Signs display messages about gay marriage in front of the Devon Park United Methodist Church polling site on Tuesday, May 8, 2012.
What a difference a decade makes. Just consider the fact that, just 10 years ago, a vast majority of Americans opposed the legalization of same-sex marriage. Now we are told that a slim majority of Americans is ready to make same-sex marriage legal. Homosexuality is now at the center of American life, and the full normalization of homosexual relationships seems just around the corner.
The pace of moral change has been breathtaking. Go back less than one year, and President Obama opposed same-sex marriage, even as he said he was “evolving” on the issue. Now, the president is a vocal advocate for same-sex marriage, even going so far as to call for full equality of gays and lesbians in his inaugural address, delivered last month.
In the run-up to the inauguration, an evangelical preacher had to withdraw from delivering a prayer at the ceremony when controversy broke out over a sermon on homosexuality he had delivered almost twenty years ago. This month, it is the Boy Scouts of America in the midst of this moral revolution. Within a few months, the Supreme Court is to take up two different cases, either of which could fundamentally alter the moral and legal landscape on same-sex marriage. This week, the British Parliament approved the legalization of same-sex marriage and the government of France is poised to do the same. Before you finish reading this column, another major development may well have taken place. The pace of this moral revolution is just that swift.
Where does this leave America’s conservative Christians? Just over eight years ago, the nation re-elected an openly evangelical president. This past November, America elected an avowed and determined advocate of the full normalization of homosexual conduct and relationships. Evangelicals watched as three states voted to legalize same-sex marriage.
In terms of the cultural tide, evangelical Christians have every reason to feel left behind. Thoughtful evangelicals must realize the depth of our predicament. Political parties have platforms, but Christians must be driven by biblical convictions. Platforms may change, but convictions remain. Evangelicals do not believe that homosexuality is sinful because it is part of our platform, but because it is a conviction drawn from Scripture.
Evangelicals cannot join the moral revolution on homosexuality, but it seems unlikely that we can stop it, either. The issue of homosexuality, by itself and in tandem with other moral issues, may well lead to the marginalization of evangelical Christians within the larger society. This is already the case in secular Europe and, increasingly, in Great Britain and Canada as well. Churches and other groups that cannot accept the full normalization of same-sex relationships will find themselves driven further and further from the cultural mainstream.
This is going to be particularly difficult for America’s evangelical Christians. We are accustomed to standing within the political and cultural mainstream, comfortable in an America that shared much of our moral worldview. Those days are over. Preaching a sermon on homosexuality – even twenty years ago – will get you thrown off of the inaugural platform. Conservative religious groups may sponsor the majority of Boy Scout troops, but the Boy Scouts of America appear to be moving in a very different direction. Conservative Christians are a bit shell-shocked.
Much has been made of the fact that evangelicals are losing political clout, but the much greater loss is measured in cultural influence. Furthermore, the reason for this loss of influence in the culture goes far beyond the issue of homosexuality. Evangelicals are increasingly out of step with the cultural creatives, Millennials and an electorate that is trending libertarian. We have shifted from pushing for legislation we supported to doing our best to protect religious liberty in the face of legislation and regulation we cannot stop.
Oddly enough, liberal Protestantism seems to be riding in the saddle again. They may have lost multiple millions of members, but the old Protestant mainline seems to stand in the cultural mainstream once again.
Evangelicals appear to be headed for some kind of marginalization, and this will hurt. Nevertheless, evangelical Christianity began on the margins of society and only in fairly recent decades moved into the mainstream. As it turns out, our cultural influence may wane and our options for recovering that influence may be both few and ineffectual.
Thrown back to a posture of working from the margins, evangelical Christians will find themselves in familiar territory. Our task will be to bear witness to the truth, to tell the Good News about Jesus Christ, to be faithful in our marriages, to raise our children and to reach out to a world filled with people –gay and straight — who desperately need our message of God’s redeeming love. We don’t need a slot on the inaugural platform in order to be faithful to Christ.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr., is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.