(RNS) — Have progressives gained the upper hand in religious debates over homosexuality?
A spate of recent events suggests that LGBT-affirming voices within religious communities are more emboldened and confident than ever.
U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, recently met with activists from the LGBT-affirming organization Faith in America.
In the meeting, America’s top Mormon legislator was asked if he thought being gay was a sin.
His response: “No, I don’t. How could anything that God gives you be a sin — especially something you are born with? Mormons believe in a pre-mortal existence, so if you tell gay kids they are sinners, you are saying that God made someone a sinner before they were born and that is just not right.”
Even aside from the profound theological debates about sexual ethics and original sin that arise from Sen. Hatch’s remarks, the optics of the episode are stunning.
Faith in America has succeeded at engaging conservative religious people in dialogues about how lesbian, gay and bisexual teens who are rejected by their families are eight times likelier than their straight peers to attempt suicide.
No one wants homosexual and bisexual youth to experience anguish, let alone take their own lives. So this is a natural point of agreement between progressives and traditionalists.
But the framing of high-profile meetings like this show that LGBT-affirming religionists may be gaining the upper hand.
With most nationally elected Democrats resolutely committed to not just tolerating, but celebrating, sexual diversity, the pressure is on Republican officials to clarify the extent of their hesitation to get on “the right side of history.”
In softening his stance, Hatch, the 83-year-old conservative stalwart, essentially holds the same view as the family values party’s leader, President Donald Trump: Sexual minorities deserve affirmation and protection, but the religious freedom of laggards who still believe that homosexual expression and transgender identity are vile sins should never be infringed.
Younger Republicans face even more pressure to get with the times.
Two decades ago, it was a major achievement for LGBT-affirming Christians to make inroads even in mainline denominations. Today, they are touting their shared values with Republican politicians.
Note, however, how differently Hatch and Faith in American portrayed the meeting.
Hatch’s staffers framed the meeting through the lens of teen suicide prevention, “a complex problem with no simple, immediate answer.” They touted his bipartisan legislation to increase access to help for people experiencing suicidal thoughts.
Faith in America highlighted Hatch’s affirming-sounding language, but went much further. The group’s founder, North Carolina furniture magnate Mitchell Gold, said of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: “We need them to change their outdated teachings regarding homosexuality.”
Gold added, “As the LDS church has progressed in terms of polygamy, those who are the most vulnerable among us need the church to progress on homosexuality.”
This episode dovetails with other signs that LGBT-affirming faith voices are indeed progressing.
The Rev. James Martin, a popular Jesuit priest and author, has given hope and courage to LGBT-affirming Catholics with his controversial new book, “Building a Bridge.” Though Martin affirms church teaching, his ministry has irked traditionalists and given considerable succor to gay Catholics and their families.
In another bold development, a new organization called Church Clarity has launched a website that scores the clarity of churches’ positions and rates congregations as either "affirming" or "non-affirming."
A decade ago, we might have expected such an initiative from conservatives seeking to “out,” shame, or shun LGBT-affirming churches. But Church Clarity apparently hopes to capitalize on social pressure and expectation that churches will be affirming.
Yet there are reasons to believe the tide is not turning very quickly.
One interpretation of modern church history is that liberalization on sex issues leads to decline. The causes of religious decline are debatable, of course, but we simply cannot predict with confidence that LGBT-affirming clergy and worshippers today are the prophets of a more sexually inclusive religious future.
I see more position-taking, but I notice fewer and fewer actual arguments. People on both sides generally agree that clarity is a good thing — public religious figures should not be ambiguous about such vital questions.
But everyone involved has a duty to offer much more robust theological reflection. Conservatives should get serious and specific about how they propose helping at-risk LGBT youth. And progressives should say exactly what beliefs need to be discarded and how this impacts the rest of their theology.
From my vantage point as a commentator, religious conflicts over human sexuality look circular, not linear. Anyone hoping for quick resolutions to intractable debates will be disappointed.
These questions arouse passion for a reason. I would like to see more dialogue and reflection, and fewer press releases and marketing campaigns. Real human lives hang in the balance, and their souls deserve spiritual care. That’s something we can all affirm.
(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a visiting professor at American University. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)