christians don't want to be put in either box," said Reason Foundation's 23-year-old Harris Kenny.

Kenny attends Pathways — which he categorizes as an emergent church — in Denver. He doesn't see this growing sector of young Christians fitting into a right-left dichotomy.

"I think the movement is anti-politics and decentralized. They will keep voting, but how they'll vote is changing. The culture wars are over for young people," Kenny said.

Many of the movement's observers see them as being politically left, or left-of-center, but they hold a natural resistance to categories.

Kenny says that he is "very liberal" on social issues but not on fiscal policies. He sees Jesus' ministry in the Bible as the ultimate anti-authority doctrine. Kenny believes that free will, whether it be the marketplace or a person's lifestyle choice, is the "linchpin of faith."

"Progressivism has a built-in belief that people can't make their own decisions. People are complicated, and that's not going to work (for our generation)," Kenny said.

For this group, their theology allows them to question and the culture forbids them from conforming. For many this seems to necessitate a "third way."

"Politically, I'm pretty agnostic. I tend to lean left, but I don't think either party encapsulates my take on things," Massey said. "I feel there is a third way in there somewhere."

Some critics from the Christian Right accuse this movement of being morally relativistic.

"I'm not a moral relativist," Kenny said. "I do think there is a right and a wrong, but I don't think the political apparatus is the way to do that."

On this point, left- and right-leaning Christians may actually be starting to agree.

"Whether this is my (boomer) generation intensely pursuing a conservative vision, or whether it's a millenial generation intensely pursuing the liberal agenda, we may have in common this mistake that we are expecting way too much from government and politics," said John Andrews, director of the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University, a voice for Christian conservative public policy.

How the two generations flesh this out, however, is still different. Andrews criticizes members of the younger generation for their attempts at legislating good deeds — such as environmental policy or "human betterment" — while the younger generations would criticize his generation for not allowing the government to protect people and the environment.

With a greater emphasis on grassroots and localized efforts, the policy component may not be center stage, but is something that will call them to action if it pushes the wrong buttons.

"Politics is all about money and power. (But) I get engaged when I think someone is being abused or taken advantage of," Massey said. "I feel the Constitution was written to protect people."

For now, the Republican Party may not have completely lost these Christians. According to Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, since 2008, Republican favorability made gains across all age groups and religious affiliations.

But with this group's emphasis on social causes and social liberalism, the young and faithful will likely continue to flirt with, if not side with, the left.

"I cannot vote for any of the Republican candidates until they stop being so divisive and preying on peoples' fears. I might line up with them a bit more fiscally, but I cannot vote for the way they are dividing this country,"said Jim Smelser, a former staff member at a Chicago megachurch who now attends an emergent church in Denver called House for all Sinners and Saints.

"This generation is looking for leaders who know how to find common ground and have an ability to live in a nuanced way that allows them to live alongside people who have differing opinions," Lyons said.

Culture is nipping at the heels of politics and media, asking when the refurbished identity of these Christians will be understood, and when their role in the public square — both present and future — will be recognized.

"What people associate as the Christian Right — specifically evangelicalism — will look dramatically different in 10 to 12 years," Kenny said. "The future is nonpartisan, so I think whatever party wants to build those channels will win our vote."

Kristen Leigh Painter: 303-954-1638, kpainter@denverpost.com or twitter.com@kristenpainter.