Evangelicals, Same-Sex Marriage & Wedding Cakes: Are Evangelicals Trying to Have Their Cake and Eat It, Too?

Evangelicals, Same-Sex Marriage & Wedding Cakes: Are Evangelicals Trying to Have Their Cake and Eat It, Too? March 24, 2014

Evangelicalism is a very diverse movement, contrary to how the media often portrays us. The same-sex marriage debate nationally reflects such diversity. Questions for many Evangelicals revolve around three things: what is constitutional, what is biblical, and what is relational.

Many Evangelicals oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage. I believe most would oppose church-officiated same-sex wedding ceremonies based on their biblical perspectives. Still, concerns around how to engage meaningfully gay and lesbian family members, friends and neighbors complicate matters. Many Evangelicals are troubled by our past encounters in failing to engage relationally those inside and outside our churches who claim to be homosexuals.

On the constitutional front, 6 out of 10 evangelicals oppose same-sex marriage according to a Washington Post article: “Despite the changing views, deep chasms remain along religious, generational and political lines. Six in 10 evangelical Protestants oppose same-sex marriage, while about six in 10 Catholics, non-evangelical Protestants and eight in 10 with no religious affiliation support it. Three-quarters of Americans younger than 30 support same-sex marriage, while less than half of seniors say the same.”

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, while there has been shy growth over the past 10 years, support among white evangelicals remains flat—23 percent support same-sex marriage nationally. This is the same figure as last year. In contrast, the Pew study indicates that support from African American Protestants has dramatically increased. While I cannot speak for how African American Evangelicals approach the subject of same-sex marriage, I was led to consider this matter over the weekend. During an interview with a reporter in Oregon on Saturday, I was asked if my church gives attention to same-sex marriage and if we make use of Christian voter guides that highlight concerns over the subject. My Evangelical church in North Portland is a multi-ethnic congregation made up mostly of African American and Anglo Christians. Our African American pastor often gives attention to concerns that are central to our community: race, racism, gang violence, the negative dynamics involved with gentrification, and beyond. These subjects don’t often receive treatment in Christian voter guides in Evangelical circles. The lack of emphasis on these matters does not mean that there is a split between Evangelicals of different ethnic backgrounds on the subject of same-sex marriage, but that perhaps different emphases play out based on various sub-cultures’ challenges. After all, Evangelicalism is a diverse movement.

On the subject of same-sex marriage and the church, I told the reporter that I believe most Evangelicals would oppose same-sex marriages in their churches on biblical grounds (for my own biblical reflections on the subject, see my chapter “Homosexuality, Holy Matrimony, and Hospitality” in Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths {Thomas Nelson, 2012}). No doubt, many Evangelicals are concerned about what the legalization of same-sex marriages in various states will mean for their businesses, including bakeries where they fear they could be sued for not making wedding cakes for gay couples. Should they be allowed to plead separation of church and state? Evangelicals across the country are wrestling with this issue, including in states like Oregon, where the court is dealing with this question presently. Going beyond bakeries and other businesses like bed and breakfasts, will churches someday lose their tax exempt status, if they refuse to perform same-sex weddings? Will Evangelical churches decide to get out of the state-sanctioned marriage business altogether, allowing the courts to perform that role entirely, if gay marriage becomes the law of every state across the land? Some Evangelicals maintain that this is the only way to go; if this scenario were to play out, Evangelical churches would only perform religious ceremonies that do not carry legal authority.

Above and beyond the legal, biblical and ecclesial considerations, there are the relational considerations. The reporter asked me if I had witnessed a change among Evangelicals from 2004 with Oregon Ballot Measure 36 to the present. As I sought to convey in my response, the news articles’ percentages mentioned earlier do not tell the whole story. While there may not be significant movement among Evangelicals regionally and nationally on the subject of gay marriage, there has been dramatic change relationally. Many of us Evangelicals have friends, neighbors and family members who profess to being gay. Some fellow parishioners and leading clergy have opened up and shared about their same-sex inclinations and relationships. Hopefully, we have realized based on the case of Ted Haggard, the former President of the National Association of Evangelicals, that we have a long way to go in dealing redemptively with brothers and sisters in Christ who have hid in the closet until the closet door comes off the hinges. Some of us have attended gay weddings and the funerals of those close to us. Ballot measures like Measure 36 in Oregon and President Bush’s reelection victory in 2004 did not bring about the millennial kingdom, as some Evangelicals may have hoped. In fact, it led to an outcry against Evangelicals as being hateful and intolerant. Our particular involvement in politics at that time was centered largely on two issues: gay marriage and abortion. Since that time, we have not really changed in our convictions, especially among older Evangelicals. However, we have expanded our convictions and complexified our approach to engaging the subject.

The Luis Palau Association’s and Portland (Oregon) area Evangelical churches’ well-documented partnership with former mayor of Portland, Sam Adams, who is outspoken on his homosexuality, on broader civic concerns, including the homeless and care for public schools, was symbolic of a dramatic change. The Justice Conference launched by Evangelical Pastor Ken Wytsma (of Oregon) is a national venue that addresses a variety of concerns championed increasingly by Evangelicals, including the global slave trade, racism, poverty, and more. American Evangelicalism is no longer a two-issue movement, as my friend USA Today columnist Tom Krattenmaker keenly notes in his important study, The Evangelicals You Don’t Know: Introducing the Next Generation of Christians (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013). Krattenmaker’s treatment of Focus on the Family is a striking account of the shift from 2004 to the present. Each chapter is worth the price of the book; the chapter on the cultural change at Focus on the Family from James Dobson to Jim Daly is no exception. For Krattenmaker, Evangelicals’ convictions may not have changed on the subject of same-sex marriage, but tone and emphasis have.

It is not that we Evangelicals are trying to have our cake and eat it, too. It is that we are trying to sit down for civil conversations over meals with our friends, family members and neighbors who profess different beliefs and practice different lifestyles, while holding to our biblical convictions. Just as America is not monochromatic, the same goes for Evangelicalism. While we are not trying to have our cake and eat it, too, we are considering carefully what hill is worth dying on, as I noted a year ago in a blog post on “Evangelicals and the Supreme Court Decision on Same Sex Marriage.”  In the end, we need to come to terms with “Is Golgotha where Christ died the only hill worth dying on?” Or will our relational concerns for our family members, friends and neighbors get drowned out by ballot measures and lobbying on Capitol Hill and at state capitols?



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