A few days ago, The Atlantic ran a piece about the growing support for gay rights among Christians. But the article left me wanting more precision. Consider this claim:
In 2004, just 36 percent of Catholics, the Christian sect most supportive of gay marriage, favored it, along with 34 percent of mainline Protestants; today, it’s 57 percent of Catholics and 55 percent of mainline Protestants. Even among white evangelical Protestants, the most hostile group to gay marriage, support has more than doubled, from 11 percent in 2004 to 24 percent in 2013.
I can’t shed much light on the Catholic and mainline Protestant percentages there, but I can highlight how that figure for evangelical Protestants may be misleading.
For instance, think about the following scene: I was recently at a dinner party where most of the people in attendance were committed evangelical Protestants. A large number were Wheaton College graduates; most were in their early thirties, married with children, attended church regularly, and were interested in speaking up for their faith in their respective spheres of influence. At some point in the evening, the topic of gay marriage came up. (This was before the Supreme Court’s June 26 rulings.) Each of the people who expressed an opinion had done a bit of homework—most had read various articles in First Things and visited several thoughtful blogs. Each of them, in good evangelical fashion, had studied the relevant biblical texts carefully and repeatedly, as their comments indicated. At least one had spent significant time with The Theology of the Body. And a few of them—not all, but a few—had come to believe that they ought to support the legalization of same-sex marriage and say so publicly (signing petitions and the like)—but continue to oppose its practice in their churches. Influenced by the likes of the Roman Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths (see here and here) and the Anabaptist-sounding Greg Boyd, they had concluded, in Boyd’s words, “it’s one thing to say that a behavior falls short of God’s ideal, and quite a different thing to say that Christians should try to impose a law preventing that behavior.”
Now, I don’t want to say anything here about the plausibility of this position. Rather, I want to flag up how it complicates the story that that Atlantic piece tells. Are these evangelicals “for” or “against” gay marriage? Well, no, they’re not against it. But, wait—yes, they are, in another respect. Does this mean there’s a “a quiet gay-rights revolution” in North American evangelicalism? I doubt that my dinner party friends are entirely representative of my generation of evangelicals (for the hard data, see here). But I also know that they’re part of an articulate, influential percentage of that generation, and their views don’t lend themselves to easy summary.
Wesley Hill is an assistant professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan, 2010). He can be followed on Twitter: @WesleyHill.