Religion and the Victory of Same-Sex Marriage

Religion and the Victory of Same-Sex Marriage April 11, 2013

About a decade ago, the historian David Chappell wrote a thoughtful book about religion and the civil rights movement, titled A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. Among other ideas, Chappell presents the argument that the supporters of civil rights, ultimately, had religion on their side. In other words, while there were plenty of southern Christian opponents of the civil rights movement (including those Birmingham clergy who — fifty years ago this month — prompted Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”), they failed to mount a strong religious opposition. “[W]hite supremacists,” he writes, “failed … to muster the cultural strength that conservatives traditionally get from religion.” Segregationists generated much less religious fervor for their cause than did their opponents. White churches fractured over issues of race and civil rights, ultimately choosing peace and social order rather than a militant defense of Jim Crow.

When thinking about the recent gains of the movement to achieve full social equality for same-sex couples, I thought about Chappell’s argument and whether it applies in an ironic way to issues of gay rights. The two cases have many differences. For starters, Chappell points out that religious leaders in the South simply failed to match the intensity of political defenders of segregation. White ministers, with some notable exceptions, were not at the forefront of efforts to defend Jim Crow. By contrast, it was religious leaders rather than politicians who have provided much of the leadership in attempts to maintain traditional definitions of marriage. One might go back to evangelical support for Anita Bryant’s 1977 campaign, or examine the role of the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition in opposing early efforts to achieve gay rights. More recently, one might consider the role of religious organizations and leaders in efforts such as Proposition 8.

Something happened to religious opposition to same-sex marriage after 2008, however. For starters, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — as best I can tell — calculated that the short-term political success of Proposition 8 was not worth the internal strife generated within the church (and perhaps the accompanying negative coverage in the media). While the LDS Church has not changed its stance on same-sex marriage, it has curtailed its political activism and modified the tone with which it discusses homosexuality.

Relatively few evangelical leaders (not to mention the Catholic Church) have changed their opinions about the desirability of same-sex marriage. And certainly some, such as Albert Mohler and Mike Huckabee, remain resolutely opposed. Outspoken evangelical opposition to same-sex marriage, however, has cratered since 2008. Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Tim Keller, Philip Yancey. These are individuals that many evangelicals respect, yet my impression is that these leaders have been mostly quiet on issues surrounding gay rights. In general, evangelical opposition has become much more careful and muted.

Now, there are many reasons for that. Issues of marriage aside, many evangelicals came to a much-needed realization that the evangelical treatment of gays and lesbians has been deeply hurtful, destructive, and sinful. Thus, one reason for what I’m terming relative “quiet” is a repentance for the church’s past (and, in many cases, present). That would actually be a very charitable explanation, but I think there is some truth in it. Undoubtedly, evangelical leaders want to do a better job of modeling Jesus’s love for all people than did their predecessors in the 1980s.

Beyond that, what explains the “quiet”? A sense of same-sex marriage’s inevitability? A desire to not alienate young evangelicals (and potential converts)? A fear of being labeled bigots by the media (and by potential converts)? There are probably many things at play. It’s interesting to speculate whether the changing opinions of young evangelicals explain this relative “quiet,” or whether the relative “quiet” of many evangelical opinion-makers helps explains the changing opinions of young evangelicals. What seems certain is that when the standard-bearer opponents of a cause became squeamish and uncertain in their opposition, their cause is certainly doomed. Even if the earlier decades of debates over gay rights proceeded against a background of stalwart religious opposition, that opposition partly collapsed after 2008. That collapse certainly does a great deal to explain the recent successes of the movement to legalize same-sex marriage. Even more so than was the case with segregation, if opposition to same-sex marriage does not firmly have religion on its side, it certainly is doomed to a quick collapse.



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  • John, there are, of course, many other evangelical leaders who have publicly opposed the redefinition of marriage – perhaps one of the most important being John Piper. See for instance But I think Piper and others like him are also concerned about the over-politicization of evangelicalism, so they’re not going to constantly harp on the issue, or turn their churches into an office of the Republican Party. So, yes, there’s silence in some quarters, but in others there’s an attempt to make their position clear without becoming obsessed with the issue.

  • johnturner

    Oh, absolutely, and Piper’s a good example. But just thinking about this in organizational terms, what you’re describing helps explain the defeat of traditional marriage. If one side in a close struggle (which it was as of 2008) makes its position clear but backs away from full engagement, it greatly changes the dynamics of the issue.

  • Eric

    Yet another twist, though I’m not sure where it fits in your survey of the landscape. Namely, the move by some evangelicals, most notably Russell Moore, the new head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC, to see themselves–and not the advocates of same-sex marriage–as the true spiritual heirs of the Civil Rights movement. Moore, for example, has discussed Chappell’s book several times in this context, most recently in January on his blog:

    By following Chappell’s emphasis on evangelical religion as the true engine of the CRM, and by trying hard to show how (white) conservative Christians back in the day supported the CRM for religious reasons, Moore plots an ingenious narrative. Not only does he deny gay rights proponents an analogy with the CRM, he puts conservative opponents of same-sex marriage on the right side of history. Perhaps knowingly, it seems, he and others have conceded the legal fight in favor of this moral high ground. Losing that fight, I think, enables evangelicals and conservatives to (continue) to see themselves as a minority voice crying in the secular wilderness and enduring increasing threats to *their* civil rights as Christians. Though it is an old game I think Moore is playing, “religion” is the new “race.” If fact, I think for Moore to lose is gain, for nothing appeals like a “lost cause,” especially to a (mostly white, Southern) constituency facing any number of demographic and political challenges.

  • johnturner

    Thanks, Eric. Very interesting. Regardless of its merits, what you describe is certainly not a stance likely to convince very many non-evangelicals.

  • kierkegaard71

    I think there is quiet on this issue because – to combat a re-definition of marriage requires you to face the fact that much of the professing Christian world agrees with the mainstream cultural view of marriage, i.e. the purpose of marriage is to find your “soul-mate”, achieve self-actualization and the like. To combat this drift, the church would have to figure out exactly what she believes about the distinctiveness of marriage. And to do that requires an internal discussion rather than a public crusade. Is this a stretch?

  • johnturner

    Good point. I think that makes it harder for evangelicals to answer one standard argument in favor of same-sex marriage.

    Do you think at least the evangelical view of marriage has changed all that much over the past several decades?

    [On a tangential note, I wouldn’t say that the Mormon view of marriage has changed since 2008, just its calculations about the wisdom of political opposition to same-sex marriage].

  • Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui

    Same-sex marriage is an injustice, a tyrannical ploy being perpetrated upon our society, the pernicious consequences of which are simply mocked and laughed at by its supporters. Ignorance and prejudice have taken the place of knowledge and reason. Caprice and passion substituted for prudence and virtue. The happiness of society, the good of all families, and the welfare of mankind fall victim to the injustice of selfish love, which calculates every thing for itself while taking no notice of a child’s best interest or the public advantage of a government promoting ONLY the traditional family unit.

    In the eyes of a child, same-sex marriage appears adulterous by nature. Someone is not present in his/her home who is his/her true mother or father. No good can come from adultery, only broken homes and broken hearts. At best, an adoptive virtuous heterosexual man and woman can soften the evil sustained by children of adultery, but same-sex proponents want their adulterous families to be considered normal and “equal” to a monogamous heterosexual marriage — which study after study has proven to be the best environment for child-rearing. There is simply no virtue in ignorance, or in denying truth.

    Here are two truths regarding marriage: (1) A man creating a family with another man is not equal to creating a family with a woman, and (2) denying children parents of both genders at home is an objective evil. Kids need and yearn for both.

    Same-sex marriage is unconformable to the state of a rational social being, it is defective in principle, and has ONLY a deceitful appearance to young and old because it defies Natural Law. All babies grow up to eventually understand that it takes a man and a woman to bring a new life into the world.

    At school, those kids who have two mothers or two fathers will be different, and the other children will notice that the child of a same-sex couple is different in many ways. Besides the obvious exclusion of either a mother or a father at home, a same-sex-marriage child is deprived of one necessary gender role model at home, and will undoubtedly interact differently than other children of his/her gender, and especially with regards to interacting with the opposite sex of his/her same-sex parents. It is without a doubt that these children will be recognized to be different by the children who have a mother and a father at home, and especially when they have both of their biological parents at home.

    In order to protect the child of a same-sex marriage from any perceived harassment, that child will become a special protected class in the eyes of the government. School officials will have to punish and “re-educate” any child who “offends” the protected-class child by simply expressing that it seems strange that the child of the same-sex marriage is missing a mother or a father, or that the child acts in a manner unusual to his gender contemporaries.

    This unjust punishment to subvert the natural understanding of children is evidence enough that same-sex families do not adhere to core principles of Natural Law, and because same-sex marriage defies Natural Law, pernicious consequences are inevitably. To punish a child for simply saying what he knows is true (all children have a mother and a father) is nothing less than a tyrannical oppression of children who instinctively rely upon Nature’s Laws to help them understand life and natural consequences. Children will be coerced to accept as “natural” what are unnatural behaviors, and this challenge to their instinctual knowledge of right and wrong will result in confusion. A morally-confused child is more susceptible to evil and perversion than one who is confident in his knowledge of right and wrong. Evil-doers know this, and will thrive in a society that indoctrinates its children to see no inherent evil in disregarding Natural Laws. Alas, those who support same-sex marriage have apparently fallen too far into the depravity of tolerating licentiousness themselves to realize or acknowledge the harm and injustice same-sex marriage imposes upon our children and thus our society. Society institutionalizes marriage to enforce the natural rights and obligations of the organic family.

    Marriage was instituted to protect the Natural Rights of children. Same-sex marriage ignores nature and tramples those rights in the name of “equality”.

  • kierkegaard71

    My knowledge of evangelical views of marriage is only anecdotal. Certainly, there is no change in the evangelical view that marriage is by definition heterosexual. I would say, though, that evangelical silence or reticence on the issue is probably due to evangelicals trying to figure out the answer to the question: how much energy is it wise to expend on “culture wars” in a culture that is “post-Christendom” in nature? Culturally, arguments based on biblical authority are not persuasive in a general sense. It is hard to make arguments for traditional marriage using only the “therapeutic”, individualistic ethos that is dominant.

  • johnturner

    Good thoughts.

  • John, I think another reason that you see a relative quiet from some heretofore anti-SSM evangelicals is because of a sense that the redefinition of marriage is inevitable. Few admit this publicly, but I’ve heard many admit it privately. It seems that many evangelicals who are even strongly opposed to SSM are publicly cutting their losses in terms of the cultural debate and focusing on emphasizing traditional sexual morality in their churches and other ministries. In other words, they assume that the culture will move in the wrong direction on this issue, so they want to make sure that their subculture models a better way.

    Having said that, you should note that there are several younger evangelical leaders who have continued to speak clearly and consistently against SSM. In my own Southern Baptist tradition, Denny Burk and Owen Strachan at Southern Seminary and Andrew Walker (a SBTS alum) at The Heritage Foundation have written quite a bit on this topic. While none of them are as influential as a Falwell or Mohler or Robertson or Keller, and thus rarely receive attention from mainstream media outlets, each of them has a large following within conservative evangelicalism.

  • Patrick

    Re: your nonsense about protected classes: Single parent households and absentee parents already exist and this doesn’t happen.

  • Stefan Stackhouse

    The actual biblical standard is not “anti-homosexuality”, but rather fidelity within heterosexual marriage and chastity outside of it. We are hearing this standard affirmed less and less, because to do so would be to offend increasing numbers of people in our pews, and not just homosexuals. Unfortunately, not offending comes at a big price. Those of us who are trying to live up to the standard of fidelity & chastity need all the help and support we can get, as the standard is extremely counter-cultural these days. When we don’t hear fidelity and chastity upheld from the pulpit – and indeed, when we hear commendations for alternative sexualities that are not in conformity with the biblical standard – then how can those of us that are committed to the standard help but feel let down?