I was reading a fictional account in which a gay man asks a pastor, a long-time friend, to perform his same-sex wedding. Although the pastor tries to keep his cool, the prospect appalls him. He warns that if this event did occur, he would avert his eyes in disgust if the two men kissed in front of him. He would be “totally grossed out.” Ultimately he decides that he cannot perform the wedding, mainly because “I’m a little worried about eternal damnation.” So I ask you: what kind of backwoods fundamentalist fringe church are we dealing with here? Plenty of Christians reject the idea of same-sex marriage, but the overwhelming majority would surely respond much more charitably to a practice that has acquired solid mainstream respectability. Fear of hellfire over that issue? Really? Is this Westboro Baptist?
The story-line I am describing actually occurred in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury cartoon strip in 1999, and the characters were Doonesbury veterans. The gay man was former campus agitator Mark Slackmeyer, and the fictional cleric was Scot Sloan, another holdover from the turmoil of the 1960s. (His name is meant to recall William Sloane Coffin). In his prime, Rev. Scot was lauded as “the fighting young priest who can talk to the kids,” and his radical principles continued into later years, as he struggled for the rights of Central American migrants. Yet as recently as 1999, the very liberal Trudeau was still depicting the idea of gay marriage as so off-the-wall radical, and alarming, that it will panic even a veteran ultra-liberal.
Incidentally, lest you wonder about the story’s resolution, Mark and his partner eventually say their marriage vows in an airliner over the Pacific, without the benefit of a clergyman. The event is accompanied by music from the Hanoi Gay Men’s Glee Club, which fortuitously happens to be on board.
Obviously, I am using here the work of one author, and moreover a comic satirist, and I make no claim that that story arc in itself says much about American social attitudes. But it does point to the scale of changing attitudes to same-sex marriage, and the extreme rapidity – in historical terms – with which that sea-change has been accomplished. No author today would portray a “Rev. Scot” character in such terms because readers would find it utterly implausible. In real life, the modern-day Rev. Scot, more than anyone, would be leading the charge for Marriage Equality.
Just within the present century – fourteen years or so – Americans and Europeans have experienced a social and cultural transformation that would have been inconceivable only a very short time before. It was for instance in 1996 that noted far Right reactionary extremist Bill Clinton signed the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and as late as 2004, there was still serious discussion of a US constitutional amendment to prohibit same sex marriage. The first key judicial decision granting the possibility of same sex marriage on US soil was handed down in 2003, in Massachusetts (Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health). All the revolutionary change we have seen has taken place in strictly contemporary history, mainly since the election of George W. Bush in 2000, and (for example) after the arrival of Amazon, Google and Netflix. Compared to other historical social transformations, that is change at a breakneck pace.
The speed of that revolution is almost impossible to conceive, even for many who lived through it as conscious adults. Suppose, for instance, we are looking for survey evidence to track shifting attitudes to same-sex marriage, to find what earlier generations thought of the idea. Look long and hard, and you will find precisely nothing of the sort from the 1970s, or the 1990s, or from anywhere in the twentieth century. A Wikipedia entry on Public opinion of same-sex marriage in the United States discusses polling data from 2014, 2013, and so on all the way back to a generic historical entry on “Older polls (2009 and earlier).”Ah, the ancient world…
There were no earlier surveys from, say, the 1980s, because the gay marriage issue was then regarded as so bizarre and extreme that no serious polling organization thought to inquire about it. It did not exist as a matter of serious public debate.
We could draw many lessons from the speed of this change. Gay rights advocates might, for instance, be a little restrained in denouncing remaining opponents of same sex marriage as hopeless reactionaries, sunk in visceral homophobia. It really is not that long since the views those conservatives express actually did represent an overwhelming social consensus. Only twenty years or so, in fact.
Meanwhile, churches of all shades could take note of the revolution, and extrapolate it only a very little. In the West at least (a crucial qualification) the same sex marriage issue is close to being settled in public opinion. Even if many ordinary citizens do not actually favor the practice, the vast majority do not want to see it legally prohibited or sanctioned, because they have been sufficiently convinced by “live and let live” arguments.
I would suggest that by 2020, or perhaps a little later, same sex unions will be so thoroughly accepted, so completely mainstream, that opponents of any kind – even those who base themselves in strong religious traditions – will be regarded pretty much as most of us today view critics of interracial marriage. By that point, churches publicly criticizing same-sex marriage, or even refusing to endorse it wholeheartedly, can expect to lose enormous numbers of their remaining young adult members, and frankly, much of their membership apart from the very old and the politically ultra-reactionary. That is a hideous prospect.
If churches formally reject the practice, expect guerrilla action by individual pastors and priests, illicitly carrying out de facto marriages, or blessings that are marriages in all but name. Expect the Roman Catholic church to be the scene of widespread dissidence.
One other thought. Since about 2000, same sex marriage has gone from fringe and unthinkable to almost totally mainstream. So what ideas or theories are circulating today that might stand poised for a comparably rapid escalation and mainstreaming? In particular, which of those ideas is likely to demand that churches and religious institutions rethink their moral assumptions as completely as has occurred in the case of gay marriage?
I see one major and, I would say, inevitable example, and that is the issue of gender crossing, of granting full social, legal and cultural equality to the transgendered. Among other things, that means granting adoption rights, medical benefits for gender reassignment, and a host of other controversies scarcely yet on the horizon. Expect massive changes in our everyday linguistic usage.
Is this our immediate future?
In a religious context, our next revolution would entail granting the transgendered the right to become clergy at all levels, it means marriage ceremonies, and it likely implies rewriting liturgies to abolish anything suggesting the archaic dichotomy of he and she. It would demand new Biblical translations, not to mention much theological rethinking. Yes, I know the transgender issue is anything but new for churches, and Christianity Today was publishing on The Transgender Moment back in 2008. But I’m envisaging a much more sweeping movement, and a more general crisis of conscience. Those are going to be the key issues roiling the churches in the near future, igniting bitter confrontations, legal wrangling, and outright schisms. Worry seriously about new schisms between Euro-American churches and their counterparts in the Global South.
You might think my comments here about the coming crisis of gender redefinition are overwrought. Come back in a decade and we’ll see.