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.