Christians and the Gay Bandwagon

There’s no question that American attitudes toward homosexuality are changing at a dizzying pace. Conservative evangelical Americans are changing, too. A recent article in the New York Times described a high-level meeting between concerned evangelicals. As I found in the archival research for my new book, evangelicals used to feel an almost murderous fear and hatred of homosexuality. That is no longer the case. But conservative evangelicals still have a hard time justifying their growing acceptance of homosexuality.

The NYT article describes a meeting at Biola University in California between Matthew Vines and a collection of influential evangelicals. The young Mr. Vines came to public attention recently with his Christian plea for acceptance, God and the Gay Christian. What is the proper evangelical attitude, the discussants asked—the Biblical attitude—toward homosexuality?

A lonely worker in the Vines-yard?  Or the wave of the evangelical future?

A lonely worker in the Vines-yard? Or the wave of the evangelical future?

The fact that this discussion took place at all shows the enormous changes in evangelical America on the subject. But the article raises a perennial question: Why are evangelicals changing? Is it just to keep up with changes in mainstream culture? Do evangelicals simply shift their interpretation of Bible passages when it becomes culturally convenient?

At the outset, I should clarify my position. I’m no evangelical and I have always had trouble understanding how anyone could think other people’s sexuality was their business. For me, the issue of gay rights has always gone beyond big questions of marriage rights to more basic claims to equality. In short, I believe, no one should have to apologize or explain their sexuality. I do think this is the moral high ground, but I recognize that it didn’t take any moral courage for me to get here. The way I grew up, it would be weird for me not to feel this way. I’m sure that if I grew up in different circumstances I would feel very different about it. Nuf sed.

At Biola, organizers invited Mr. Vines to talk about homosexuality and evangelical belief along with a panel of influential figures, including Biola professor and public intellectual Sean McDowell, local pastors Rev. Caleb Kaltenbach and Rev. Ian DiOrio, and Christian radio host Frank Sontag. For hours, the men talked about homosexuality and Biblical belief. Is it possible for evangelicals to understand Romans 1 in any other sense? In that oft-quoted passage, Paul explicitly condemned homosexual practice.

A majority in the room seemed disposed to embrace a change in evangelical attitudes. Vines himself is gay. Kaltenbach has a gay father and two gay mothers. DiOrio has a gay brother and worked in a gay nightclub. But those are not theological reasons.

Evangelicals are in a different position from secular folks. They can’t simply change their beliefs because it seems polite. Rather, they base their ideas on their readings of Scripture. Of course, intelligent evangelicals understand that our interpretation of Scripture can be wrong, even if Scripture itself can’t be. So while secular conservatives such as Dick Cheney can change their minds without much soul-searching, conservative evangelicals need to justify their change in terms of Biblical interpretation.

The Rev. Kaltenbach explained this evangelical dilemma. “In Romans 1,” Kaltenbach told the NYT,

I cannot get past where Paul says that the actual act of having sex with someone of the same gender is a sin. I can’t get past that. And believe me, with two parents who are gay, you’ve got to know I tried, even exegetically through the Greek.

Evangelicals don’t only have to change their minds. They have to justify that change by changing their interpretation of Scripture. And they have to do it fast. There can be no doubt, after all, that evangelical minds are changing. Even to host a respectful meeting between an openly gay evangelical and relatively sympathetic listeners marks the vast break from the past.

Buried in the Biola archives is evidence of a shockingly different attitude toward homosexuality. In the early 1950s, a former Biola student faked his own death in order to avoid exposure as a homosexual. Once the story was out, the student wrote an apology to Biola. He apologized for being a “filthy so-and-so,” and promised that prayer had cured him of his “perverted urge.”

Biola’s administration offered a public explanation of this student’s scandalous behavior:

He has for a number of years been a victim of a vicious condition of inherent baseness and depravity. The Bible clearly describes the condition in Romans One. We give it a more common name of ‘homosexuality.’ Socially it is condemned. Spiritually it is sin. It is impossible to have part in this sordid thing without paying the penalty of mental distress and mental illness that may even lead to more vicious acts, including murder. . . . Surely the devil has taken some measure of control of this man and we need to pray for him.

Of course, in the 1950s evangelical Americans weren’t the only ones with vicious and shockingly angry attitudes toward homosexuality. The US State Department purged homosexuals, since homosexuality was seen at the time as a national security risk.

For conservative evangelicals, however, changing norms carry a different moral weight. It is not acceptable to simply change one’s mind. Rather, conservative evangelicals need to remain true to the primacy of Scripture. If the Bible teaches X or Y, conservative evangelicals need to respect that.

The question facing Mr. Vines and other evangelical gay-rights activists is clear: Will evangelicals find a way to change their minds?

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17 Comments

  1. It looks like you probably didn’t read Vines’ book. He uses exegesis to get to the heart of what was actually being discussed in Romans One. You’ll see evangelicals change their minds because of what Roman says, not in spite of it. Just an observation from a former fundie evangelical.

    Reply
    • You’re exactly right: I haven’t read Vines’ book. But I assumed from the NYT article that he did just what you say. The interesting thing to me–and the thing that non-evangelical folks like me often don’t understand–is that for evangelicals, changing your mind is not as simple as just making a decision. Unless you can find a convincing exegetical argument, not just a convenient one, it can seem immoral to change one’s mind about social issues. So people will read Vines’ book, maybe, hoping to be convinced. Even then, though, it can be tricky to explain away Paul’s clear condemnation of homosexual practices.

      Reply
      • Picture yourself brainwashed by the gatekeepers of hatred against gays. Then, one day it suddenly doesn’t make sense anymore. In my case, it was becoming a close friend with a gay man and a whole group of gays and lesbians. The only way to “argue” common sense with the religious folks who insist how “clear” the Bible is on homosexuality, is to show them just how unclear the Bible really is. That’s the beauty of using exegesis.correctly. It’s why so many former anti-gay Christians are now gay-affirming. You’d think plain old human dignity would win the day, but religion doesn’t operate on logic and reason.

  2. Agellius

     /  June 9, 2015

    Adam writes, “I have always had trouble understanding how anyone could think other people’s sexuality was their business.”

    I’m not an evangelical either but from what I’ve observed, I think they consider it their business on two grounds: (1) that we have a duty as Christians to warn people of the danger of sin for the sake of saving their souls, and (2) I think some of the more fundamentalist types have the idea that tolerating sin and not condemning it and driving it from our midst may bring God’s wrath on the land, so to speak.

    Adam writes, “I do think this is the moral high ground, but I recognize that it didn’t take any moral courage for me to get here.”

    Nor does it take any courage to maintain that stance in today’s environment. Whereas to maintain the traditional Christian position . . .

    I think what most evangelicals will do is maintain the traditional Christian stance, but be careful to avoid the judgmental way in which Christians have tended to speak of homosexuals and homosexuality in the past. In other words, they’re realizing that you can no longer reach people that way (if you ever could), and reaching people is what it’s all about.

    Churches that welcome openly practicing homosexuals and gay marriage will in essence be throwing out Christian sexual morality, and historically, churches that do that tend to wither away. People generally don’t see a need for a church that says the same things the world is saying.

    Reply
  3. It always is interesting to me that so many Christians prioritize and stratify ‘sin’ – even in Romans 1, many other sins are named. There are at least 600 sins clearly addressed in the Bible – http://www.laestrella.com/Documents/Bible_Studies/Sin_list_part_6.htm One sin that is addressed many times is gluttony, which seems to indicate that no “true” Christian can be obese. I am not particularly interested in what Paul has to say about behavior and judgement, but rather look to the only time Jesus talked about judgement and behavior – Matthew 25, and how we treat others.

    Reply
  4. Agellius

     /  June 15, 2015

    Douglas:

    Jesus speaks of sin and judgment in other places besides Matt. 25, saying, e.g., that those who are guilty of certain sins have no place in the kingdom of God (Mk. 7:20-23), and also that it’s better to cut off your hand, or foot, or pluck out your eye rather than commit sin (Mk. 9:43-48). In short, it’s not only about being nice to people, it’s also about obeying God’s commandments.

    Reply
    • The ultimate judgment only lists how we treat the least of these. Every sin can really be compared to Jesus’ statement that loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself, is the greatest commandment(s). List any sin, and it generally leads to hurt towards another human being. Stealing, lying, cheating, defrauding, beatings, stabbings, murder, slander, libel–well, the list is endless. Two gay people who are committed to a loving and monogamous relationship for a lifetime are hardly mistreating anyone. They are certainly not hurting me or my marriage. In fact, the longevity of gay partners is a testament to what real love is supposed to look like. Too bad we straights have a 50% divorce rate.

      Reply
      • Agellius

         /  June 15, 2015

        Sheila:

        You’re certainly entitled to the opinion that the only real sins are not being nice to others. I’m just saying that that’s not the traditional Christian view, and that the scriptures tell a different story.

      • True, the traditional view of sin is entrenched in Christianity. As a progressive Christian, I believe in the power of the forgiveness on the cross to change a person’s heart. True Christianity is living like Jesus, and not just sitting in a pew being spoon-fed doctrines and rules. I’ve been in quite a number of denominations. I find it liberating to realize that I am forgiven, I have the power to forgive (turn the other cheek), and help those who need food, water, shelter, etc.. All because of the cross. Traditional Christianity is too often constrained by the rules and ends up hurting people.

  5. Agellius

     /  June 15, 2015

    Again you’re entitled to your opinion. But from reading the Gospels in their entirety, it appears to me that the progressive idea of “living like Jesus” doesn’t always match up with what Jesus actually said and did. For example, how many progressives would curse a fig tree for failing to bear fruit out of season? (Mk. 11:12-25) : )

    Reply
    • Your example of the fig tree is a red herring. Living like Jesus means unconditional, nonjudgmental acceptance of people just because they have inherent dignity, since we are all made in the image of God. It is standing alongside them, encouraging them to strive for the good, to make peace with one’s enemies, to share one’s resources with the needy, and to lavish forgiveness whenever possible. I’m sorry that you refuse to take a look at gay and transgender Christians, to read their stories, to look at the biology of sex and gender. I suppose (I can’t read your mind, of course) that you accept the traditional view that the reproductive organs assigned at birth are always the correct ones. You know there are some children born with both sets, right? It is not so black and white. Gender is in the brain, not the body. But we will agree to disagree. I am not at all a traditional Christian. You are. We’re both Christians, and that’s all that matters. I wish you well.

      Reply
      • That’s a polite way to close, but the truth is there are MANY kinds of “traditional” and “progressive” Christians. All kinds of labels. All kinds of differences and overlaps. If you want to carefully and accurately generalize about major, comprehensive categories it will come down to assumptions you make about very basic things like reality and knowledge. That’s usually a good place to explore for deeper understanding of how you and others think and see things.

  6. @Adam – I am guessing Evangelicals will continue to change their minds quickly, and it would happen faster if the generational demographics and economic history are not as they are. There are a number of ways you could measure it — I wonder if you could find a big difference in generational transfer or trust indicators by looking at the ages at which Evangelical leaders, pastors, professors, etc. were given senior positions or treated as accepted authorities rather than “young turks.” It seems to me the Boomers who trusted no one under 30 — or the conservative ones preferred their parents to their peers — are now in a long period of distrust and overfunctioning paternalism. They have a lot of numbers, money and clout, so there is a lot of suppression, and that always generates reaction.

    When the major change occurs — which I think will widen a real generational rift in many churches and families — there will be splits and long-term holdouts in subcultures and fringes just as there have been over similar issues when equal freedoms were extended to women and non-white citizens.

    I hope you don’t think all conservative protestants are stuck on proof-texts they take as clear, binding, universal moral laws or scientific statements. Fundamentalism of the type that admonished Woodrow Wilson to openly assert belief in “the supernatural” has done a great job in the US of marketing that s the definition of conservative or orthodox Christianity, but their market share has never yet been 100%.

    Reply
  7. Jj

     /  March 26, 2016

    You are an idiot of all idiots

    Reply
    • Wow. Really substantive & well reasoned reply. You obviously have great intellectual prowess.

      Reply
      • Thanks Sheila – you beat me to it!! I was going to say something like “That certainly adds a lot to the conversation.” 🙂 I am not sure who the “you” is that Jj references….

  1. The Conservative Evangelical Minister Who Is The Son of Two Gay Parents | stasis online

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