Anti-Gay Religion Is Collapsing. Here Are the Signs.

How you look at things.
May 1 2014 11:33 PM

The Collapse of Anti-Gay Religion

Polls, pastors, and theology are shifting toward same-sex marriage, even among conservatives.

Russell Moore preaching in a chapel at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, October 2011.
Russell Moore preaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, October 2011.

Photo courtesy Theology147/Creative Commons

Throughout history, religion has sanctioned and fueled the persecution of homosexuality. That dynamic may be drawing to an end. Polls, clerics, and denominations are shifting. Theology is adapting. Resistance to same-sex marriage is dwindling, and there’s no end in sight.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

For 15 years, the Ethics and Public Policy Center has hosted the Faith Angle Forum, a regular conference on religion and public life. Several weeks ago, the group met again to discuss current issues. Transcripts of the conference have just been posted on EPPC’s website. They underscore the extent of the anti-gay collapse.

The first session, led by papal biographer Paul Vallely and Boston Globe editor John Allen, focused on Pope Francis and the Catholic Church. Vallely, the author of Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, noted that before Francis became pope, he supported civil unions in Argentina. “I think he sees that as a human rights issue,” said Vallely. Allen pointed to the pope’s comment in a March 5 interview with Corriere della Sera:

Q: Many nations have regulated civil unions. Is it a path that the Church can understand? But up to what point?
A: Marriage is between a man and a woman. Secular states want to justify civil unions to regulate different situations of cohabitation, pushed by the demand to regulate economic aspects between persons, such as ensuring health care. It is about pacts of cohabitating of various natures … One needs to see the different cases and evaluate them in their variety.
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That answer, according to Allen and other pope watchers, signaled that Francis is open to civil unions. Both speakers said Francis wasn’t going to change church doctrine. Allen pointed out that in Africa and Asia, where many Catholics live, same-sex marriage remains deeply unpopular. But the speakers emphasized that Francis was striking a new tone, softening the language (“He's the first pope ever to use the word gay,” said Vallely), renouncing judgment, and creating space for liberalization.

The conference’s second session dwelled on sin. The speakers, Cornelius Plantinga of Calvin College and Ross Douthat of the New York Times, discussed what we should feel bad about. Homosexuality wasn’t on the list. Plantinga, a former president of Calvin Theological Seminary, noted that some people's views were changing.* “It used to be that people thought of homosexual acts as sinful,” he said. “Now they think of criticism of homosexual acts as sinful.”

During the Q-and-A, Michael Gerson of the Washington Post, a former senior aide to President George W. Bush, raised his hand to ask about “the idea of strong genetic predisposition” to homosexuality. This belief, he testified,

is changing the way not just liberal Christians, but conservative Christians think about this issue, particularly homosexuality. If there's a strong genetic disposition, then you have a situation with an expectation—pastoral expectation—of lifelong celibacy, which is a heroic ethical standard that's not applied to heterosexuals. That seems unfair according to Christian ethical principles.

Sitting a few feet from Gerson, I was struck by his body language. His voice was agitated. His face radiated distress. The burden of being expected to treat homosexual behavior as sinful, in the face of general recognition that homosexual orientation is involuntary, was tearing at him. This is a guy who worked in the White House 10 years ago when Bush was running against gay marriage. Those days are over, spiritually as well as politically.

Plantinga indicated that Gerson is far from alone:

A number of Christians who used to believe that homosexual acts were disordered or wrong have come to believe that they were being unfair to people who could therefore not act on their disposition, and then blaming them for it, and came to think that they were now being uncharitable toward those people and changed their minds.

Later, over dinner, Plantinga gave the strong impression that he’s one of these folks. He talked about gay couples he knows. With same-sex marriage, he said, “You get a lot”—love, commitment, stability, and other virtues of Christian life.

The next morning, we had our final session, on the culture wars. Molly Ball, the Atlantic’s terrific political writer, summarized the trend toward acceptance of same-sex marriage. Forty percent of Republicans and 61 percent of Republicans under 30 now favor it, she reported. So do 57 percent of Catholics and 55 percent of mainline Protestants. Even among the core opposition group, white evangelicals, acceptance is taking hold. “In the past 10 years, the number of white evangelicals who support gay marriage has gone from 11 percent to 24 percent,” Ball observed.

The session’s featured speaker, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, continues to view homosexual behavior as sinful. But he conceded that even among evangelicals who still hold to this doctrine, there has been

a change in terms of tone and the way that we ... speak about the issue, largely because there was the sort of evangelical belligerence, often, in the last generation, that spoke, for instance, about the “gay agenda,” in which there was this picture, almost as though there is a group of super-villains in a lair, plotting somewhere the downfall of the family. That—I almost never hear that in evangelical churches anymore. Instead, issues of sexual morality are being addressed consistently across the board, recognizing that everyone in the congregation has gay and lesbian children or parents or neighbors or friends and that many of the people in our own congregations are same-sex attracted. That's changed quite a bit, as well as the understanding of—I almost never hear in evangelical churches anymore the sort of easy-conversionism, “reparative therapy” understanding of gay-to-straight, that sort of caricature. It's always more complex than that.

Maybe Moore and his remaining flock can sustain a moral case against homosexuality in the face of these concessions. But I doubt it. Once you accept the reality and persistence of the orientation, particularly within your congregation, you’re on the way to the crisis Gerson described.

Fundamentalists, contrary to their reputation, are pretty good at ditching unsustainable positions. Moore demonstrated this during the Q-and-A when he declared young-Earth creationism “not essential to evangelicalism.” Many, if not most, evangelicals no longer believe the earth is only a few thousand years old, he said. Their new line in the sand is Adam and Eve:

We may differ about when Adam existed. We may even differ about how Adam came to exist. But when science says, “There’s no way the human race descended from an original pair,” evangelicals are going to go with Scripture.

That’s how fundamentalists retreat. They relocate their fundamentalism to less vulnerable terrain—all the while proclaiming their defiant adherence to the literal word of God—until the new position, too, must be abandoned. In the case of homosexuality, my guess is that the relocation will happen in two stages. First, churches will find ways to acknowledge faithful same-sex relationships. Then they’ll decide that these couples ought to get married, because sex outside of marriage is wrong. The new fundamentalist position will be that sexual activity is moral only within the confines of marriage, gay or straight, just as the Bible always taught us.

There will always be Christians, Muslims, and Jews who condemn homosexuality. There will be bigots, bashers, and demagogues. And in some places, particularly in Africa and Asia, there will be persecution and oppressive laws. But in this country, religious resistance is crumbling. It’s being overwhelmed by love, conscience, and a God who keeps creating gay kids, even in the most devout families. Over time, He will prevail.

Correction, May 3, 2014: The sentence preceding Plantinga’s initial quote originally said that he “suggested Protestant views were changing.” When combined with the next sentence, this implied that his reference to people who “thought of homosexual acts as sinful” but now “think of criticism of homosexual acts as sinful” meant Protestants. This inference was unwarranted. In that quote, Plantinga did not specify the religious affiliations of the people he was talking about. His later reference to people who had changed their minds about homosexual acts being wrong did describe these people as Christians.

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