Evangelicals

Though they lag behind other denominations, evangelicals are steadily becoming more supportive of marriage equality:

Over the past decade, evangelical support for gay marriage has more than doubled, according to polling by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute. About a quarter of evangelicals now support same-sex unions, the institute has found, with an equal number occupying what researchers at Baylor University last year called the “messy middle” of those who oppose gay marriage on moral grounds but no longer support efforts to outlaw it. The shift is especially visible among young evangelicals under age 35, a near majority of whom now support same-sex marriage. And gay student organizations have recently formed at Christian colleges across the country, including flagship evangelical campuses such as Wheaton College in Illinois and Baylor in Texas.

Even some of the most prominent evangelicals—megachurch pastors, seminary professors and bestselling authors—have publicly announced their support for gay marriage in recent months. Other leaders who remain opposed to gay unions have lowered their profiles on the issue. After endorsing a gay marriage ban passed in California in 2008, Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of one of the country’s biggest megachurches, said in 2009 that he had apologized to all “all my gay friends” and that fighting gay marriage was “very low” on his list of priorities. Just last month, the Presbyterian Church, a Protestant denomination with a significant, though declining, minority of evangelicals, voted to allow ministers to perform same-sex weddings in states where they are legal.

What can this mean, I wonder? I’d like to think that arguments like Matthew Vines’ about how the Bible verses related to homosexuality have been misinterpreted are behind it. And for any major shift to occur, I think those arguments will have to gain adherents. But what we have here, I’d say, is a shifting understanding of what homosexuality is, as a result of huge social and cultural changes.

For the longest time, evangelical Christians associated gay people solely with deviant sex – and the fledgling gay community, understandably entranced with sexual liberation, did little to dissuade them. But as the culture has shifted to see gay people as actual human beings whose lives encompass so much more than sex, and as gay couples have movingly expressed their desire to commit to one another, and as gay citizens continue to volunteer in the armed services with distinction and honor, the very idea of homosexuality that informed most evangelical conversations on the topic has changed. Even those within the evangelical or traditional Catholic orbits – like the dedicated gay celibates who call themselves B-Siders – have shifted away from shame or self-loathing toward something different:

The B siders I spoke with were quick to offer critiques of homophobia within Christian communities, which surprised me, considering that they’d organized their lives around adhering to their rules. Ron Belgau, who co-founded the Spiritual Friendship blog to address the question of how celibate LGBT people can find intimacy and connection within Christian communities, summed up their frustrations by saying: “Most of [the Roman Catholic Church’s] thinking is no you can’t have sex; no you can’t go into the priesthood—they shut various doors, but there’s a need to talk about, OK, no we can’t have sex but what can we do? How can we serve the church?” Eve Tushnet, another B sider I spoke with, is writing a book to address this same conundrum. For her, the most important issue is not rule-following but “the question of how do you lead a good, fruitful life within a Catholic tradition [and] increase the tenderness and beauty in the world?”

I’m not sure celibacy is a viable long-term argument for countless gay Christians who, by virtue of their very humanity, yearn for intimacy, companionship, love and sex. But openly gay celibate people within the churches really does change the tone and content of the debate. Again, it is the collapse of the closet that galvanized this, and will continue to. The reason I’m not completely optimistic is because – Matthew’s remarkable arguments aside – the evangelical fixation on a ludicrously literal adherence to Biblical text means that they really will, at some point, have to acknowledge either that they’ve been reading the Bible wrong, or that their absolute prohibition on gay love and family, whatever the human impact, is unalterable. I suspect that many will continue to choose the latter. It would require too wrenching a shift in their own identity to embrace the identity and humanity of all their fellow citizens.