They Do

For Christians and Gay Marriage, It's Culture, not Doctrine

Mainline Protestant denominations have shifted not just what Americans think about LGBT people, but how they think about them. One veteran activist reflects on the changes.

03.22.15 10:45 AM ET

What a difference a decade makes. Last week, the Presbyterian Church (USA) became the latest Christian denomination to affirm marriage equality, after a ratification vote in the Palisades presbytery on Tuesday night pushed the number of affirming presbyteries over 51 percent—thus making marriage equality official doctrine. With this move, the PC (USA) joins the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, United Church of Christ, Conservative and Reform Judaism, Quakers, and Unitarian Universalists in affirming and supporting LGBT people.

The Presbyterians bring us ever closer to the tipping point of a majority of mainline Christian churches affirming LGBT people, including marriage equality. In fact, even those denominations that have not affirmed marriage equality all have strong, vocal minorities, advocating for change within them. But while observers might be asking themselves “Who’s next?” the changes to come will likely be more cultural than doctrinal.

The United Methodist Church is the only major mainline church left that could vote for marriage equality. They will continue to struggle to do so, however, since their voting delegation is global, with an increasing percentage of delegates coming from countries that have yet to affirm the existence of LGBT people, much less marriage equality.

That means major American churches yet to affirm marriage equality are likely to do it more through cultural change within the denomination than by formal vote. Despite the Southern Baptist Convention being so large (and conservative), the major decision making happens on a church-by-church basis. Evangelicals have even less centralized structure, so change is also going to come person-to-person, and church-by-church. That will take more time, but likely make the change stronger and more permanent.

On the flip side, we see the Roman Catholic Church’s hierarchical structure, meaning that any change is going to come from the top down. While it seems unlikely that the Roman Catholic hierarchy is going to change its views on marriage equality anytime soon (despite quotes from Pope Francis like “Who am I to judge?”), a majority of Catholic lay people in the United States support marriage equality meaning that the changing of hearts and minds has already happened. The hierarchy is out of step with what everyday Catholics believe.

Hardly any of this religious support for marriage equality was even imaginable a mere 15 years ago. I remember working in the movement to make the Lutheran Church more affirming to LGBT people. In 2001, the focus was on allowing LGBT clergy to serve openly. Marriage equality was not yet on anyone’s radar. In the church’s tradition of “prayerfully considering” controversial issues, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America created a study on human sexuality. What was initially established as a four-year study stretched into eight years of conversation, Bible study, prayer, and incremental votes that moved the church into a place where, finally in 2009, it was ready to affirm not only committed, life-long same-gender relationships, but also clergy who were in such relationships.

Likewise, in 2003 when former Bishop Gene Robinson was consecrated as the first openly gay bishop in any mainstream denomination, no state had marriage equality. The unprecedented election of someone who was openly LGBT was a huge deal, and caused him to face international rejection from many. Eventually, though, Robinson became the Ellen Degeneres of faith leaders, ushering in more openly LGBT leaders, and making the issue much less contentious over his tenure as bishop.

Since then, the country has experienced incremental steps backward and forward in regards to marriage equality. Today, as we witness the Supreme Court potentially strike down the few remaining state bans on marriage equality, nearly 2,000 faith leaders from all 50 states signed a brief that argues that the freedom to marry will, in fact, affirm religious liberty in the United States.

Churches have had a part in making that shift in society not just substantively, but stylistically—in terms of how change has taken place. When I was advocating for LGBT equality in the Lutheran church, we spent considerable time and energy investing in relationships with one another. We listened to their hopes and fears, we told stories of our own lives, and we talked about our future together as a church. When it came time to vote for further LGBT inclusion, people weren’t voting on an idea; they were voting on the relationships that had been built, and on a shared vision of how we could all be a church together.

That same principle applies in our society as well. People support marriage equality because they have seen that it provides the basic protections for their friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers. They support it because they have invested in relationships with LGBT people to learn about their lives. The converse is true, where those personal, even spiritual, relationships are absent, we see LGBT people’s livelihoods threatened by backlash: religious exemptions that roll back protections, denial of benefits to married couples, and so on.

Yet even within churches that still reject LGBT people, hearts and minds in the pews are starting to change faster than church policies or the preaching coming from the pulpit. That is because people in the pews are listening to that preaching while thinking about their friends, family, and neighbors who are LGBT and living full, productive lives.

No matter how the Supreme Court rules, the trend of Christianity increasingly affirming LGBT people, their lives, and their relationships will continue. That will continue to happen because LGBT people and their allies of all faiths will continue to share their lives and accelerate acceptance among their friends and family, leading America to a place of LGBT acceptance.