Gay marriage has become the third rail for Evangelicals in American public life, and Miss California just got shocked. The beauty queen and Christian college student seemed on her way to being crowned Miss USA, when she got struck. Asked a question about Vermont's legalization of gay unions, Carrie Prejean responded, "We live in a land that you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And you know what, in my country, and in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there, but that's how I was raised."

But, offense was taken, and with those words the sash, song, and scholarship slipped away. Pundits everywhere mocked her for both her impolitic stand in a system strongly supported by the gay community as well as the unsure, halting way in which she expressed it, many pondering what "opposite marriage" might mean. A British Member of Parliament even joked that he might murder her.

However, what made her a fool and villain to some, made her a hero to others. In the weeks that followed, conservative talk shows saluted Prejean for her courage, the National Organization for Marriage featured Prejean's response in a $1.5 Million ad campaign, and Today Show host Matt Lauer compared her to another beauty queen, turned conservative icon, Sarah Palin. All this came to a screeching halt, however, when racy photos appeared on the internet, putting into question whether Prejean would be able to continue as Miss California as well as her usefulness to conservative, pro-family organizations.

Miss California is a one-month morality tale for Evangelicals who speak publicly about same sex marriage. Lest we believe that this is just a problem of pageant interviews going beyond the expected affirmation of "world peace," the recent experiences of well known Evangelical leaders offer other lessons.

When Pastor Rick Warren of California's Saddleback Church endorsed Proposition 8, the controversial initiative, which constitutionally defined marriage as between one man and one woman, he immediately encountered local protests.

Then, when Barack Obama tapped Warren to deliver an inauguration prayer, the local backlash burst into a national firestorm. Many progressives branded the laid back author of best-selling devotional books, "one of America's most extremist pastors." Glenn Greenwald, host of Salon Radio labeled Warren destructive, inflammatory, and fanatical, comparing him to White Supremacists, Anti-Semites, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While cable news channels featured talking heads who excoriated Obama's choice, Newsweek took the unusual step of assigning one of its reporters a cover story opinion piece that made a theological argument from the Bible for same sex marriage and charged opponents with wooden fundamentalism.

Evangelical insiders found these reactions puzzling. Most understood that leaders like Ted Haggard had brought accusations and scandal by publicly opposing gay marriage, while privately seeking out male escorts. However, Warren had established a cooperative, authentic, and non-confrontational reputation. His work with progressives on AIDS, poverty, and global warming had even caused some conservatives to distrust him as secret liberal. Sandra Alvarado, an independent consultant from Miami, sees the polarizing response as unfair, and blames Christian cowardice for letting Warren flap in the wind. "Maybe if we would stand up for something, the Rick Warrens of this world would not be ridiculed." But, in the controversy's wake, Warren was left defending himself. Stressing his overall tolerant attitude, he has publicly visited friends in West Hollywood and qualified his stance on Larry King.