A new ad campaign starring evangelical Christians is trying to persuade religious Mississippians to support gay marriage and LGBT rights.
"All God's Children" was launched on Monday — just two days before the Mississippi Supreme Court is set to vote on a lawsuit filed to overturn the state's gay marriage ban. The initiative appeals to faith to sway public opinion, since Mississippi is the most religious state in the nation, organizers from Human Rights Campaign told VICE News. In 2013, 61 percent of residents identified as "very religious," according to Gallup polls.
But the campaign's first TV ad — featuring a "born-again Christian" bible teacher who tearfully testifies of her son's coming out as gay and then entreats viewers to love their gay neighbors — has already incited heated criticism from just the group it targets.
The Baptist Press published a scathing report that the campaign was "deemed inaccurate and dangerous by Baptist leaders in the state."
"There is an inherent rejection of the Gospel when we do not affirm the biblical notion of human sexuality," Mississippi pastor Chad Rowland told the Baptist Press. "There is no doubt where Mississippi Baptists stand. We affirm biblical marriage."
And while Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant did not respond to requests for comment on the campaign, he asked the state supreme court to uphold the gay marriage ban this week.
The strong opposition by political and religious leaders shows the state is a long way from same-sex legal equality. Yet residents, even evangelical Christians, are increasingly showing support for such rights, according to policy analysts and local scholars. The shift is most apparent with the millennial generation, Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, told VICE News.
'Younger evangelicals are drawing a broader line between public policy and their religious convictions.'
"For younger evangelicals, religious orthodoxy isn't a litmus test for their views on [the gay marriage] issue the way it was for their grandparents," Jones explained. Forty-two percent of white evangelicals under 40 support same-sex marriage, compared with 20 percent of those age 60 or above, Jones said of his institute's data.
"Younger evangelicals are drawing a broader line between public policy and their religious convictions," Jones continued, noting that 78 percent of that group still said gay marriage went against their religious convictions, though they might not necessarily vote against it politically. And he said that since the South is "a law and order crowd... who respect current laws," if the same-sex marriage ban were indeed overturned more residents would likely support such unions.
The South has seen a slightly greater leap in support for gay marriage in recent years than has the rest of the nation, Jones noted. Nationally, support leapt from 32 percent to 53 percent from 2003 to 2013, and in the South it leapt from 22 percent to 48 percent, the institute's data showed.
Many leading evangelical Christians have evolving opinions about LGBT rights, such as David Gushee, who has blogged about his own journey to acceptance, Jones pointed out.
And Rice University professor Brian Scott Riedel told VICE News that the public needs to understand that every Christian denomination — and evangelical church — takes its own stance.
"The Christian faith is not homogenous on this issue," Riedel explained, noting that many congregations are engaging in a self-reflective process to determine how accepting they are of LGBT individuals.
Younger evangelicals have become more open-minded about LGBT rights since they have grown up with more openly gay acquaintances, Jones said. And University of Mississippi professor Curtis Wilkie explained that a more progressive attitude is palpable on college grounds.
'I can't imagine the Baptists are ready to embrace same-sex marriage here. And if they don't, neither will many politicians.'
"There has been a marked shift here on campus," Wilkie, a fellow at the Overby Institute for Journalism and Politics, told VICE News. Wilkie studied at the university 50 years ago, when he recalled that LGBT students would be "outcast," but now many hold positions of leadership on campus and speak up for equality.
"This generation is more receptive than the older generation," he said of same-sex legal rights. And the TV ad campaign could sway residents even more.
"If you see religious people [in the ads] who are embracing [LGBT rights], it could be persuasive among some religious people," Wilkie added. "I certainly can't imagine it will hurt."
Individuals may be shifting their views, but with the Southern Baptist Convention — the most powerful political religious group in the state — Wilkie had little faith any real legal change would come about soon.
"I can't imagine the Baptists are ready to embrace same-sex marriage here," he said. "And if they don't, neither will many politicians."
The four-week effort — a $310,000 blitz of TV, door-to-door, phone, billboard, and online advertising — is just the start of an $8.5 million initiative by Human Rights Campaign to expand LGBT acceptance in Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, the press release explained.
Organizer Jason Rahlan said they recognized the "limits of any four-week campaign," but he said All God's Children was a way to build a "replicable model" to promote LGBT awareness, and that he felt hopeful despite opposition from certain Baptist leaders.
"While the response of these so-called 'leaders' is disappointing, it's hardly surprising, and I'm sure the tremendous progress that's been made on LGBT equality has rattled them," he told VICE News. "But the truth is our nation is changing — 200 million Americans live in states with marriage equality — and our country will continue to move forward, with or without them."
Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @merhoffman