As the Supreme Court is poised to rule on same-sex marriage, evangelical Christian leaders, once unified on the topic, are expressing opposing viewpoints, even though polls show a majority of the movement's rank-and-file oppose it.
The Pew Research Center reported this week that 70 percent of white evangelicals and 57 percent of black Protestants oppose legalizing same-sex marriage, while "majorities of white mainline Protestants (62 percent) and Catholics (56 percent) support same-sex marriage."
In a separate report, the Public Religion Research Institute said this week that 65 percent of Americans believe the Supreme Court will approve same-sex marriage when it is expected to hand down a decision sometime this month. The institute also found opposition among white evangelicals, 62 percent, and black Protestants, 54 percent. Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, 60 percent and 58 percent respectively, support same-sex marriage, PRRI's research found.
But while American Catholics say they're in favor of same-sex marriage, Pope Francis, who leads the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, hasn't changed his mind on the matter.
Meeting at the Vatican with Roman Catholic bishops from Puerto Rico, the pontiff told the clerics that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.
"The sacrament of marriage is one of the Latin American people’s most important treasures, the Pope (said), and it must be defended," according to a Vatican Radio report.
Meanwhile, two Protestant evangelical leaders drew media attention this week by saying they support gay marriage.
"It has taken countless hours of prayer, study, conversation and emotional turmoil to bring me to the place where I am finally ready to call for the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the church," sociologist and popular evangelical speaker Tony Campolo declared on his blog. Campolo said the change came after years of opposing same-sex marriage.
The Washington Post called Campolo "a progressive evangelical leader who counseled President Bill Clinton through the Monica Lewinsky scandal." Cathleen Falsani, writing at religiondispatches.org, said Campolo was one of the evangelical movement's "most venerable icons" whose announcement provoked "waves of change breaching the levees of the evangelical Christian world."
Campolo said it was his wife, Peggy, who enabled him to "know so many gay Christian couples whose relationships work in much the same way as our own. Our friendships with these couples have helped me understand how important it is for the exclusion and disapproval of their unions by the Christian community to end."
Campolo's declaration was warmly received in some circles, most notably by David Neff, the former editor at Christianity Today, the movement's leading magazine founded in 1956 by evangelist Billy Graham. He retired from the publication in 2013.
Writing on Facebook, Neff said, "God bless Tony Campolo. He is acting in good faith and is, I think, on the right track."
In an email to Mark Galli, who now edits Christianity Today, Neff wrote, "I think the ethically responsible thing for gay and lesbian Christians to do is to form lasting, covenanted partnerships. I also believe that the church should help them in those partnerships in the same way the church should fortify traditional marriages."
In an online editorial, Galli wrote that Campolo's declaration was news "in that it is still unusual to hear an otherwise orthodox Christian announce heterodox views on sexuality."
Galli said the magazine's editors were "we’re saddened that David has come to this conclusion. Saddened because we firmly believe that the Bible teaches that God intends the most intimate of covenant relationships to be enjoyed exclusively by a man and a woman." He added he expected other prominent evangelicals to change their view on marriage in the months ahead.
Although the dispute among evangelical writers and speakers may seem an internal spat, it appears to mirror a larger discussion. The New York Times reported this week that gay evangelical Christian activist Matthew Vines has been holding private meetings with leaders of the movement, including executives with Colorado-based Focus on the Family and a group of influential evangelicals at Biola University near Los Angeles.
"He has talked with small groups of pastors in Phoenix and Nashville and shared his story over coffee or lunch, often one on one, in places like Atlanta; Chicago; Orlando, Fla.; Portland, Ore.; and Greenville, S.C.," the newspaper reported.
In the case of Vines' February visit to Focus on the Family, a group that has staunchly defended traditional marriage, the report said he "talked with more than 20 staff members about the psychic and spiritual damage inflicted on young gay Christians by ministries like Focus."
Much of the conversations Vines has had with other evangelicals center on how to interpret Bible verses that explicitly prohibit same-sex relations. According to The New York Times report, one evangelical pastor, whose parents are gay, wrestled with the question.
"In Romans 1," the Rev. Caleb Kaltenbach, lead pastor at Discovery Church in Simi Valley, California, said, "I cannot get past where Paul says that the actual act of having sex with someone of the same gender is a sin. I can’t get past that. And believe me, with two parents who are gay, you’ve got to know I tried, even exegetically through the Greek."
According to the Washington Post report, the moves by Campolo and Neff, and earlier pro-same sex marriage announcements from the Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners and ethics professor David Gushee, may be signs of a shift ahead.
"Evangelicals are like dominoes," the paper quoted Dartmouth University historian Randall Balmer as saying. "We’re seeing one more indication that evangelicals are moving on this issue rather dramatically, as is the rest of the culture."
Balmer's prediction is far from being fulfilled, however. Last year, Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler declared there is no "third way" of mediating the issue.
"A church will either believe and teach that same-sex behaviors and relationships are sinful, or it will affirm them," Mohler wrote. "Eventually, every congregation in America will make a public declaration of its position on this issue."
Next week, the Southern Baptist's denominational leaders will gather in Columbus, Ohio, for their annual business meeting and Religion News Service reported the question of same-sex marriage is expected to "dominate" the event. "A panel discussion on 'The Supreme Court and Same-Sex Marriage: Preparing Our Churches for the Future,'" will conclude the conference, a move RNS called "a rare departure" from the usual Baptist agenda.20 comments on this story
Separately, Jacob Lupfer, a Religion News Service contributing editor, wrote a commentary this week explaining why leaders such as Mohler are unwilling to attempt compromise.
"It is surely unfashionable to assert absolute certainty and to break fellowship with dissenters, especially in the service of sexual traditionalism," Lupfer wrote. "Yet evangelicals see how compromise has worked for mainline Protestants, whose denominations are declining. They see how widespread lay rejection of church teaching has worked for Catholics, who have lost untold millions of adherents."