Evangelicals are often seen as being monolithic on issues of sexuality and LGBT rights. A careful study of responses to homosexuality by evangelical elites, however, shows that this is not the case. Sociologists Jeremy Thomas (Idaho State) and Daniel Olson (Purdue) combed through Christianity Today, evangelicalism’s flagship magazine. They uncovered four approaches that evangelicals have taken since the 1960s.
1. Biblical intolerance: “The Bible says it’s a sin, that’s good enough for me.”
Since the 1960s, evangelicals have taken a simple response to homosexuality: it’s a sin. Why? Because the Bible says so. End of debate. Even in the 1960s, evangelicals acknowledged that being gay isn’t a choice (it was seen as a psychological disorder). Still, the Bible was seen as clear on homosexual behavior. Most evangelicals with this response have opposed gay rights.
2. Natural intolerance: “It’s against human nature.”
In the 1980s, some evangelicals began espousing a new argument that turned on issues of health and the natural order. This response emphasizes natural law, not the Bible, as the foundation of public morality and the law. This isn’t someone thumping the Bible over someone. Evangelicals may believe in their heart-of-hearts that it’s wrong because of what they find in the Bible, but they know that a Bible-based argument will fail. Why bother when you can use science (procreation) and medicine (AIDS and HIV) to make the case. A call to a broader source of morality that is consistent with the Bible but not tied to it allows evangelicals to make moral arguments in the public square.
3. Public accommodation: “It’s a personal sin, but we live in a pluralistic society.”
Today, the dominant argument that homosexual behavior as a personal sin, not a public concern. As such, evangelicals should stand firm on biblical morality while recognizing that they live in a pluralistic society in which the rights of everyone should be protected. This response is generally supportive of expanded LGBT rights, including job discrimination protections, adoption, and civil unions. Same-sex marriage, however, remains the proverbially line in the sand that must not be crossed.
4. Personal accommodation. “It’s about love and respect, not sex.”
The most recently developed argument among is one of personal accommodation. It remains a minority position, but one that is seeing increased attention. Indeed, many evangelical leaders are publicly warning that this response is a threat. Personal accommodation avoids the question of personal morality. Those with this response emphasize their personal experience with LGBT friends. It emphasizes the love (not sex) between same-sex couples, with no judgment of the morality of these relationships. The Bible is invoked, not to discuss sexuality, but to argue for equal rights for everyone.