Four evangelical responses to gay rights — they’ve changed a lot since ’69

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Sign: Put Down the Bible Read the Constitution

John Nakamura Remy via Flickr

Sign: Put Down the Bible Read the Constitution

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.


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  • Daniel Berry, NYC

    Well, it’s heartening to learn that even the hate-filled mercilessness of evangelicalism can be at least tempered. If people who read the bible the way evangelicals read the bible really paid attention to horror-show that passes for the words and actions of the god portrayed there, many–not all, but many–would bail out quickly enough on their idea of a magic-book bible. On the other hand, the bible gives plenty of cover to those who believe in killing those whom they don’t agree with.

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  • David Lloyd-Jones

    There seems to me something very odd about the idea of Evangelicals evolving, or perhaps segueing, from their interpretation of Bible to an interpretation of something claiming to be Natural Law.

    This would be reasonable in the Roman tradition, which ever since Aquinas has decorated Papal Authority with Aristotelian trimmings. We see this manner of thought also in the several Chicago Schools of solipsism. These maintain that there is an objective Reality, and a high Law, and you can either ask Leo Strauss what they consist of, or you can make up your own version. As long as it looks authoritarian enough, nobody will examine it in enough detail to see that it’s different from the next guy’s over.

    For a Protestant, living a faith operating through reason, these options don’t seem to me to be available. If there were a natural law, surely the reason for the existence of Biblical Law would be to oppose it, to give humankind a decent way of living in its face. Nature supplies a Manichaean background. Bible forces one to choose sides.

    For gay haters to give up on the Bible when it fails to give them what they want makes perfect sense. To claim that they can come up with a handy-dandy Natural Law which fits their requirements is also obviously true. Standard Operating Procedure.

    But to claim that the one is a natural extension of the other, rather than a cobbled together measure of desperation, seems to me to fly in the face of reason. And most faiths.


  • Billysees

    ABOVE ALL, LOVE EACH OTHER DEEPLY, because love covers over a multitude of sins………..1 Peter 4:8

  • drdanfee

    The slow rapprochement of Evangelical believers with Roman Catholic believers has been going on for a while now. The RC plus Prot faith communities first discovered they had common cause in shaping law and public policy to keep same sex committed couples (and their children) as far out in the cold snow as seemed humanly possible.

    Then a relatively sudden thawing of popular opinion, massively driven by more information about real live LGBTQ folks, greater incidence of knowing somebody in daily life who is gay, and the slow trickling down of human sciences and related information. Hat tip to the younger folks who were quick to reality test and begin adjusting their negative legacy views and beliefs.

    The antigay version of Natural Law is, contrary to its name, not actually based mainly on natural sciences. Instead it is a variation on the Aristotle work to figure out Nature, which has long since been superseded by natural science hypothesis testing. Confusing? Yes. One is natural, because it hypothesis tests what holds true in real live Nature (including humans). The other calls itself natural, because it speculates about how Nature must be, taking an idealized model for granted that usually carries some kind of telos or intelligently designed aim as a core part of its proceedings.

    What I would guess the Evangelicals as a whole don’t quite grasp yet, despite their obvious lack of uniformity, is that the Aristotelian Nature is just about as out of touch with the Natural Sciences as lifting up scripture passages from their original historical or cultural or faith contexts can be.

    If somebody starts talking natural law to you, the very first thing you need to test is whose Nature is being referenced, Aristotle’s speculative teleological nature, or modern Natural Sciences. It makes a good bit of difference which framework for Nature we are presuming.

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