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?
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?