Making Ararat Great Again

What does Noah have to do with homosexuality? For that matter, what does creationism have to do with Donald Trump? The connections might seem jagged, but those of us who hope to understand the real contours of radical American creationism need to understand the connections between the Rainbow Covenant and Trump’s hat. My recent visit to the Ark Encounter gave me a sharp reminder of the cultural politics of creationism.

Trump make america great again

It’s the hat, stupid.

 

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but I can’t help repeating myself: Lots of white evangelicals have always harbored a Trump-ish white nationalist attitude. Not all of them, of course. White evangelicals have also been the most ferocious critics of their coreligionists on this score.

Moreover, the relationship between evangelical religion and chest-thumping American nationalism has always been complicated. White evangelical Americans have tended to think of the USA as both a uniquely Christian country and a dangerously sinful one. As I argued in an academic article a while back, the “establishment-or-outsider paradox” that George Marsden described so long ago has always been a constant source of tension when it comes to evangelical thinking about schools and culture.

For many conservative evangelicals—especially those on the harder-right end of the broad evangelical spectrum—public schools in particular have been the leading symbol of this tension. In the white evangelical imagination, public schools used to be great. They used to lead children in prayer and Bible reading. In the past fifty years, one popular conservative-evangelical story goes, public schools went terribly awry. In practice, evangelical pundits warn one another, America kicked God out of the public schools.

For a large and influential segment of the white evangelical public, this scary story has a silver lining. In spite of the frightening changes in American public education, there is hope. Conservative evangelicals have told one another, for example, that they can “reclaim” their local schools.

reclaim your school

Good news/Bad news…

The notion of reclaiming, of taking back, resonates with radical creationists, too. As I browsed the gift shop at the Ark Encounter, I found a fat stack of postcards. Many of them harped on the theme of “taking back” the symbol of the rainbow. Instead of representing gay pride, the Kentucky creationists hope, the rainbow can once again symbolize conservative evangelical faithfulness.

20171228_090906.jpg

Reclaim your rainbow…

It is a central theme for American young-earth creationism, and one that has very little to do with theology or science. The language of many radical creationists is peppered with talk about the good old days, when evangelical Christianity WAS mainstream American religion, when “Merry Christmas” WAS the thing to say to each other in December, when public schools DID reinforce evangelical faith.

Once we grasp this enduring theme among radical creationists, it’s not so difficult to see the appeal of Trump. Any candidate who promises to make America great again will get the white-evangelical vote, or at least the vast majority of it.

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Christian Culture Warriors Come in from the Cold

It has not been easy to be anti-gay lately. In a rush, support for same-sex marriage went from fringe to front-and-center. Many conservative religious people have felt flash-frozen out of the mainstream. When it comes to LGBTQ issues, many evangelicals have been surprised to hear themselves called bigots. In her continuing role as conservative dream-maker, Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos recently moved to bring anti-LGBTQ religious activists back into the mainstream. Will it work?

DeVos lgbtq

Welcoming anti-welcomers

First, let me lay out the required clarifications. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but new folks might not know where we’re coming from here at ILYBYGTH. So here they are: I personally feel strongly about LGBTQ rights, in school and elsewhere. But in these pages—as in my recent book about educational conservatism—I’m more interested in understanding the politics involved than scoring political points one way or the other.

Second, a little background: In the past three years or so, many conservative religious folks have been surprised to find themselves so quickly tossed from the precincts of respectability when it comes to LGBTQ issues. As I’ve been working on my book about evangelical higher ed, I’ve noticed how often university leaders have bumped up against the question. At Gordon College near Boston, for example, President Michael Lindsay was surprised by the ferocious response to his reminder about Gordon’s policy against homosexuality. The issue of same-sex rights threatened to split the world of evangelical higher education in two.

As traditional evangelical notions about homosexuality were kicked out of the mainstream, evangelical intellectuals were confronted again with their perennial dilemma. Do they maintain their dissident notions and deal with the consequences? Or do they adapt their ideas as mainstream culture changes?

Today, we see that Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos has moved to reverse the tide. As reported by BuzzFeed, she invited two unapologetically anti-LGBTQ groups to an official Ed Department meeting. Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council both participated in a recent Father’s Day event. The signal couldn’t be clearer: Opposing expanding LGBTQ rights and protections does not make conservatives unwelcome in Queen Betsy’s regime.

We should not be surprised. In the twentieth century, according to progressive critics, Queen Betsy’s family foundation gave sizeable donations to both Focus on the Family and its offshoot Family Research Council. And there is absolutely no doubt that the two groups are stridently opposed to LGBTQ rights. Founder James Dobson views homosexuality and transgender as transgressions, pathways to “orgies” and sin.

Will such notions move back into the mainstream? Will groups who hold such views be allowed to participate in federally funded projects? It’s a frightening prospect, and the Trump White House makes it seem frighteningly realistic.

canute

I command you, tide…

In the end, though, I think DeVos’s Canute strategy is doomed. She seems blithely unaware of her own separation from mainstream notions, but she will nevertheless be forced to deal with it. By including Focus and FRC, for example, she alienated the national Parent-Teacher Association, hardly a group known for its culture-war extremism.

As with her recent remarkable comments about discrimination in schools, Secretary DeVos will find herself apologizing for her inclusion of these anti-LGBTQ groups. There is no doubt she would like to welcome their ideas back into the mainstream, but she doesn’t have the power to reverse the tide.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

The fracturing continues. Recently The Master’s College in California announced its departure from the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. The reason? The organization, according to TMC, had veered too far away from real evangelical Christianity. To this reporter, it looks like the handwriting is on the wall for the CCCU.

masters college

Quitsville, meet Splitsville

It wasn’t hard to see it coming. As we noted in these pages, the US Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges made it clear for all with eyes to see and ears to hear that changes were coming soon. It’s not an easy position. Conservative evangelical colleges have been put in an impossible situation, a “do you still beat your dog” dilemma.

On the one hand, colleges such as Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University have decided that real Christianity requires a changing of rules about homosexuality. They decided to welcome homosexual faculty members. In order to save the CCCU from rancorous disputes about the issue, both schools eventually withdrew.

On the other hand, school leaders worry that they will be giving in to social pressure–betraying their religious principles–if they change their policies about homosexuality. In the eyes of some school leaders, the CCCU didn’t act quickly enough to expel Goshen and EMU. As the drama unfolded last summer, Union University and Oklahoma Wesleyan University both quit, dismayed that the CCCU would even consider including Goshen and EMU.

Now The Master’s College has decided that it will no longer be part of the CCCU, even though Goshen and EMU have left the organization. In its recent announcement, TMC explained that the recent controversy proved that the CCCU had gone soft on core issues of creation and sexuality. As TMC put it,

We have increasing concerns about the direction of the CCCU, given that the vast majority of member schools do not accept the Genesis account of creation or the inerrancy of Scripture.

Two former CCCU schools have demonstrated that opinions are also shifting away from the Bible’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. There are likely other member institutions that are not faithful to the biblical position. The CCCU’s willingness to offer affiliate status to these two schools and the affirmation of 75 percent of member college presidents, raises serious questions as to whether the organization still holds to biblical Christianity.

What is the future of the CCCU? We historians are famously bad predictors, but I will say it anyway: The CCCU is already dead, even if it doesn’t know it yet.

As I’m finding in the research for my new book about the history of evangelical higher education, evangelical colleges can survive most storms. But the current crisis is one that is familiar throughout that history, and one that has wrecked earlier efforts at unity.

As has happened in the past, the current dilemma gives evangelical college leaders questions they will not be able to agree on: Is your school for bigots? Or is it for apostates?

Christian Colleges Find LGBT Loophole

What are conservative Christians to do? Since the US Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex marriage must be recognized nationwide, some conservatives have called for retreat, for the “Benedict Option.” Christian colleges, some fret, are in a particularly difficult position, since they could be forced to violate their own religious principles in order to include same-sex couples, transgender students and faculty, and unmarried homosexual students and faculty. Some schools, however, have taken advantage of a loophole in federal law that seems to alleviate some of these fears. This loophole, however, only sidesteps the real problem; it leaves the most important questions unaddressed.

First, a little background: As we noted in the run-up to the Obergefell decision, conservative religious colleges worried that the SCOTUS ruling could force them into an impossible position. It would not be theologically possible for many schools to introduce housing for same-sex couples, for instance. Yet if they did not, they would be in violation of non-discrimination rules.

As I predicted based on my current research into the history of conservative evangelical higher education, this kind of thing would likely lead to another fracture among the network of conservative colleges and universities.

Once the decision was passed, it did indeed prompt a split among conservative Christian schools. Some schools immediately changed their policies about homosexuality to accommodate the ruling. Others doubled down on their existing policies banning homosexuality.

We read with interest this week that some three dozen religious schools have applied for a waiver from Title IX. Via the New York Times, we see news from The Column that handfuls of Christian college have successfully applied for waivers.

Column list of schools

Waivers for all?

As The Column reports, the original language of Title IX banned sex- and gender-based discrimination at institutions of higher education. But it included a vital loophole. Such rules, the law stated, could be waived in some cases. As Andy Birkey of The Column puts it,

When Title IX was passed in 1972 to combat discrimination based on sex, Congress added a small but powerful provision that states that an educational institution that is “controlled by a religious organization” does not have to comply if Title IX “would not be consistent with the religious tenets of such organization.”

Apparently, thirty-six schools have applied for these waivers, and twenty-seven have been approved. For many of the schools, the Christian Legal Society has provided a how-to guide to apply for such waivers.

For conservative colleges, this waiver might seem to solve their legal and religious pickle. But it will not heal the rift between such schools. Schools such as Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University, have already left the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. They changed their policies to welcome homosexual faculty, and presumably transgender faculty as well.

This loophole might provide wiggle room for some conservative religious schools. It leaves the most important questions on the table, however. What is the proper religious attitude toward non-heterosexual sex? Toward non-traditional marriages? Toward gender identity and sexuality as a whole?

The GOP and the God of Hate

Maybe I was wrong all along. My inbox has been filling up with links to a startling article in yesterday’s New York Times. Is the GOP really under the thrall of violently anti-gay extremists?

I’ve argued in the past that my fellow secular progressives need to relax. The chance, I’ve said, of a fractious bunch of fundamentalists uniting to do anything more complicated than hosting an end-times bake sale were slim to none. Pre-tribulationists can’t get along with post-tribulationists. Lutherans can’t stand Seventh-day Adventists. Catholics look nervously at all of them.

More important, each side in our continuing culture-war debates tends to exaggerate the clear and present danger presented by the other side. Leftists point to abortion-clinic bombers. Conservatives warn of government jackbooted thugs. In general, I think we all need to remember that these boogiemen are distortions, fantastic bugbears trotted out to demonize the opposition.

But the news from Des Moines has me scratching my head. Kevin Swanson, an Orthodox Presbyterian pastor, hosted leading GOP hopefuls Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Mike Huckabee at a National Religious Liberties Conference. Swanson has become infamous lately for his repeated calls for homosexuals to be put to death.

Put to death!

According to the New York Times, Governor Huckabee claimed not to know of Swanson’s scary positions. Ted Cruz seemed unruffled. After all, his own father was a featured speaker of the conference.

Is this a simple case of primary extremism? In every election, the far fringes of each party wield outsize influence. We might say that such extremism will expend itself before the primary campaign gets rolling.

Similar claims, after all, have been made of President Obama’s connections with atheist terrorist Bill Ayers. Ayers was a real terrorist. His radical group really did try to bomb people. But he has long since—kinda sorta—denounced violence as a political tactic.

I’m flummoxed. I find it hard to believe that any serious presidential contender would consent to be associated with such a violent extremist.

Shocking Kids to Justice

Is it a good idea? For decades now, progressive teachers have sought to shock children into recognizing their traditional prejudices. Recently, a Kansas teacher ignited some controversy by showing a provocative video. His goal was to shock kids out of their anti-gay mindsets. They are not easy questions: Should teachers intentionally shock and provoke their students in order to make them better people?  It’s easy to see such teachers as heroes when we agree with their goals, but what about when we disagree?

But first, the latest: according to ThinkProgress, Tom Leahy is fighting for his job. Leahy, a high-school teacher from Conway Springs, Kansas, was disturbed by the anti-gay murmurings he noticed among his students. To help show his kids the light, Leahy showed them a short film, “Love Is All You Need.”

The film depicts a world in which heterosexual kids are bullied for their sexuality. One heterosexual girl ends up killing herself.

Outraged parents demanded Leahy’s ouster and the school district complied. At first, Leahy agreed to go, but after an outpouring of support he’s back in his classroom.

I think I would like Tom Leahy. He sounds like an engaged and caring teacher. I, too, was saddened and concerned in my high-school classroom by the nonchalance with which some kids made anti-gay statements. Like Leahy, I hastened to intervene to let kids know that such hateful attitudes, such targeted hostility was not okay.

But is it a good idea to shock kids into enlightenment?

The tactic has a long history. SAGLRROILYBYGTH have probably heard the story of Jane Elliott. In 1968, the story goes, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Elliott began an anti-racism activity with her third-graders in Iowa.

Kids with blue eyes were given extra benefits. Kids with brown eyes had to wear fabric collars. Hostility quickly erupted between the two made-up groups of kids. Elliott didn’t let the two groups play together or drink from the same water fountains. She explained that collar-free kids tended to be smarter and better behaved. The next day, she reversed the set-up. Now blue-eyed kids wore the collars and suffered the consequences.

The point was to let white kids experience discrimination, to let them “[walk] in a colored child’s moccasins for a day.”

Are such shock tactics a good idea?

Sometimes, social justice is going to seem shocking. When the US Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that schools could no longer be segregated by race, nothing much changed, because no one in power was willing to ram such shocking change through the system.

Nevertheless, I think we need to remember to give such tactics the smell test. Even after forty-five years, Jane Elliott’s tactics seem harsh and unnecessarily cruel. Her taunting of her third-graders just doesn’t seem right, no matter how noble the goal.

Does Tom Leahy’s activism rise to the same level? It doesn’t seem that way to this reporter. As a former high-school teacher, I found the video he showed to be provocative, but not intentionally cruel to viewers. As far as I know, Leahy did not insult his students or belittle them in public to make his point. He merely showed a thought-provoking video.

What would I say, though, if a teacher pushed kids in directions with which I didn’t agree?  What if a teacher in a public school wanted to lead her kids in prayer?  Or what if a teacher showed a gruesome and intentionally provocative anti-abortion film?

I’m not confident that I would find such teacher activism brave and morally heroic.

Should we shock our students? Every day.

But we need to be very careful about our self-righteousness.  We must remember that our students are in class to be loved, not to be “fixed.”  This has to be true even in cases in which we agree with the moral activism of our teachers.

So how do we know when teachers are engaging in proper thought-provocation, and when they are being moral bullies?

We need to let students know that we are on their side, that we care about them as people even if we want to upset them a little with mind-blowing ideas.

Demonstrating our moral superiority by belittling kids can never be the proper path to a more just society.

The Crack Appears at Christian Colleges

It wasn’t hard to predict, but I’m surprised it has come so quickly.

World Magazine reported recently that a potential split had developed among the members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Two schools, it seems, have liberalized their policies about homosexual employees. Will this lead to a break in the CCCU? If so, it might be the last blow for a network that started with big ambitions.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH will know that I hardly ever get anything right. It is famously difficult for historians to use the past to predict the future. But in my current research, I see time and again that issues such as homosexuality have divided the family of evangelical colleges and university. It was not very hard to see that the recent SCOTUS decision about same-sex marriage would lead to a split among evangelical schools.

eastern mennonite university

A founding member of the CCC upsets the applecart…

Exactly three months ago in these pages, I put two and two together: the Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriages would present evangelical schools with a terrible dilemma.

Sure enough, Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University recently announced their plans to hire non-celibate homosexual faculty. They do not necessarily want to leave the CCCU, though. Leaders of the CCCU network are wondering: Will this lead to a split? Will member schools be forced to choose between a homosexual-friendly evangelical network and a traditional gay-is-not-okay one?

Unfortunately, the history of the CCCU offers little help on that question. In its early days as the Christian College Consortium, the network had some grandiose dreams. Some leaders, such as Hudson Armerding of Wheaton College, fantasized about a multi-campus evangelical university. The dream was to concentrate resources in order to keep up with secular colleges.

As far back as the 1950s, some evangelical college leaders toyed with this idea of a California-style mega-versity. Some schools, Armerding hoped, could offer more intense engineering programs. Others might focus on missionary preparation or languages. Yet others could host pre-med degrees. All of them would contribute toward a central graduate campus, too.

In this way, the future CCCU would remain orthodox in religion, yet be able to compete with big public and rich private universities.

As Armerding put it in a confidential letter to his fellow school leaders in 1955,

Each particular college would offer the same undergraduate instruction for the first two years and then would offer a limited number of majors for the final two undergraduate years and graduate studies leading to the doctorate. . . . There would be the possibility of mobilizing the entire evangelical community to support the proposed Christian university, challenging their loyalties through familiar and accepted institutions to which this constituency had already committed itself. Hence the continuing support of the university would be relatively assured. The geographic distribution would make possible a nation-wide impact upon the social and cultural life of the nation and would facilitate the educating of students who might otherwise be unable to travel to one central location.

Speaking from Gordon College near Boston, President James Forrester wrote in 1961 to evangelical intellectual leader Carl F. Henry to support the idea:

I have wondered if a beginning might not be made toward the consolidation of some of the evangelical effort at the undergraduate level on such a campus as ours. This could be done under a federated scheme similar to Oxford, Cambridge, the University of Toronto, Claremont College, and other associated programs. I think particularly of King’s and Barrington and wonder if some person who transcends the entrenched interest of our three schools, could bring together in conference key personnel for a discussion of this possibility. I do find that the limited assets available to Christian higher education in the area are divided among Wheaton, King’s, Barrington, and Gordon. All of us struggle with capital problems and operating deficits. . . . I am also conscious that with such a fractured effort as we now represent, we are no match for the consolidated interests of educators committed to the philosophical position of a naturalistic humanism in the university field. I also feel that this could be the natural groundwork from which could be extended ultimately your magnificent concept of a great Christian university.

It didn’t work out that way. In practice, the CCCU became a loose association of schools. So loose, in fact, that no one seems really sure what will happen now. Member colleges pledge vaguely

To advance the cause of Christ-centered higher education and to help our institutions transform lives by faithfully relating scholarship and service to biblical truth.

Can they do that if they welcome non-celibate homosexual faculty and staff? Or do those schools need to go elsewhere? If they do, how many of the 181 member schools will they pull with them?

From grand 1950s dreams of a powerful and aggressive evangelical multiversity, it seems evangelical colleges will be split yet again into smaller and smaller organizations.

Is THIS the Future for Christian Colleges?

Now what do we do? That is the question plaguing conservative college administrators nationwide. Since the Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriages, many evangelical schools have wondered if they will have to change the way they do things. In Michigan, Hope College has announced its accommodation with the ruling. Will other Christian colleges do the same thing?

The gateway to the future?

The gateway to the future?

As the Sophisticated and Good-Looking Regular Readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, questions of homosexuality and same-sex marriage have long bedeviled evangelical colleges. For non-evangelicals, it might come as a surprise to hear that the issue is contentious. After all, at most evangelical schools, the official doctrine clearly and resolutely condemns homosexual activity.

Yet at all sorts of schools, the campus community is much more welcoming. At Gordon College recently, the president’s reminder that the school officially bans “homosexual practice” brought furious protests from students and faculty. Even at the far more conservative Liberty University, faculty members do not always take the harsh tone we progressives might expect.

As our Supreme Court decided the constitutionality of state bans on same-sex marriage, many evangelicals fretted that their decision would trash traditional rules on their campuses.

At Hope College in Michigan—a school in the Reformed Church tradition—the leadership and campus has experienced similar turbulence on the issues of homosexuality. In 2010, for example, the administration provoked protests when it banned the film Milk. More recently, the campus has welcomed homosexual student organizations, though the administration has continued to endorse the Reformed position on homosexuality.

In its most recent announcement, the school’s leaders have declared their intention to abide by the SCOTUS decision. From now on, same-sex married partners of college employees will be eligible for the same benefits as heterosexual partners. The administration again affirmed its respect for the Reformed Church’s official doctrine that homosexuality is a sin. That does not mean, however, that the school will contravene the law.

Is this the path other schools will follow? Unlike pluralist colleges, evangelical schools face intense pressure to stay true to traditional beliefs and norms. As Professor Michael Hamilton wrote in his study of Wheaton College,

The paradigm that has dominated Wheaton through the century holds that colleges, more than any other type of institution, are highly susceptible to change, and that change can only move in one direction—from orthodoxy toward apostasy. . . . The very process of change, no matter how slow and benign it may seem at first, will always move the college in a secular direction, inevitably gathering momentum and becoming unstoppable, ending only when secularization is complete.

Hope College may find itself the front line for this debate within the Reformed Church in America. The church as a whole has gone back and forth for decades about the proper Christian reaction to homosexuality. Is it better to embrace the sinner? Or to drive out the sin? Conservatives within the RCA will doubtless take this announcement as proof that Hope has gone soft. Progressives will celebrate it as a small step towards equity.

Other evangelical schools will face similar scrutiny. If they openly welcome homosexual students, faculty, and staff, they will be subject to withering condemnation from conservatives. If they don’t, however, they’ll risk being sidelined, branded as anti-gay bigots.

Gay Marriage and Christian Resistance

What is a conservative Christian to do? The US Supreme Court’s decision in favor of gay marriage has sent shock waves across America. Will conservative Christians accept this decision? Or, as some have warned, does this move our culture war over sexuality one step closer to real war?

More rainbows than a box of Lucky Charms...

More rainbows than a box of Lucky Charms…

Of particular interest at ILYBYGTH these days, the new ruling will likely meet its first test at conservative religious colleges. As we’ve noted (and as the New York Times eventually noticed) the SCOTUS ruling has brought up questions about the limits of acceptable dissent in higher ed. Can schools discriminate against homosexual “practice?” As I’m writing about in my current book, the same tension played out in the 1970s, when Bob Jones University insisted on its religious right to racial discrimination. It seems colleges will be the first institutions to feel pressure to accommodate demands to end institutional discrimination against homosexuals.

The reaction to the SCOTUS decision has been fast and furious among conservative evangelicals and other Christians. Rick Scarborough of Vision America told the New York Times that the decision must be resisted. “If they change the playing field and make what we do out of bounds,” Scarborough said,

we will disobey; we will disrespect this decision. . . . We’ll treat it like Dred Scott and other decisions courts have handed down over the years that counter natural law. God made a male and a female, and no amount of surgery is going to change that.

Similarly, Robert Jeffress told the Christian Post that the decision proves America’s persecution of Christians. As the Rev. Jeffress put it,

I think today’s decision is just one more step in the marginalization of conservative Christians. I made this argument and have been ridiculed for doing so, but I think it is very legitimate. The Nazis did not take the Jews to the crematoriums immediately. . . . The German people would not have put up with that. Instead, the Nazis begin to marginalize the Jewish people, make them objects of contempt and ridicule. Once they changed the public opinion about the Jewish people, then they engaged the [Holocaust]. . . . Once secularists have made Christians objects of contempt, I think it will be very easy to revoke other rights that they have as American citizens.

And in the pages of World Magazine, Ryan Shinkel advocated Christian resistance to an overweening state and society. “The movement for marital restoration is beginning,” Shinkel wrote just before the SCOTUS decision,

and the chance for moral courage and a life daring to be countercultural is at hand. By continuing to speak up for religious freedom, the restoration of a marriage culture, and dignity of the family in the face of potential setbacks at the Supreme Court, we can become the Nietzscheans who hammer the libertine and atomistic idols of our age.

Secular folks like me, progressive people who celebrate the SCOTUS decision, might blanch at these dire warnings. Some of my friends and colleagues might take these statements as proof that conservative Christians will never admit to marriage equality. But folks like us need to listen also to the other voices of conservative Christians.

In the Washington Post, for example, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention suggests Christians calm down. It is a terrible ruling, Moore agrees. And it does indeed push conservative evangelicals into a dissenting position that might seem “freakish” these days. But so what? Moore wants conservatives to “embrace a freakishness that saves.”

Similarly, Mark Galli of Christianity Today worries that evangelicals will react badly. “The temptation,” he writes,

is to go off and sulk in our holy corner. Or to dig in our heels and fight harder. Or to lash out in anger. Or to despair. We can do better.

The goal for Christians, Galli writes, is to take confidence that they are on the right side, God’s side. This decision provides another healthy—if intensely uncomfortable—opportunity for Christians to re-engage with important questions above love, marriage, and the proper relationship between Church and society. Though some conservatives might offer extreme rhetoric, Galli warns, evangelicals in America “are far from living at the margins.”

If we are to make sense of the culture-war rhetoric surrounding this SCOTUS decision, we need at least to remember some historical precedent. As I’ve argued elsewhere, for generations evangelical Christians have been battered by landmark SCOTUS decisions that seem to kick them out of public life. In every case, evangelical pundits have insisted that each new SCOTUS decision changed America from a Christian nation to a persecuting Babylon. In every case, however, evangelicals have continued to wield enormous cultural and political power.

Will this decision be any different? Will this decision really change the balance of power in America’s continuing culture-war debates?

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?