Justin is an evangelical of the millennial generation and may represent the future of the movement. He was born and raised in a Southern Baptist, church-attending home. The orientation of his faith reflects a corporate evangelicalism similar to Dwight L. Moody. He speaks of his personal relationship with God and knows his Bible backwards and forwards. “I was ready to witness to anybody, anywhere, at the drop of a hat,” he writes of his high school days, “More than anything in the world, I wanted to represent my God well, and I prayed every day for the wisdom and opportunities to do so.”
Justin affirms the major doctrinal tenets that conservative evangelicals consider essential: that Jesus was born of a virgin, died on the cross for his sins and was literally, physically, raised from the dead. He believes in heaven and hell, that “salvation comes through Christ alone,” and that “the Bible is Holy Scripture, divinely inspired and authoritative, and not merely a human work.”
Justin is not a culture warrior. He does not fret about Islam or immigrants or religious liberty or Obamacare. He doesn’t declare hurricanes to be God’s judgement or seek to connect current events to a future apocalypse. He does embrace a conservative stance on many social issues, however. He believes “sex should be taken seriously,” and stands against “the promiscuity and sexual looseness that are often a part of the secular world.” But in contrast to evangelical Trump supporters’ fear and pessimism, he radiates hope, declaring he is “happy about what God has done and continues to do in our lives!”
Justin runs a small non-profit that facilitates constructive dialogue and ministers to oppressed people around the world. It has a rudimentary “statement of faith” as is customary in evangelical circles, but he avoids religious labels. Like Moody, his “Christianity,” is defined simply as “a completely life-changing experience of God, rooted in the teachings, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” His focus on constructive dialogue comes from recognizing “that Christians are divided on myriad theological questions.” Most important to him is “approaching these disagreements with grace, compassion, and education, rather than demonizing those who disagree with us…our goal is to unite, not to divide, while ensuring every Christian is allowed to live out his or her own conscience on matters of dispute (Romans 14).”
Like Moody, God’s love and its transforming power are Justin’s central themes. “Jesus modeled true Love for us, and God gives us the power to share that Love,” his website explains, “But each of us is still a work in progress.” When wronged by others, “we forgive them for that. After all, we don’t always act lovingly either.”
By most definitions, Justin is a run-of-the-mill evangelical. But my description left out one important detail. The “Justin” in question is Justin Lee. And Justin Lee is gay. His book, Torn, tells his compelling story of coming to terms with his sexual orientation in an evangelical context. In 2001 he founded the Gay Christian Network, (GCN) a group “of Christians working for fully inclusive Christian community and a world where all people are treated as the beloved children of God. It is our mission to transform attitudes toward LGBTQ…people and bring about a day when the church is the biggest ally and defender of LGBTQ people rather than a chief opponent.”
Is there space in a future evangelicalism for a Justin Lee? I can’t answer with certainty, but I’ll hazard to say that there is. In fact, the way that he talks about being gay helps address the nagging contradiction that lies at the heart of the current conservative evangelical position on sexual orientation (and by extension, gender identity). Indeed, it constitutes a uniquely conservative negotiation of the issues at hand.
Since the 1970s, most conservative evangelicals understood sexual orientation to be an individual choice. To be “gay” was to choose to reject a personal relationship with God. Thus, when you “came out,” you left the church. But Justin Lee considers “being gay” a fact of nature, not choice. It “just means that someone is attracted to his or her own sex,” he argues. “Most of us would not have chosen to feel this way, and many of us tried very hard to become ‘straight’ (attracted to the opposite sex).” No one, including “straight people [can] choose whom they find attractive.” Nor can you “force yourself to think someone is unattractive when you are actually attracted to them. (Believe us, we’ve tried!)”
If sexual orientation is no longer a choice—a position confirmed by most of the science and bolstered by the testimony of many thousands of sincere lesbian, gay, and bisexual evangelicals—then being gay no longer precludes you from choosing salvation, which is God’s free gift offered to everyone. Thus, you can be a “gay Christian” just as you can be an African-American Christian, a female Christian, a Gentile Christian or any other identity.
When gay Christians have a place at the table, the debate shifts to how they should live: “Does God bless gay relationships? Or are gay Christians called to lifelong celibacy?” It is a question not unlike other debates throughout the history of Christianity when incorporating new groups into the church.
No longer forced to choose between their faith and acknowledging their sexual orientation, a growing number of gay and lesbian evangelicals have come out. As a result, an even larger number of evangelicals have family members and friends who identity as LGBTQ evangelicals. The issue is no longer theoretical; its personal. And these relationships are changing the dynamics of the discussion. Offering the option of gay marriage begins to sound like a commonsense way to shore up many other espoused values, including the integrity of the family and monogamous sexual relations. And it feels like a loving option for those they know and care about.
It should be no surprise, then, that about a third of evangelicals (and over half of millennial evangelicals) agree that “homosexuality should be accepted by society.” Though these numbers are lower than the national average, they are far higher than the 1980s. And they continue to grow.
There is nothing intrinsic to evangelicalism that prevents an affirming stance. Similar shifts in biblical interpretation have been made to adjust to changing times: the demise of slavery, the rise (and fall) of Christian temperance, the wearing of jewelry, men having long hair, women’s role in ministry, divorce and remarriage, Sunday shopping and work, and many other beliefs and practices. It also includes the many novel ideas and practices of modern consumer capitalism that were once thought to contradict the Bible, but now feel “natural” to corporate evangelicals. And several of these issues, like women in ministry, have switched back and forth and back again over the last century and a half (in some groups at least). The resilience of an evangelical “orthodoxy” lies in its malleability.
Of course, there will always be evangelicals that will disagree with a new interpretation, just as there are Christians who shun pork and alcohol, wear head coverings, and maintain other practices that place them outside of “mainstream” middle-class culture. But then this merely becomes the new “fundamentalism” against which the “new” neo-evangelicals can define themselves.
Thus, the future of evangelicalism looks much like its past. The details and specific doctrinal features remain contingent and thus unknowable. But the history of evangelicalism is a story of regular rebirth. As old beliefs and practices become untenable for the current social and cultural context, new ones take their place. The old ways are quickly forgotten in the eternal present that is modern evangelicalism. Today, same-sex marriage and transgender rights lay at the heart of evangelical fears over an eroding “religious liberty” and the demise of their faith. But if social trends continue on their present trajectory, it, like early evangelical opposition to consumer capitalism, will become a forgotten relic of the past.