NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Prominent evangelical Christian leaders met here this week to discuss a topic that’s typically taboo in Sunday church: sexuality. The Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics and religious liberty commission (ERLC) was hosting its first leadership summit, which its new leader said he hoped would provoke a “frank conversation” on sexual ethics. Speakers tackled topics including pornography, hookup culture, premarital sex, the decline of marriage, sexual abuse, divorce and — arguably the most contentious — homosexuality.
Younger attendees at the event, a meeting of the country’s largest Protestant denomination, sported beards, stylish plaid and the occasional NPR tote bag. Everyone spent the week tweeting — the summit attracted much attention from the Christian blogosphere — and one speaker jokingly asked people to “turn on their Bibles,” a nod to the popularity of e-books and Bible apps.
The group’s president, Russell Moore, took a gentler, less combative approach than his predecessor, Richard Land, who was known to make incendiary comments. (Just last week, Land suggested on a radio show that homosexuality is caused by childhood sexual abuse.) Many Southern Baptists, like other mainstream evangelicals, have given up talk of reparative therapy for gays in favor of love, grace and “peacemaking.” At this week’s summit, Florida pastor Jimmy Scroggins called for an end to “redneck theology” and said, “We have to stop telling ‘Adam and Steve’ jokes.”
But the event was also a setting where the word “fornicators” was used without irony and gay people were referred to as “homosexuals.” The meeting — with sessions such as The Gospel and Homosexuality — made clear that these evangelicals are not wavering in their stance on certain issues: Marriage is between a man and a woman, homosexual behavior is a sin, and church leaders must not condone it. And that raises the question: In a time of fast-growing embrace of gay rights, when more of their fellow Christians are insisting there’s room for debate on the issue, can conservatives maintain their vision of orthodoxy?
These days, for the first time, evangelicals are beginning to argue among themselves about homosexuality. Last month World Vision, the large evangelical anti-poverty organization, announced it would begin hiring married gay Christians. Less than 48 hours later, under public pressure from evangelical leaders including Moore, the organization reversed the decision.
The reversal was a triumphant moment for conservatives. But the fallout caused an uproar among progressive evangelicals. Polls consistently show that young evangelicals are far more accepting of gay relationships than older evangelicals are. A poll released in February by the Public Religion Research Institute, for example, found that white evangelical millennials are more than twice as likely as their elders to support same-sex marriage.
A new book by 24-year-old Matthew Vines, who is gay and evangelical, is adding to the debate. “God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships,” published on Tuesday by a Christian imprint of Penguin Random House, started to attract attention even before its release. The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, R. Albert Mohler Jr., released an e-book rebuttal the same day.
In an interview last week, Vines said many evangelicals are open to changing their views on gay marriage, even if they tell pollsters they don’t support it. Young believers have gay classmates, co-workers and family members; the social costs of maintaining traditional views on gays are high, he said. “Their theological position is so much more open to changing than [Moore] wishes it were,” Vines said. “That’s not something he or any other evangelical leader is going to be able to change.”
Attendees listen to a speech at the ERLC conference.Courtesy Kent Harville / ERLC
Lydia Bean, a sociologist at Baylor University, said evangelicals are going to face mounting questions over whether there is room in their churches for a wider spectrum of views. “You’re going to see more and more of that conflict within evangelicalism over the next five to 10 years.” Bean’s forthcoming paper in the journal Sociology of Religion, based on national survey data, locates 24 percent of evangelicals in the“messy middle: They remain opposed to homosexuality on moral grounds but still support civil unions.
As the messy middle grows, some argue that religious leaders will have to decide if condemning homosexuality is central to the definition of evangelical Christianity and that if the do, they face the possibility that their numbers and influence will shrink. But Moore rejects this premise and many of the poll numbers that support it: Many pollsters, he says, define “evangelical” too broadly. Few Southern Baptist millennials are wavering in their support for the church’s values, he told Al Jazeera “If we have to choose between church growth and Jesus, we choose Jesus, but I don’t think that’s a choice that has to be made.”
But Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest and chair of the religion department at Dartmouth College, said he thinks Moore is “whistling in the dark.” “I would not want to be a church leader defending the restriction of gay rights these days,” said Balmer, who has written frequently about the history of American evangelicalism. One option for conservatives, he said, would be to hold their ground and “decamp to the margins” of the culture. “Part of me, albeit reluctantly, will have to admire that,” he said. Another option would be for churches to maintain the same official beliefs about homosexuality but hold them more quietly, making room for disagreement in the pews.