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Inside the Evangelical Fight Over Gay Marriage

15 minute read

From the outside, EastLake Community Church looks like a lot of other evangelical megachurches. It boasts 13 weekly services at six locations in the greater Seattle area; the head pastor is a bearded hipster; and the main campus is a warehouse turned sanctuary where greeters serve coffee, a tattooed band rocks out beneath colored lights and attendance swells whenever the Seahawks are not playing. On a rainy Sunday in early January, William Paul Young, the author of the evangelical best seller The Shack, is piped in via a pretaped video to preach about trusting Jesus and a campus pastor prays to ask God to make their hearts open to change. It is almost enough to make you miss what is really going on at EastLake this winter: the congregation is quietly coming out as one of the first openly LGBT-affirming evangelical churches in the U.S.

Change has come to EastLake only gradually. For the past six months, the church has played a short welcome video at the start of every service that includes the line “Gay or straight here, there’s no hate here.” One of the pastors now sends a wedding gift on behalf of the church every time she hears that gay congregants are getting married. The church’s first gay wedding took place last month. Pastor Ryan Meeks, 36, regularly preaches an unusual brand of evangelicalism that praises Jesus but steers clear of pro-America, pro-gun and anti-gay rhetoric. A turning point came when he realized one of his staffers had been afraid to tell him she was dating a woman. “I refuse to go to a church where my friends who are gay are excluded from Communion or a marriage covenant or the beauty of Christian community,” he says. “It is a move of integrity for me–the message of Jesus was a message of wide inclusivity.”

EastLake’s pivot is a signal that change is coming to one of the last redoubts of opposition to gay marriage in America. Mainline Protestant denominations, including Episcopalians and Presbyterians, routinely ordain gay ministers and marry gay couples. Methodist ministers are breaking rank to celebrate gay weddings. The overall public has favored gay marriage for three years.

But evangelical churches and their congregations typically remain opposed, though that opposition is weakening. Support for gay marriage across all age groups of white evangelicals has increased by double digits over the past decade, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. Support among the oldest evangelicals grew from 1 in 20 in 2003 to 1 in 5 in 2014. But the fastest change can be found among younger evangelicals, whose support for gay marriage jumped from 20% in 2003 to 42% in 2014. And that is a shift that is uprooting everything. “Historically the major changes in American religion have come from the margins,” Grant Wacker, a professor of Christian history at Duke Divinity School, explains. “Gradually those changes found a home in the mainstream, where the process started over again, with new groups and new ideas.”

A Youth-Led Revolution

Every day, Evangelical Churches, organizations and families across the country are arriving at conservative Christianity’s newest crossroads. The fight over sexual orientation is personal and complicated, and it goes far deeper than mere court rulings for marriage equality. In many evangelical communities, the Bible itself is on trial. A new generation is rejecting the culture-warrior tone that gave evangelicals outsize political power during the past three decades. Evangelical baby boomers who matured at the height of the 1980s Christian-right movement are now 50-something parents whose children are often coming out or marrying their same-sex partners. All this has forced a reconsideration–of a kind.

It’s not surprising that EastLake is an early adopter. Seattle has a higher percentage of gay-couple households than San Francisco–1 in 17 couples living together in the city is gay. Nearly all of Meeks’ 30 staff members are under the age of 35 and plugged in to cultural shifts. But theologically, it is daring. If evangelicalism is famous for anything, it is opposition to homosexuality. For Meeks, that’s all the more reason to take a stand. “We talk about it in D-Day terms,” he says. “So many other pastors are afraid, trying to figure the upside. Perhaps our contribution is to die to let others take the beach.”

The generational shift is easy to spot elsewhere. Consider the Reformation Project, a Wichita, Kans.–based effort by 24-year-old gay evangelical activist Matthew Vines to raise up LGBT-affirming voices in every evangelical church in the country. To reach that goal, he is training reformers in batches of 40 to 50 at regional leadership workshops who can go back to their home churches and serve as advocates for LGBT inclusion. The Reformation Project has staffers in three states, representatives in 25 more and plans for a presence in all 50 states by 2018.

At the group’s conference in Washington, D.C., in early November, some 300 people came from some of the country’s largest megachurches, including McLean Bible in Virginia, Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City and North Point Ministries in Atlanta. His funding has grown from $300,000 in 2014 to a projected $1.2 million in 2015, with help from furniture mogul Mitchell Gold, a secular Jew who is working toward evangelical change. “The LGBT issue has been one of the most obvious forces behind the increasing loss of regard for Christianity in American culture at large,” Vines says. “It’s like slavery and anti-Semitism, where the tradition got it totally wrong. It’s one of the church’s profound moral failures.”

Relationship building is crucial. Evangelicals for Marriage Equality, a group founded by two millennials in D.C., whose national spokesperson is a 22-year-old named Brandan Robertson, is planning to take its message to Christian college campuses this year, encouraging evangelicals to support civil marriage if not church-sanctioned marriage. The Gay Christian Network’s Justin Lee, 37, hosted his 11th annual conference this month in Portland, Ore., and attendance swelled to 1,400, double the size of last year’s. (Lee’s friendship with Alan Chambers, former president of the controversial Exodus International ministry, which claimed to cure gays of homosexuality, helped prompt Chambers to publicly apologize for the hurt Exodus had caused, and the group shut down. Now Lee and Chambers have been working together with the Colossian Forum in Grand Rapids, Mich., to help evangelicals warm to the gay conversation.) “The increasing efforts by evangelicals, and especially a new breed of young activists, to re-examine their attitudes and beliefs about LGBT people is a welcome development,” says Gene Robinson, the first openly gay and partnered bishop in the Episcopal Church. “Those efforts remind me of my own Episcopal Church 30 years ago.”

But every step forward brings a backlash. When World Vision U.S., an evangelical humanitarian organization based in Seattle, announced in March that it would recognize employees’ same-sex marriages, it lost more than 10,000 child sponsorships in 48 hours and promptly reversed its decision. When Dan Haseltine, the lead vocalist of the widely popular Christian band Jars of Clay, tweeted in April, “I just don’t see a negative effect to allowing gay marriage. No societal breakdown, no war on traditional marriage,” the evangelical blogosphere went ballistic, forcing him to issue a clarification that he had “communicated poorly” and “unintentionally wrote that I did not care about what scripture said.” When Evangelicals for Marriage Equality launched in September, three prominent evangelical magazines–Christianity Today, Relevant and World–did not let the group buy advertising in their pages.

And even if individual congregations are taking the first steps toward putting out a welcome mat, national evangelical denominations are typically far behind. Baptist pastor Danny Cortez of New Heart Community outside Los Angeles told his church in February that after thinking about it for 15 years, and after his son came out to him, he decided to become gay affirming. His congregation largely supported him, and the Southern Baptist Convention kicked the church out of the fold last fall. (Cortez’s church now calls itself a third-way church, where leaders acknowledge a range of views about sexuality.)

Religious-minded colleges are particularly cross-pressured–by definition, they are intended to nurture a new generation in an ancient biblical heritage. Illinois’s Wheaton College, Billy Graham’s alma mater, does not recognize alumni gay marriages, but this fall it hired a celibate lesbian to work in its chaplain’s office. Last spring, some 100 students protested when the school invited Rosaria Butterfield, a former lesbian now married to a male pastor, to speak on campus. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University hired an openly gay choreographer to assist with a campus production of Mary Poppins last spring and then backtracked by saying he was an independent contractor, not an official employee. Eastern Mennonite University engaged in a six-month “listening period” in 2014 to consider changing its prohibition on hiring gay, partnered faculty, but it decided to delay a final decision because, as the chair of the board of trustees said, “the church is currently engaged in extensive discernment over human sexuality.”

Much of the action is taking place behind closed doors. Jim Daly, the president of the conservative evangelical ministry Focus on the Family, has been quietly working with LGBT activist Ted Trimpa and the Gill Foundation on topics like passing anti-human-trafficking legislation. Megachurch pastor Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago has been meeting privately with LGBT attendees after services for the past year so they can understand one another better. Andy Stanley of Atlanta’s North Point Community Church spoke at a conference about how to love middle schoolers when they are in the process of coming out. And at the Southern Baptist Convention’s three-day October boot camp to train more than 1,300 evangelicals to double down against the “moral revolution” accepting homosexuality in America, Stanley joined SBC representatives to meet behind the scenes with Vines, Robertson, Lee and a handful of other LGBT evangelical advocates for an honest conversation about whether their theological support for–or opposition to–gay marriage puts them outside the faith. It was revolutionary: in the past, even a conversation with the other side has been viewed as an unacceptable compromise.

What Is at Stake

For many Evangelicals, the marriage debate isn’t really about marriage or families or sex–it is about the Bible itself. And that makes many evangelicals all the more uncompromising. The roots of the conflict are deeply theological. Evangelical faith prizes the Bible’s authority, and that has meant a core commitment to biblical inerrancy–the belief that the words of the Bible are without error. Genesis Chapter 1 says God created male and female for one another, and the Apostle Paul calls homosexuality a sin, inerrantists say, and for groups like the Southern Baptist Convention and its 50,000 churches nationwide, that is the biblical trump card. It doesn’t matter if the views are out of step with society or other Christian traditions. “We believe even stranger things than that,” Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, points out. “We believe a previously dead man is going to arrive in the sky on a horse.”

And there is another, just as fundamental, obstacle. So far no Christian tradition has been able to embrace the LGBT community without first changing its views about women. The same reasoning that concludes that homosexuality is sin is also behind the traditional evangelical view that husbands are the spiritual leaders of marriages and men are the leaders in church. It is one reason gay men have an easier time as evangelical reformers. Lesbians face the double whammy–an evangelical world where leadership has long revolved around straight men has twice the trouble hearing them because they are both female and gay. “It is not an accident that the women’s-liberation movement preceded the gay-liberation movement,” Robinson says. “Discriminatory attitudes and treatment of LGBT people is rooted in patriarchy, and in order to embrace and affirm gays, evangelicals will have to address their own patriarchy and sexism, not just their condemnation of LGBT people.”

Some evangelical leaders deny that a younger generation is shifting on marriage. New activists, Moore believes, are often not truly evangelicals but revisionists who reject biblical authority. Others say the shift is real but temporary. “The snapshot of where millennials are now is not where they will be in five to 10 years,” says Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “Almost every generation has more liberal views than their parents as they enter adulthood, but that is not always permanent. Once young adults marry, have children and buy a house, they adopt more conservative social and economic views.”

And as evangelicals can no longer count on American culture to support their one-man-one-woman sexual ethic, they are waging a more heated battle for religious liberty. As the gay-marriage wave begins to lap at the door of evangelical churches, many evangelical legal thinkers have ramped up the argument that freedom of religion is constitutionally equal to freedom of speech. They are having some success: the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court victory last summer won religious exemptions from the Affordable Care Act, and the next big question is whether religious freedom will protect a faith group’s right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. At the Values Voters Summit straw poll in Washington this past September, protecting religious liberty was attendees’ No. 1 concern, for the first time surpassing abortion.

Evangelicals are also turning to unusual partners to strengthen their reserves in the one-man-one-woman fight: the Vatican and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In mid-November, the Catholic Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith invited Moore, leading evangelical pastor Rick Warren and LDS president Henry Eyring to speak at a first-ever interfaith colloquium on the “Complementarity of Man and Woman,” an event to “propose anew the beauty of the relationship between the man and the woman.” Representatives from the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council also participated. Skepticism historically runs deep between Mormons, Catholics and evangelicals, as each is heavily missionizing and competes for followers. But common ground against gay marriage could bridge that divide. “The group differs on many points–theological and political–but we agree that marriage matters,” Moore explains. “The colloquium started a conversation of groups on virtually every continent and virtually every religious tradition on how we can work together for the common good of marriage.”

It may help their cause that for many evangelical pastors, admitting support for gay marriage is often perceived as career or legacy ending. The risks are high, and rejection has real consequences. Seattle’s EastLake has lost 22% of its income and 800 attendees in the past 18 months, and it anticipates that those numbers may continue to climb. “As I engage in private conversations with pastors across the country, many admit they have chosen to dig in their heels on homosexuality not as a result of careful study or reflection of the biblical text but out of fear,” explains Michael Kimpan, executive director of the Marin Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to build links between LGBT and faith communities. He adds that some pastors have a “fear that their congregation will split–as many have–and revenues in the form of tithes from conservative families will be lost, fear of being deemed heretical and losing their denominational affiliation and accreditation, and fear of losing their 401(k) as a result.”

All Change Is Local

The Evangelical reformers know the fight is just beginning. Institutions as storied as the Southern Baptist Convention, much less the Catholic Church, take decades to shift, when they move at all. Even at Vines’ Reformation Project conference, most of the panelists advocating change were not evangelical but from the mainline Protestant traditions. But they are pressing ahead. Vines is planning his 2015 training conference in Atlanta. Robertson is headed to Colorado Springs to meet with Focus on the Family leadership. EastLake’s Meeks is also planning an event in April, tentatively titled Sexuality, Inclusion and the Future of the Church and featuring British minister Steve Chalke, whose organization was kicked out of the U.K.’s Evangelical Alliance last summer for supporting the LGBT community.

Some of the most important change happens so locally, it is easy to miss. Twenty miles (32 km) south of EastLake, at Overlake Christian Church, Linda and Rob Robertson (no relation to Brandan), whose gay son died of complications after a drug overdose, now run a weekly Bible-study group for about 40 LGBT adults in the Seattle area. Linda runs a private Facebook group, Just Because They Breathe, for nearly 350 conservative evangelical moms of gay and lesbian children nationwide to reconcile their faith with their love for their children. The work is slow, she says, but important: she devotes her days to talking to mothers who feel they have to abandon their faith to love their child or who are afraid to voice their questions with their nonaffirming churches. The group has spawned two other private support groups, one for moms with transgender kids and one for moms who have worked through the biblical questions and are ready to advocate for their child in their communities.

Right now, it is such steps that matter. “Every positive reforming movement in church history is first labeled heresy,” Meeks says. “Evangelicalism is way behind on this. We have a debt to pay.”

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