This is part one in a three-part series for Literati Press.
One of the most important pastoral decisions in the next year will be how a particular congregation or denomination will respond to same-sex marriage. Opponents of marriage equality have been right about exactly one thing; the granting of rights to lesbian and gay couples to marry has happened at a dizzying speed. It’s genuinely unparalleled in world history. Even if we begin at the Stonewall riots in 1969, gay marriage is now legal in the majority of the States within 45 years. Realistically, the energy behind the movement began less than twenty years ago, especially among the heterosexual population.
Only the most simplistic assessment of pop culture would locate the transitional moment inWill & Grace—no TV program has that much transformational energy—but only the willfully oblivious could miss that Will & Grace was the most palatable and popular example of a cultural shift that had already begun to change the orientation of America toward LGBT persons, and by extension, same-sex marriage.
The demographics of opposition to same-sex marriage tell the whole story at this point: fundamentalists and evangelicals (fundangelicals) tend to be opposed, as do Muslims, political conservatives, and old people. Combine three categories to find the most resistant and largest demographic: fundamentalist or evangelical political conservatives over 50. It is demonstrably true that acceptance for same-sex marriage lags in traditionalist and ethnic demographics as well, and I use ethnic, not minority, because support for same-sex marriage is very low in Latin America and Africa, not just among Hispanic Americans and African-Americans. Nonetheless, the group with the most political clout in terms of this issue remains old and really old fundangelical Christians who also happen to be politically conservative.
Those demographics matter for pastors and denominational leadership, because older, more committed members tend to be the best givers and the most reliable members in the congregation in terms of attendance and volunteerism. Only the most bizarrely fortunate minister in America has not been in a conflict with an older member of the congregation over something heard, seen, or read on conservative talk radio, cable news, or the Internet. As same-sex marriage obtains legal status in all the States—a foregone conclusion now—pastoral decisions will affect membership status particularly in respect to older and younger members.
In thinking through potential pastoral responses, it has become very clear that the American Church is facing a period of hostile reorganization, due in large part to a lack of thoughtful dialogue and theologizing based on the speed at which same-sex marriage has become the law at the same time that it has become more widely accepted. Their intransigence about hermeneutics (Biblical interpretation) on this issue has not helped either, but more on that next time. This is in part the fault of congregations and denominations who refused to believe the day would come, either because they trusted too much in the promises of fringe Right politicians or because they chose to be in willful denial about what was obviously coming. Clearly, there is another large group who believed that the Church would simply preach the message of “the Gospel” and let the consequences play out without having to reassess their view of the matrix of Scripture, Church, and Culture.
In other words, this latter group believed they could ignore how cultural shifts affect hermeneutics far more often than the interpretations shape culture. The most obvious examples are radical reconfigurations of church politics and preaching concerning slavery, and in my lifetime, the widespread cultural acceptance of divorce. For those younger than me (under 50), the idea that divorce ever caused widespread consternation in churches, except Catholic churches, is almost beyond belief, but there was a time when churches fought vigorously over the issue of what to do about divorced people, both in terms of membership and vocational ministry. In spite of Jesus’ stern words about adultery and divorce being deeply entwined, churches simply ignored Jesus and opted for a position of grace and restoration.
The pastoral response to same-sex marriage is likely to take the very same tack. Given that the demographics indicate that most opposition to same-sex marriage will be dead within 40 years, or less, churches that opt to resist the cultural shift will occupy increasingly less cultural space and will make of themselves a new species of fundamentalism. Just as any church that preached a gospel of segregation would be viewed with equal parts horror, contempt, and humor today, so too will these churches make of themselves a parody.
To borrow a Biblical metaphor, the coming storm will force pastors, congregations, and denominations to align themselves on one side or the other of this cultural shift. There will be those pastors and denominational leaders who will attempt to navigate a middle path through this, but within twenty years, that will make as much sense as a church in the current context attempting to navigate a middle path between Civil Rights and segregation. Those who opt for the middle path might just as well join the resistance, because like the churches that attempted to remain neutral during the Civil Rights struggle, they will simply be seen as the same sort of compromisers. Not taking a stand on issues of justice will always be seen as moral weakness once the dust clears, and followers of Jesus are trained to expect crucifixion, right?