This week, Southern Baptist leaders convened at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for a leadership summit on sexuality. New England journalist Ruth Graham offers her perspective on Al Jazeera:
The group’s president, Russell Moore, took a gentler, less combative approach than his predecessor, Richard Land, who was known to make incendiary comments. (Just last week, Land suggested on a radio show that homosexuality is caused by childhood sexual abuse.) Most Southern Baptists, like other mainstream evangelicals, have given up talk of “reparative therapy” for gays in favor of love, grace and “peacemaking.” At this week’s summit, Florida pastor Jimmy Scroggins called for an end to “redneck theology” and said, “We have to stop telling ‘Adam and Steve’ jokes.”
But the event was also a setting where the word “fornicators” was used without irony, and gay people were referred to as “homosexuals.” The meeting — with sessions such as “The Gospel and Homosexuality” — made clear that these evangelicals are not wavering in their stance on certain issues: Marriage is between a man and a woman, homosexual behavior is a sin, and church leaders must not condone it. And that raises the question: In a time of fast-growing embrace of gay rights, when more of their fellow Christians are insisting there’s room for debate on the issue, can conservatives maintain their vision of orthodoxy?
She goes on to describe the current evangelical crisis, along with Moore’s gatekeeper mentality that refuses the evangelical label entirely to “progressive” Christians:
Lydia Bean, a sociologist at Baylor University, said evangelicals are going to face mounting questions over whether there is room in their churches for a wider spectrum of views. “You’re going to see more and more of that conflict within evangelicalism over the next five to 10 years.” Bean’s forthcoming paper in the journal Sociology of Religion, based on national survey data, locates 24 percent of evangelicals in the “messy middle”: They remain opposed to homosexuality on moral grounds but still support civil unions.
As the “messy middle” grows, some argue that religious leaders will have to decide if condemning homosexuality is central to the definition of evangelical Christianity. Otherwise, they will face the possibility that their numbers and influence will shrink. But Moore rejects this premise and many of the poll numbers that support it: Many pollsters, he says, define “evangelical” too broadly. Few Southern Baptist millennials are wavering in their support for the church’s values, he told Al Jazeera “If we have to choose between church growth and Jesus, we choose Jesus, but I don’t think that’s a choice that has to be made.”
As I’ve documented here on the blog, the conservative/majority evangelicalism is indeed securing the borders – and, in the process, rolling the dice. The question is whether this “messy middle” trend of nuanced/progressive evangelicalism will grow among the current generations, essentially turning the conservative majority into a minority. Russell Moore and the SBC are playing the odds on their unflinching farewell policy.
In this case, may the odds be ever in the messy middle’s favor.