The following post is from Brent Bailey, a Master of Divinity student at Abilene Christian University. Brent is interning with us again at The Marin Foundation this summer and you can find his blog at oddmanout.net.
In the next few weeks, the Supreme Court is expected to issue rulings related to its March hearings on Proposition 8 and DOMA. (I’ll take this opportunity to point back to a post I wrote before the hearings encouraging readers to “Think Ahead” instead of speaking thoughtlessly when the nation’s attention collectively turns to same-sex marriage, as it will again soon.) For better or for worse—okay, for worse—I spent the week of the hearings engrossed in social media and local conversations, trying to take a pulse on our society’s general leanings on homosexuality and sexual minorities.
Maybe it was the flurry of red equals signs on Facebook and Twitter or statements of support from a growing pool of politicians and celebrities, but the dialogue surrounding the Supreme Court decision felt to me like the first time public opinion seemed decidedly favorable to marriage equality. There was a certain confidence that, regardless of what the Supreme Court decided, momentum for the gay rights movement had reached the point of inevitable progress. Lots of big publications noticed the same thing. Time ran that striking “Gay Marriage Already Won” cover (with an accompanying story that gave a concise summary of how things happened so quickly), and The Atlantic published a piece a month later about “How GLAAD Won the Culture War and Lost Its Reason to Exist.” That article was unambiguous in its analysis of recent history:
“Simply put, gays have won the culture war. Social historians can debate when exactly this happened. (Was it Ellen DeGeneres’ “Yep, I’m Gay” Time cover? Or, as Vice President Joe Biden recently suggested, the popularity of Will & Grace?) Rather than being attributable to one instantaneous incident, however, today’s mainstream acceptance of homosexuality came about gradually, assisted by the fact that most people today personally know someone who is openly gay. While the Stonewall Riots of 1969 may seem like a long time ago, in the full sweep of American history, no other social movement has progressed so far and so fast as that of gays.”
Obviously, individual opinions on same-sex marriage and sexual minorities cover a wide spectrum from fear/loathing to support/admiration, and nobody’s claiming hearts and minds have changed at an individual level as much as those who support marriage equality would like to see them change. When it comes to the law, though, the outcome seems predictable, even if there’s still plenty of work for gay rights advocates to do. Different polls give different predictions about where public opinion will lean in which year, and we can argue all day long about whether this is a positive or negative direction in which our culture is moving; but the numbers indicate to me that gay marriage will eventually become a nationwide reality, sooner rather than later.
As the nation’s understanding of and opinion toward sexuality has evolved, the traditional Christian sexual ethic on homosexuality—i.e., that women shouldn’t have sex with women, nor men with men—has gone from being nearly universally accepted (Same-sex attraction was considered mental pathology until the ‘70s, after all.) to fiercely debated to, now, often criticized or denounced as intolerant or reprehensible. That shift has left many conservative Christians—whose opposition to gay marriage was uncontroversial twenty years ago, and who aren’t used to others calling them “hateful”—bewildered and, in some cases, defensive. Christians are generally known for believing and practicing some strangely counter-cultural things (See: Jesus’ teachings on money, enemies, power, etc., etc., etc.), but the refusal of certain Christian sects to budge on marriage has quickly damaged their reputation and credibility among many outside church walls.
Without a doubt, one of the primary reasons traditional Christian sexual ethics are so distasteful to many is that those who profess them have often turned to political action to enforce them for others, regardless of the others’ religious convictions. Were conservative Christians merely asking their faithful to abstain from gay marriages, I don’t think their neighbors would so staunchly oppose their position; though, to be fair, many would still take major issue with the potentially deleterious mental and emotional effects of such an environment for gay and lesbian individuals. But when Christian teachings and Bible verses continually show up in political debates related to gay marriage, it’s easy for those who support marriage equality to perceive those people and that book as the leading villains of the saga, the contemptible opponents of inevitable social progress.
Nevertheless, I don’t think that’s the whole story, and I don’t think the actions of particular Christians in the political arena are the only reason why Christians so often receive accusations of being anti-gay or intolerant. It was inevitable that our culture’s evolving sexual values would make traditional Christian ethics less appealing and less accessible; that’s already happened with practices like sex before marriage and sex outside of marriage. It wasn’t inevitable, though, that the transition our culture has experienced in the days since Stonewall would make traditional Christian ethics seem hateful and oppressive, and I think that attitude shift is attributable to the ways Christians have handled themselves and responded to others over the last forty years.
In my following post, I’ll explore what I think may have gone wrong to contribute to this negative attitude. In the meantime, do you think Time magazine and I have been too quick to suggest gay marriage will be legalized across the United States in the near future? Is the legalization of gay marriage inevitable?
[This post is connected to a recent series on Brent’s blog, oddmanout.net.]