Gatekeepers are losing their grip

Evangelicals Are Changing Their Minds on Gay Marriage,” Jim Hinch reports for Politico:

Increasingly, even evangelical Christians, long known for doctrinally condemning homosexuality, are embracing gay people, too.

Over the past decade, evangelical support for gay marriage has more than doubled, according to polling by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute. About a quarter of evangelicals now support same-sex unions, the institute has found, with an equal number occupying what researchers at Baylor University last year called the “messy middle” of those who oppose gay marriage on moral grounds but no longer support efforts to outlaw it. The shift is especially visible among young evangelicals under age 35, a near majority of whom now support same-sex marriage. And gay student organizations have recently formed at Christian colleges across the country, including flagship evangelical campuses such as Wheaton College in Illinois and Baylor in Texas.

… Just a decade ago, conservative Christians powered an electoral surge that outlawed gay unions in 11 states and, in the view of many political analysts, helped to ensure President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection. Barely one in 10 evangelicals supported gay marriage, and church leaders like [mega-church pastor Rick] Warren urged their followers to vote against same-sex unions.

To understand Hinch’s discussion of 2004 there, we should look back a bit further, to 2002. The PRRI survey data he cites only goes back to 2003, when pollsters started tracking public opinion on same-sex marriage because of a court case in Massachusetts. Most white evangelicals — like most heterosexual people in America — hadn’t yet given the matter much thought. It just wasn’t on their radar.

That changed in 2004. That was the year that same-sex couples began getting legally married in Massachusetts, and then not-quite-legally married in San Francisco, where Mayor Gavin Newsom’s act of civil disobedience began forcing the majority to think about this.

Some gatekeepers keep outsiders out. Others keep insiders in.

As Hinch notes, George W. Bush’s re-election campaign beat the drum loudly on this issue — getting bans onto the ballot in 11 states in an effort to bolster conservative turnout. But Karl Rove wasn’t the only one who noticed that this issue could be exploited to frighten and fire up the faithful. The perpetual fundraisers of the religious right also seized on same-sex marriage as their new abortion-like gravy train, and they’ve been profitably outraged by it ever since.

Those two things together meant something new for white evangelicals in 2004. That was the year that opposition to same-sex marriage became an Official Required Stance of the tribe. The previous Official Required Stance of being generally anti-gay (“love the sinner, hate the sin”) was amended to specifically include formal opposition to same-sex marriage. This was a question one had to be prepared to answer in order to remain an evangelical in good standing, and everyone knew what the right and proper and acceptable answer was.

And yet, according to PRRI, more than a tenth of evangelicals refused to give that required answer. That’s pretty remarkable. I knew that there has always been a small prophetic minority of pro-gay evangelicals, but I would have guessed it was a lot smaller than 10 percent.

For the tribal gatekeepers of evangelicalism, though, the existence of any such dissent was intolerable. So 2004 also found those gatekeepers rooting out such dissenters with renewed zeal. Any such evangelical heretic who could be identified was formally “farewell”-ed, anathematized and redefined as “post-evangelical.”

The problem with banishing members of the tribe for this thought crime, though, is that it gets everyone else thinking about it too. And now, thanks to those hyper-vigilant gatekeepers and those hysterical fundraisers and apocalyptic political campaigners, everyone has had a chance to think about this a bit more for the past 10 years. It turns out that 10 years is a long time to think about something you’re expected and required to oppose without at some point along the way noticing the utter lack of any convincing argument against it.

You can see the same dynamic at work in PRRI’s tracking of Catholic attitudes regarding same-sex marriage. The more hysterically shrill, vehement and hyper-partisan the U.S. bishops get, the more Catholic laypeople seem persuaded to support the very things those bishops oppose.

Also too, in evangelicalism, tribal banishment ain’t what it used to be. The more often such pronouncements are pronounced, the less effective they tend to be. When the Christian book store stops carrying one author’s books, then the result may be that fewer members of the tribe read those books. But when the store stops carrying dozens of authors, then the result is that fewer members of the tribe shop there. They start shopping for their books — and their ideas — somewhere else.


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