Faith and gay rights: An easing of the culture wars?

By Anthony B. Robinson
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Supporters of change: Churches took part in the Sacramento gay pride parade in 2013.

By Anthony B. Robinson

With the U. S. Supreme Court ruling that the Constitution’s 14th Amendment guarantees of due process and equal protection mean that states cannot ban same-sex marriage, are the culture wars (or at least this front in the culture wars) now over?

Will marriage equality for people who are gay and lesbian be not only legal, but also accepted throughout the land? Or will the Court’s June 26 decision inject new fuel into the culture wars, much as its Roe v. Wade decision did in 1973? Is this, so to speak, Fort Sumter or Appomattox?

While I don’t expect disagreements over marriage equality to now be completely over and done, I do think that the Court’s decision signals a broad cultural acceptance of those whose sexual orientation is same-gender and of their right to full participation in society and the institution of marriage.

Which is quite remarkable. Or at least it seems remarkable to me how significantly our society has changed its views on this issue in what, from an historical point of view, can only be considered a relatively short time. Certainly, for many, these changes have been “a long time coming.” And yet when you consider how slowly change often happens, the acceptance of these shifts have taken place stunningly quickly.

What explains the rapidity of this change, and the likelihood of a cessation -- though not disappearance -- of conflict over the acceptance of gay and lesbian people and marriage equality? A major share of the credit goes to the gay rights movement. It has been well organized and persistent. Its leaders and participants have been courageous and focused. In another way, the AIDS crisis probably also did much to stir public awareness and sympathy, as well as mobilizing gays.

But there’s something else that has happened. As gay and lesbian people began to be increasingly open about their sexual orientation in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, more and more people realized that they had friends, colleagues and family members who were gay or lesbian. Where you stood on the issue became quite a personal matter. It wasn’t an abstract issue. It was about Joel, Charley, Alice and Sarah. It was about my aunt and your brother. In this instance, social change had a face and a name, often the face and name of someone quite close to you. And that has made all the difference in the world.

But what about the faith communities -- in particular, Christianity -- and the attitudes of religious people in the wake of June 26? Will they now, with the Court decision, be reconciled to gay rights and marriage equality?

First, let it be said that there is no single Christian position on this. It is true that some of the most vocal opponents of gay rights and same-sex marriage do identify themselves as Christian and do root their opposition in their faith. It is also true that some of the staunchest advocates of gay rights and marriage equality also identify as Christians and found their activism in their faith.

My hunch is that Christians (and people of other faiths) who disapprove of homosexuality and of gay marriage will continue to do so, but that they will be increasingly a cultural minority. There seems to be, in battles like the one this year over Indiana’s enactment of a “religious freedom” law, a sense of acceptance on the part of conservative Christians that society is going another direction on this. They get that. They just don’t wish to be forced to personally buy in.

My further hunch is that if some minority dissent can be tolerated (get your wedding cake from someone else), it will probably help the issue to go away. If, on the other hand, people chose to go to the legal mat with dissenting bakers, florists and clergy, some conservatives will behave the way most people do when they feel their back is up against the wall. But live and let live can go two ways.

I also observe that among evangelical Christians, who have tended to oppose gay marriage, there are generational differences. Younger generations do not appear to share their parents or grandparents views on the issue. Again, this has a lot to do with knowing actual gay and lesbian people.

On a personal note, for me as an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, this issue has been a part of my life and work for 40 years. The very week in 1977 I began as a pastor at my first church in Carnation, Washington, the national body of our denomination voted to support the civil rights of gay and lesbian persons. The next weeks and months at my new congregation were filled with angry conflict as some threatened to leave the church (and did), while others stayed and struggled to work through the issues. Though I was called to another congregation in the early 1980s, sometime in the 1990s that same congregation called its first openly gay minister.

Those who were not at ease with the church’s support of gay rights were not necessarily bad people. Nor were those who pushed for change necessarily the good people. It was all more complex than that. What I did see happen, as suggested earlier, is that many were increasingly open to hearing the story of, for example, parents in the congregation who had a gay son or lesbian daughter. Others observed the gay man at work or the lesbian who served on a town board and concluded, “These are decent, responsible people; we can live and let live.”

Time will tell if live and let live now prevails, or if the Court’s decision galvanizes new levels of conflict. My guess is that we are closer to Appomattox than Fort Sumter, and that we are ready to move on.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.