By RACHEL ZOLL
Evangelicals are being challenged to change their views of gays and lesbians, and the pressure isn’t coming from the gay rights movement or watershed court rulings:
Students and alumni from Christian colleges have been forming gay and lesbian support groups–a development that even younger alumni say they couldn’t have imagined in their own school years. Gay evangelicals have published memoirs that prod traditional Christians to re-examine how they think about gays and lesbians. Among the most recent is Jeff Chu’s “Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America.” Paul Southwick, a gay evangelical attorney in Oregon, has started an “It Gets Better” style video project, “On God’s Campus: Voices from the Queer Underground,” with testimonials from gays and lesbians at the Christian schools.
The goals of these activists and writers vary. Some argue monogamous same-sex marriages are consistent with traditional Bible views and hope to remain in conservative churches. Others agree with traditional teaching on marriage and have committed to staying celibate for life, but are speaking out because they feel demonized within their communities.
Whatever their aims, they are already having an impact.
“There are a growing number of us who grew up hearing a certain origin story about our same-sex attraction that didn’t resonate with us,” said Wesley Hill, 32, who teaches at a conservative Anglican seminary, Trinity School for Ministry in Pennsylvania, and wrote the book “Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality.” “We are wanting to have conversations that older generations of evangelicals haven’t had or haven’t wanted to have.”
A February survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found seven in 10 white evangelicals overall were against gay marriage. However, younger respondents backed same-sex marriage by 51 percent. Younger Christians grew up with openly gay friends and relatives, and often found their elder’s fight for traditional marriage damaging to the church, according to studies by the Barna Group’s David Kinnamon, among other surveys.
Still, it is only in the last few years that gay and lesbian evangelicals have discussed their same-sex attraction so openly. It has been far more common for gays and lesbians from traditional faith groups to join liberal houses of worship or leave organized religion altogether. In a recent survey of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans by the Pew Research Center, 48 percent said they had no religious affiliation, compared with 20 percent of the general public. Of the LGBT adults with religious ties, one-third said there is a conflict between their religious beliefs and their sexual orientation.
Evangelical leaders are taking notice. After the U.S. Supreme Court last week gave federal recognition to gay marriages, several evangelicals responded not only by renewing their commitment to traditional marriage, but also by urging like-minded Christians to be more sensitive in the way they express their beliefs. For those outside conservative Christianity, this may not seem significant, but it’s a notable change for Christians who believe their faith requires them to challenge same-sex relationships.
“We need to show grace and friendship to those who struggle, while holding fast to what the Scriptures teach. Without hiding our beliefs, we need to look for opportunities to have conversations, build relationships and demonstrate grace,” wrote Ed Stetzer, head of the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, on his blog, “The Exchange.”
A week earlier, the head of Exodus International, a Christian ministry that helped conflicted Christians rid themselves of unwanted same-sex attraction through counseling and prayer, apologized to the gay community for inflicting “years of undue suffering.” Alan Chambers said he continues to hold “a biblical view that the original intent for sexuality was designed for heterosexual marriage.” Still, he said the organization would shut down and he would instead work to promote reconciliation between people with opposing views.
In the last few years, more than 40 gay and lesbian support groups have been formed at Christian colleges, by Southwick’s estimate. The 29-year-old lawyer has been reaching out to the groups as part of his video project and is also active in OneGeorgeFox, the support group founded by gay and lesbian alumni and students of his alma mater, George Fox University, a Christian school in Oregon.
He said few of the groups have been formally recognized by their schools and some meet secretly off campus. Christian colleges generally have community standards policies barring sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman. Students fear publicly identifying as gay–celibate or not–could jeopardize their futures at the schools.
“The goal is survival,” Southwick said. “If you talk to any of the LGBT students at these campuses, they are in environments that are really hostile.”
However, at least one prominent evangelical school, Wheaton College in Illinois, officially recognized its support group, called Refuge, four months ago. Wheaton is known as the Harvard of evangelical schools, graduating evangelist Billy Graham and other influential leaders. LaTonya Taylor, a Wheaton spokeswoman, said the goal of Refuge “is for students who experience same-sex attraction to be mentored by a Christian community” within traditional biblical standards, “rather than to struggle alone in silence.” Other schools, including George Fox, have responded to the groups by organizing campus discussions about the Bible and homosexuality, including speakers who support same-sex relationships.
Another sign of change: Gay evangelicals have already prompting a backlash.
The influential Pentecostal magazine Charisma ran a critical three-part series starting in May, titled “Can a Christian be Gay?” in response to the recent book “Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate” by Justin Lee, founder of the Gay Christian Network.
Lee is gay and celibate, but encourages dialogue among evangelicals with different views. He frames the discussion as “Side A” and “Side B” Christians. “Side B” believes gays should be celibate because of a consistent Christian teaching that sex is only for marriage between a man and a woman. “Side A” Christians believe God blesses same-sex relationships because the particular Bible verses cited to condemn homosexuality do not reflect advances in knowledge about same-sex attraction.
Lee started the network as an online-only community in 2001. It has since grown to become a national organization based in Raleigh, N.C., with annual conferences that organizers say draw hundreds of people.
In his Charisma articles, evangelist Larry Tomczak wrote that he wanted to clear up confusion caused by Lee’s arguments.
“An entire chapter in the Old Testament lists certain activities and calls them `detestable,’ stating in no uncertain terms, “Stay away!” The New Testament uses five terms to describe both male and female homosexual conduct: `unnatural,’ `perverted,’ `degrading,’ `shameful’ and `indecent,'” Tomczak wrote. “Not to be facetious, but is that hard to understand?”
Tomczak said being gay is a choice–and one that dishonors God.
Inadvertently, Exodus and other ministries that have promised a gay-to-straight transformation have played a role in prompting gay and lesbian evangelicals to go public. Many gay evangelicals who unsuccessfully sought out a “cure” in the programs have emerged with profound misgivings about the way Christians approach the issue.
A 2005 graduate of George Fox University, Southwick said he was encouraged by the school to enter a two-year counseling program with a local affiliate of Exodus, which included a graduation ceremony that Southwick dismissed as “a straight diploma.” He became depressed and suicidal during the program.
Lee, of the Gay Christian Network, was raised Southern Baptist believing that gays could become straight “if they trusted God and had the willingness to do so.” In college, he attended Exodus conferences and sought out other similar ministries hoping to become attracted to women. It didn’t work. Lee says he’s always been celibate, so the ministries’ focus on changing behavior wasn’t helpful.
“I was focused on changing the attractions. That led me to ask a lot of tough questions about whether people’s attractions were changing and I realized they were not,” Lee said.
The Rev. Russell Moore, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, cautioned against reading too much into the collapse of Exodus International or any talk of a more compassionate evangelical response to gays and lesbians.
“There is no change in the Christian sexual ethic, because there can’t be. For us it’s a matter of Gospel fidelity,” Moore said.
Instead, he considers the Exodus shutdown the end of a misguided therapeutic approach that Moore argues promised a quick fix it couldn’t deliver. “We like conversion stories, and we like them to be quickly resolved in two or three minutes with a happy ending, but that’s not what the Christian life is like in Scripture,” he said.
Still, Moore agrees religious conservatives are at least approaching the debate about homosexuality differently in what he calls “a more authentic, honest conversation about sexuality.”
At Fuller Theological Seminary, a leading evangelical school in Pasadena, Calif., the group OneTable formed to foster open discussion about religion and homosexuality.
Last October, Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, the first bishop in world Anglicanism to live openly with a same-sex partner, spoke to the students, at a screening of a movie “Love Free or Die,” about the uproar that followed his 2003 election as the New Hampshire bishop.
“Everyone thought there would be some horrendous blowup. It was a wonderful evening. The questions to me were absolutely honest and thoughtful and faithful,” said Robinson, who recently retired from his diocese. “A lot of people came in certain and a lot of people left confused–which is huge.”