Guestview: Gay marriage and U.S. evangelicals: conciliatory tone, traditional doctrine
The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Elizabeth E. Evans is a freelance writer and columnist in Glenmoore, Pennsylvania
By Elizabeth E. Evans
Gay marriage has been gaining support among the American public, most dramatically among the young. Many evangelicals have been vocal on social justice issues like sex trafficking, poverty and climate change. Will these traditionally conservative Christians, particularly younger ones among them, end up adapting to the idea — if not the principle — of same-sex marriage?
The intersection of religious values and social change has become an increasingly active place recently, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court’s late June take-down of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denied federal benefits to same-sex couples. Another Court decision at the same time essentially allowed gay weddings to begin again in California.
The reaction from the conservative group “Focus on the Family” was straightforward and unequivocal. Spokesperson Carrie Gordon Earll said the group is both surprised and disappointed by the Supreme Court rulings. “We define marriage as one man and one woman and that’s where we stand,” she said at the group’s headquarters in Colorado Springs.
But some American evangelical leaders see the Court decisions as an opportunity to reflect on traditional sexual and marriage mores in a culture changing rapidly around them and reach out to their GLBT brothers and sisters.
In an essay entitled “Sex Without Bodies” Andy Crouch, executive editor of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, suggested that the time was coming when Christians would have to choose between “two consistent positions.” One requires discarding “vast expanses of biblical materials” because it affirms that “embodied sexual differentiation” is not relevant and what matters instead is one’s love and commitment to keeping covenant promises.
In contrast, wrote Crouch, “to uphold a biblical ethic on marriage is to affirm the sweeping scriptural witness—hardly a matter of a few isolated ‘thou shalt not’ verses—that male and female together image God, that the creation of humanity as male and female is ‘very good,’ and that ‘it is not good that the man should be alone’.” (Gen. 2:18, NRSV).
For Russell Moore, who heads the Southern Baptist’s Ethics & Religion Liberty Commission, the reality of same-sex marriage, “which is on the march” is an opportunity for evangelical churches to reinforce and take more seriously Gospel teaching on what defines wedlock in general. These traditional understandings of the stability of the family and of the distinctive roles of men and women in it have often been neglected or assumed, he said.
“Those with same-sex attractions who follow Christ will be walking away from what their families and friends want for them: wedding cake and married life and the American Dream. Following Jesus will mean taking up a cross and following a hard narrow way. It always does,” he added.
Though opposition to the practice of gay marriage seemed deep-rooted and firm, the tone many evangelical leaders took towards proponents and in general and gay and lesbians in particular was more conciliatory than in the past, as they invited them into both into conversations and pews.
This may reflect the recognition of changes in public opinion regarding gay marriage, and the ongoing flight of the young from American churches. It may also be an attempt to disassociate evangelicals from anti-gay violence.
Yet writing for a secular audience, the New Republic’s Nate Cohn suggested that deep-seated opposition might linger. “If much of the remaining opposition to gay marriage is founded on firm religious and moral beliefs, not bigotry or animus, evangelicals will probably hold out for a long time. That possibility casts doubt on the theory that universal support for gay marriage is inevitable,” he wrote. Kudos to Cohn, by the way, for acknowledging, unlike many others in the media, that evangelical opposition is often based on the way the faithful read Scripture, not anti-gay prejudice.
By almost any standard, the pace of cultural change with regard to gay marriage has seemed startlingly fast, even if it has actually been incremental, as statistics guru Nate Silver illustrates here and here. Jonathan Merritt, whose most recent book is A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars, has long been immersed in evangelical culture. His father, James Merritt, is a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. “I think what I’m seeing anecdotally is what we see statistically – a generation of evangelicals who have traditional views on sexual morality, but apply that view in a variety of ways” said Merritt, a columnist for Religion News Service.
As with divorce, which many of them also consider opposed to biblical values, there are, he said, really two conversations going on among evangelicals. “One is about personal morality and sexual norms…the other about what should be lawful in a democratic society.”
But does increasing legal acceptance of gay marriage presage support or tolerance in the pews, as occurred with divorce? Merritt is not sure.
“It’s very clear that the debate over gay marriage from a legal standpoint is all but over,” he said. In the evangelical community, there are two primary responses to that. “Some have doubled down…and seek to make DOMA the next Roe v. Wade,” he said, comparing it to the landmark 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion and prompting a persistent polarization. “Others have come to expect that this very well may be the new reality, and are asking how they can be faithful Christians in a world that has changed.”
Merritt aligns himself with the second camp. “I have seen the negative effects of culture wars on a whole generation of Christians and non-Christians….those inside the church don’t want to stay, and those outside of it don’t want to start,” he said. Outside the church, he continued, Christians are seen as “overwhelmingly judgmental, critical and anti-intellectual.”
The most tragic effect of Christian judgementalism with regard to gays, according to Merritt, has been the rise in suicide among gay teens. “This is something which I think Christians should ask forgiveness for. Jesus didn’t ask his followers to ‘hate the sin and love the sinner’,” he explained, but to love the sinner and worry about our own sin.
Merritt sees plenty of room for disagreement on the issue of gay marriage and hopes for conversations in which conservatives can sit down with their lesbian brothers and sisters “seeking to understand each other rather than be understood.” Using Jesus as a model and having a conversation in the context of a relationship is “far more difficult, time-consuming and costly…but if we really want to follow Jesus that’s the way forward.”
Some would like to see evangelicals move faster, and further. “Different evangelicals in the publishing world are being highlighted as more progressive as part of a niche marketing strategy” to draw in young people who may hold less traditional views on LGBTQ issues, according to Amy Laura Hall, who teaches Christian ethics at Duke Divinity School, is a Methodist pastor and blogs at www.profligategrace.com.
Hall hears the gentler and more mollifying tone taken by some prominent evangelical writers and speakers with skepticism. As a teen in West Texas in the 1980’s, she was, she said, personally acquainted with teens who committed suicide. She has also watched gifted gay and lesbian students struggle to find congregations that would affirm their gifts.
“My most important message is that there have been ‘out’ gay and lesbian pastors working daily in ministry and I wish I could see their work highlighted,” she said. Though her position is clearly to the left of Merritt’s and she’s been an outspoken gay ally for decades, she is also an advocate for one-on-one engagement.
If there are progressive evangelicals who had have a genuine change of heart with regard to gay marriage, she suggests that the best way forward is for them to engage veteran LGBTQ clergy, “listening and learning” from them. Real change happens in neighborhoods, congregations and households, she said, rather than in lecture halls and on the speaker’s circuit.
If nothing else, the DOMA decision opening the gates to recognition of gay marriage has produced a call to reflection, conversation and clarity. Whether it actually changed or will change evangelical minds and convictions remains very much an open question.