Last week, retired pastor and popular author Eugene Peterson surprised many Christians by expressing support for same-sex marriage in an interview with Religion News Service (RNS). The next day he backtracked, releasing a statement reaffirming “a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman.” Peterson’s vacillation on this issue reveals the plight of a man who is struggling to remain loyal to traditional Christian doctrine in the midst of an overbearing liberal culture. Peterson symbolizes everyday Christians who are “confused, conflicted, and torn between fidelity to beliefs that are important to them and compassion for people they know and love,” writes Jacob Lupfer, a contributing editor to RNS.
For America’s Christians, the marriage question is still very much alive. Should churches alter traditional views of marriage to conform to the culture? Can sacred Scripture and same-sex marriage be reconciled? Is it inevitable that acceptance of same-sex marriage will overwhelm support for traditional marriage? Is the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision here to stay, or is it still worth trying to fight against same-sex marriage in the public sphere?
It is no secret that support for same-sex marriage has grown considerably over the past 15 years. In 2003, Pew Research Center found that 54 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, while 37 percent were in favor; today, 62 percent are in favor, and 32 percent oppose it. Even Republicans have shifted dramatically on the issue, increasing from 33 percent to 47 percent between 2013 and 2017. Only 38 percent of Republican Millennials oppose same-sex marriage.
Support has also increased among Christians. In 2003, less than 40 percent of Catholics and mainline Protestants supported same-sex marriage; today, over 60 percent, according to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).
While most white Evangelical Protestants continue to oppose same-sex marriage, the 31 percent who support it represent a significant increase from 2003, when that figure was only 12 percent. Moreover, support is much higher among younger than older Evangelicals. In 2013, 43 percent of white Evangelical Millennials supported same-sex marriage; four years later, 51 percent do. That is the first time support for same-sex marriage has crept above 50 percent in any age demographic of white Evangelicals in PRRI surveys.
Evangelical Christians have long played a vocal role in American conservatism, and for years, defending traditional marriage has been a central goal of the religious Right. Yet, on marriage, younger Evangelicals seem to be decidedly more liberal than their forebears. Will this mean that marriage assumes a relegated place among the priorities of Christian political activists? Could Evangelical churches move left on same-sex marriage?
In an interview with National Review Online, Lupfer encouraged a cautious interpretation of the data, pointing out that the word “Evangelical” is often used imprecisely and that “different polling organizations operationalize” the term differently. PRRI, for example, asks those surveyed to self-identify by race (e.g., white), by religion (e.g. Protestant Christian), and then as Evangelical or born-again, if applicable. One risk of this approach, however, is that some respondents who answer “Evangelical” might not reflect what is generally meant by the term, since it is up to the individuals being surveyed to define themselves.
It is important to consider church attendance, because that can be a “bulwark against young Evangelicals evolving on same sex marriage,” Lupfer adds. Religiously active churchgoers also have greater influence over the direction of churches. Indeed, a study by sociologist Mark Regnerus reveals that church attendance can affect survey results. Regnerus found that, among regular churchgoers “only 11 percent of young Evangelicals actively expressed support for same-sex marriage.” This “suggests that younger Evangelicals aren’t hewing to the culture’s expectation that they conform to its values,” according to Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Andrew Walker, director of policy studies for the ERLC. The younger generation of white Evangelicals, in other words, might not drastically transform the attitudes of Evangelical churches toward same-sex marriage any time soon.
Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI, doesn’t agree with an overly cautious interpretation of these surveys. In an interview with National Review Online, he said that although “there could be unforeseen events,” the trend line for white Evangelical support for same-sex marriage is strikingly linear. Without exception, support for same-sex marriage increases with younger age cohorts, and so white Evangelicals as a whole are likely to become more liberal on marriage in the future. This transformation is not inevitable, Jones said, but adds that “it is hard for me to see anything that would turn that around since it is so driven by younger people.”
Republicans have become more accepting of same-sex marriage in recent years. The GOP has been the primary vehicle of the religious Right for decades, but it is unclear if that will continue to be a viable relationship.
But what about the theory that individuals become more conservative with age? Could younger Evangelicals grow to support traditional marriage? Jones doesn’t think that will happen, because having a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian is “the driver of attitudes” regarding same-sex marriage, and young people are more likely to know someone who is gay or lesbian.
Jones thinks that Evangelical churches will feel increasingly pressured to change their position. Until recently, most of the decline in America’s churches was in mainline Protestant congregations. But “there has been a second wave of white Christian decline that has centered on evangelicals,” said Jones. Evangelical churches might feel pressure to liberalize in order to appeal to younger Evangelicals.
It is worth asking, however, if that would make a difference. After all, mainline churches have been much more accommodating to liberal views of marriage and that has not filled the pews.
It is too early to say that young white Evangelicals will spur Evangelical churches to embrace same-sex marriage. If younger Evangelicals prove to be both decisively more liberal on marriage and active and influential in their churches, then such a change is likely to occur. That would force Evangelicals to closely engage the question of how Christian truth relates to the broader culture. To what extent is it permissible for doctrine to change, if at all? Furthermore, it would probably mean the end of effective Christian political activism on behalf of traditional marriage. Obergefell would not be challenged.
On the other hand, if Lupfer is correct that young white Evangelicals who are religiously active could remain opposed to same-sex marriage, then traditional marriage is likely to have a staunch constituency of defenders in the long term. That raises another issue, however, because Republicans have become more accepting of same-sex marriage in recent years. The GOP has been the primary vehicle of the religious Right for decades, but it is unclear if that will continue to be a viable relationship.
One thing is certain: For America’s Christians, especially white Evangelicals, the marriage debate continues unabated and is in fact just beginning. The future place of marriage in Christian political activism will depend on the degree to which younger Evangelicals are accepting of same-sex marriage and active in their churches.
Beyond the political questions, the greater crisis facing America’s Christians might be the extent to which cultural pressures are allowed to influence and alter longstanding truths. As Samuel D. James wrote in First Things after Peterson’s initial comments in support of same-sex marriage, “there’s no intersection of Christ and culture that finally finds both running parallel all the way to glory.”