Last week my newsfeed blew up with articles about the Nashville Statement, an anti-gay proclamation signed by dozens of conservative evangelical and fundamentalist pastors and theologians. I initially assumed that this was old news going around again—there have been other anti-gay statements, after all, and it’s not as if opposition to gay rights is new. This initial assumption was incorrect. This wasn’t old news. And yet—in a very real way—it is old news.
It’s no secret that many conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists—including pastors and theologians—believe that homosexuality is immoral—and it is not as though this is new.
I grew up in a conservative evangelical family. In the early 2000s, I attended an anti-gay marriage rally with my family; I was in high school at the time. The rally was held at our state’s capital, and was attended by thousands. There were speakers and cheers and huge signs; the atmosphere was electric. Being anti-gay was an integral part of the evangelicalism of my youth. I was raised with such negative ideas about homosexuality that I was somewhat surprised when I met a gay person for the first time, in college, and he looked like a normal human being.
Fifteen years have gone by since high school, but you’d be badly mistaken to think the speakers I heard at that rally—and the speakers at hundreds like it across the country—are now promoters of gay rights. It’s true that younger evangelicals tend to be less anti-gay than their elders, but it takes a while for that sort of thing to filter up. Most millennials are not senior pastors or professors at theological seminaries—and the gatekeepers at conservative seminaries tend to be well known for rigorous ideological screening, so this is not likely to change.
I may not be an evangelical today but I am still in contact with my parents and their church community, and when it comes to LGBT issues nothing has changed since I was a teenager. Absolutely nothing. You should have heard the silence several years ago when my mom overheard my mom overheard my sister and I talking about a college friend’s wedding—to his boyfriend. The frostiness of it, the evident disgust when LGBT issues come up—it’s all the same.
There is one change: When I let my young son wear dresses (his choice), I wasn’t sure whether my mother’s negative reaction and high level of concern centered on fear that it would make him gay, or trans. A generation ago conservatives feared that boys who acted “girly” might be gay; today, as trans issues have gained increasing public awareness, that fear has shifted. God forbid their grandsons turn out to be granddaughters.
The Nashville Statement does not surprise me in the least. These beliefs aren’t new, and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which composed the statement, has been promoting this kind of bigotry for decades. It’s not as if organizations like this have gone away. They haven’t. It’s not as though anti-gay pastors have disappeared. They haven’t. It’s not as though conservative evangelical seminaries now hire gay affirming theologians. They don’t.
What does surprise me about the Nashville Statement is that so many people seem surprised by it.
How did “pastors sign anti-gay statement” become so newsworthy? This could be a good sign—an indication that so many people support gay rights that it’s news when people don’t. But I don’t think so. Opposition to gay marriage is not that uncommon. I worry that the media’s seeming surprise at the Nashville Statement is, instead, a sign of obliviousness the continued extent of homophobia (and transphobia) in much of the country.
Talk of “coastal elites” and “red states” can be reductive, but it’s true that our friend groups are often ideologically segregated, both in real life and on social media. During the 2016 election it was common for progressives to express genuine confusion as to how Trump kept getting so many votes. Who was voting for him, they wondered? Consider the number of think-pieces aimed at figuring out how in the world anyone could support someone like Trump.
Let me give you another example. I live in a progressive city where essentially every church has a rainbow decal on the sign out front. To my knowledge, there is only one conservative white evangelical church in the area, and it’s hard to stumble upon. If I did not know better, it would be easy to imagine that Christians are now as a rule LGBT affirming. But in other areas of the country, you would be hard pressed to find a single LGBT affirming church.
When we exist in a bubble (and this happens on all parts of the spectrum), we run the risk of not being as aware of the beliefs held in other circles as we should be. Could that be why the Nashville Statement seems to have taken some off guard? Has LGBT acceptance come so far that some have forgotten how entrenched the opposition continues to be?
I’ve seen some suggest that this item from the Nashville statement, which condemns “approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism,” represents something new:
WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.
WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or trangenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.
But this isn’t new. The only reason this item is included now when it might not have been in a statement written decades ago is that a growing number of Christians, including more progressive evangelicals, do affirm LGBT identities. That is what has changed: It’s not that those who believe homosexuality is sin have thrown in the hat en masse or moderated their position—they haven’t—but rather that Christian supporters of LGBT identities have become more vocal and present—visible enough to need condemnation in a statement like this.
Evangelicals have always been big on gatekeeping. My parents threw me off the evangelical farm for leaving young earth creationism for theistic evolution. I grew up hearing that mainline Christians weren’t saved. The change is that it’s not just mainline Christians who are LGBT affirming, it’s also a growing number of evangelicals—typically those who are young, progressive, and hip. This, of course, calls for renewed gatekeeping.
But wait. Didn’t I say earlier that nothing had changed? Well, yes and no. If an evangelical parent whose child comes out as gay is willing to rethink her beliefs, there are a wider range of Christian organizations and ministries she can turn to. In growing number of areas, she can even find a gay-affirming church without too much trouble. However, anti-gay evangelicals—and they continue to be the majority—are just as solidly anti-gay as they have always been. It isn’t as though the whole swath of evangelicalism is moderating on this issue. One side has calcified, in beliefs if not numbers.
Why is this important? It matters because I had a coworker a few years ago who swallowed a bottle of pills as a teen because he didn’t see any other alternative, as a closeted gay kid in a conservative evangelical community—and this same thing still happens, fifteen years later. It’s easy to imagine the battle is won, but as long as conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists continue to be anti-LGBT, gay and trans children will continue to grow up in families that condemn who they are.
We need to be there for these kids, and if we forget the extent of ongoing homophobia, we can’t be.
I sincerely doubt people like John Piper or Al Mohler are going to change their minds on this issue, and I don’t think opposition to LGBT identities will moderate (i.e. soften their position). We’re going to have Doug Wilsons and Marvin Olaskys for a long time in the future, if not forever. I do think the number of pastors and evangelical laypeople who oppose LGBT identities will gradually shrink as more evangelicals, particularly young evangelicals, become affirming.
And that’s the real story here, isn’t it? That’s what’s new: Not the Nashville Statement itself, but how quickly it was condemned by mainline Christians and progressive evangelicals. That is the real change.