Luke Edmonson, AP
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Rev. Robert Jeffress has changed the way he talks about homosexuality from the pulpit.
The pastor of the 11,000-member First Baptist Dallas hasn't stopped preaching that homosexual sex is sinful, but he no longer singles it out for special condemnation. Now, Jeffress says he usually talks about homosexuality within "a bigger context of God's plan for sex between one man and one woman in a lifetime relationship called marriage."
"It would be the height of hypocrisy to condemn homosexuality and not adultery or unbiblical divorce," he said, explaining that the Bible allows divorce only in cases of adultery or desertion. He also includes premarital sex on that list.
The pressure to change the way homosexuality is addressed in evangelical churches is increasing as mainstream support for gay and lesbian issues increases. This support is especially strong among young adults, and researchers say they don't expect this group to become more conservative on the issue as they get older.
In a 2011 survey by the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute, 62 percent of adults between 18 and 29 years old said they supported gay marriage and 71 percent supported civil unions. Among adults 65 and older, those numbers were 31 percent in favor of marriage and 51 percent for civil unions.
Asked about the perception that "religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues," 69 percent of the younger group agreed with the statement.
Another recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that nearly 20 percent of adult Americans now describe themselves as unaffiliated with any specific religion and the problem for evangelical churches is apparent.
"Evangelicals have been sobered by studies that show people are dropping out of church in droves," said Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest University's Divinity School. That has affected how they relate to marginalized people, including gays and lesbians.
"I'm amazed at the changes, the softening of the rhetoric to be more compassionate," Leonard said. "There's a realization that the idea of 'love the sinner, hate the sin' comes across as pretty cold."
Demographics isn't the only force driving changes in the evangelical response to gays and lesbians. As it becomes safer for gays and lesbians to come out of the closet, it becomes increasingly more likely that evangelicals know gays and lesbians personally, researchers say.
"Over the last five to 10 years, evangelicals have been faced with the issue even more poignantly as their sons and daughters come out of the closet," Leonard said. " ... It has become more difficult to dismiss 'those people.'"
Justin Lee, founder of the Gay Christian Network, is one of those children.
Like most evangelicals, Lee grew up believing that the Bible was to be taken pretty much at face value, but in wrestling with the realization that he was gay, he has found a more nuanced way to read Scripture. Now he works to foster understanding of gays and lesbians within evangelical institutions.
"I do hear from church leaders and pastors, who say, 'I already know where I stand, but how can I be more loving and gracious to the gay community without compromising my convictions?'" Lee said. "There are a lot of things I say, but chief among them is that the more you listen to people and ask about their lives and stories, the more you are able to show grace and love, even if you don't agree."
Jeffress, who has gay and lesbian members in his church, tries to be compassionate and understanding.
He said he is open to the possibility that sexual orientation has a genetic basis that cannot be cured or prayed away.
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