Can Evangelicals Ever Tolerate Gay Marriage?

What do astrology, watching movies, charging interest, alcohol, gambling, dancing and divorce have in common?

All have been taboo at some point in Christianity-dominated societies of the past two millennia, but all are accommodated or even celebrated by American Christians today. And there is no philosophical or moral reason that gay marriage will not join their ranks within the next 20 years.

Culturally conservative American Christians are more freewheeling than they may seem to outsiders. Fareed Zakaria, in insightful commentaries in recent years on the rise of give-the-people-what-they want democracy, observed that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson gained great fame not by demanding that Christians live their lives differently, but by sanctifying the lives they were already inclined to live.

Yet such leaders simultaneously cultivated a sense of cultural superiority within their all-too-comfortable flocks by finding other easy targets to censure, be they hippies or drug users or welfare mothers. Zakaria predicted that gays and Muslims would increasingly be the demons of the post-9/11 era among evangelicals, and damned if he wasn't right.

Yet culturally conservative proscriptions against homosexuality represent a weak, last attempt to pretend to stand for something, while standing for little in actual biblical terms.

I should concede that not all evangelical Christians are politically or culturally conservative. But you can be reasonably sure that when someone volunteers that he's a "Bible-believing Christian," he probably opposes gay marriage. Such a person may say that it's one thing for Christians to come to tolerate the sad reality of divorce (which was explicitly forbidden by Jesus), but it's another matter for them to have their arms twisted into affirming sex outside of a heterosexual marriage.

The difference between tolerating and affirming is semantics, of course. The key difference is that a culturally conservative Christian is likely a friend or relative of a divorced and remarried person. It's one of many signs I've seen, in observing Muslim and Christian societies, that culture drives religion far more than religion drives culture.

The conservative Christian senses the possibility of himself being divorced and remarried someday, and is easily able to reserve the right to such a role.

But there is a stinginess when it comes time for conservative Christians to decide whether or not to push for laws and amendments "protecting" marriage from gays. There is an element of bad faith in deciding that the lone, remaining area in which they will enforce the Bible is regarding a behavior that they conveniently had no intention of practicing.

This stinginess is especially troubling at a moment when gay issues have become the civil rights issues of our time. When the choice is whether to follow the biblical injunction to affirm the dignity of all human beings or to keep others from exercising their conscience, conservative Christians find it to be no contest.

Yet the door is open for conservative Christians to tolerate same-sex marriage in good conscience.

The distinguished New Testament scholar F. Dale Bruner made a salient observation in his influential commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Bruner wrote that his theological mentor, Henrietta Mears of the famed Hollywood Presbyterian congregation, tended to avoid teaching from the three synoptic Gospels (which are attributed to Mark, Matthew and Luke) and instead chose to emphasize Paul's epistles.

Mears and many "dispensationalist" peers who dominate the evangelical landscape have typically argued that the many difficult commands of Jesus, which are crystalized in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, are not commands for believers to obey now, but merely a description of the rules of the game after Christ's return.

That is a key reason why so many devout Christians, in the face of charges of hypocrisy, are able to tune out Christ's blessings of peacemakers. That is why many are able to rationalize ignoring his command to turn the other cheek and pray for enemies. That is why many can disregard his cautions about accumulating wealth while in fact sanctifying the status of wealthy "job creators."

In all these cases, educated believers will coolly insist that Christ's stringent commands are merely meant to remind us of our inability to follow those commands, which should then drive us to humility and to the recognition that we need divine grace and forgiveness.

Fair enough. But if such a formula allows a Christian society to eventually tolerate or rationalize away taboos ranging from usury to horoscope-checking, what keeps it from doing so in the case of gays who seek to make a public vow to work toward integrity and fidelity as they are best able to do?

Even if culturally conservative Christians cannot bring themselves to bless gay marriage, they could drop their opposition to imposing their political will on the larger secular republic. Given how inevitably they will be on the wrong side of history, it seems wise for them to cut their losses and drop their political posturing sooner rather than later, in order to move on to worthy issues where they're able to make a more positive impact.

It's been said that a fundamentalist of any religion tends to be driven by a certain nervousness about the body, which is why rules regarding sexuality are always enforced enthusiastically even when conservative Christians claim that they are not obligated to live up to Jesus' standards in this lifetime.

That would explain the homophobia somewhat -- but again, the rising will to condone divorce means that this is a cultural issue more than a genuine theological issue, an issue that is subject to change as society changes.

Yet to maintain or restore the integrity of the evangelical American church, its culturally conservative leaders and adherents would seem to need to make a choice: all of Christ's severe commands apply today to everyone ... or to no one. History suggests they will ultimately choose the latter.