By David Gushee
Follow David: @dpgushee
About a year ago I began my 16-week series on LGBT issues in what was then ABPNews/Herald. In October 2014 a version of these essays plus further material was published as the book Changing Our Mind (Read the Spirit). Since that time my world has been turned at least halfway upside down. In this column, I want to return to the subject for the first time in months to reflect on what I have learned.
1. LGBT Christian exiles are everywhere, because that’s what the traditionalist position most naturally produces.
When I started my book, I knew a few dozen LGBT Christians. Today I know hundreds. Their stories obviously vary in detail, but a basic script has become visible. Scattered among the 70 percent of the American population that is self-identified Christian are the 5 percent of the population that is LGBT. Strongly anti-gay Christians get the percentage of LGBT adolescents and church kids in their families and youth groups that their percentage of the population would lead one to expect — their theology does not exempt them from their share of gay kids. But the collision between anti-gay Christianity and LGBT adolescents is a brutal one. Because in that very conservative Christian world one can’t be both gay and Christian, every pressure exists either to eliminate the “gayness” or, if that is not possible, then to exile the gay person. Along the way comes extraordinary trauma for a vulnerable population whose experience often includes verbal abuse, spiritual torment, and moral self-loathing, and can extend to self-harming behaviors and either being kicked out or running away from home. Traditionalist readings of scripture on the LGBT question, especially when stridently expressed but sometimes even in the most polite form, produce exiles from family, church, and God. If our faith led us to care about human suffering this might just constitute evidence for reconsideration.
2. Society is moving forward toward full equality.
Probably the most significant social development of the last year on the LGBT front has been the powerful swing of big business into full support for LGBT equality. This was most visible during the religious liberty/conscientious refusal debates of this past legislative year in the states. That development, plus the news that support for gay marriage has now risen to 60 percent nationally, and much higher than that among the young, means that whatever the Supreme Court decides in late June, advances in gay rights, including marriage, can no longer be described as some kind of judicial tyranny usurping the will of a frustrated moral majority. Instead supporters of full legal and moral equality for gay people are moving rapidly toward a strong social majority — especially outside the South. It looks increasingly likely that resistance will be confined to a shrinking minority of traditional religionists mainly concerned about protecting their legal rights. It has been a dramatic and rapid social change.
3. The Christian conversation is changing — where it is allowed to take place.
Since my book came out, I have been disinvited from speaking at four venues that were already on my calendar. All of the disinviters are Baptist institutions, three of them in the South and one abroad. (Look out for my future memoirs, where many secrets shall be revealed.)
During that same period, I have been invited to speak at countless events in the Christian world — denominations, universities, seminaries, megachurches, smaller congregations, consortiums of churches, leadership groups, parachurch groups, etc. Many of these have been self-identified evangelical bodies and some of them have been Baptist. Others have come from the Catholic and mainline world. I have never had a busier speaking schedule.
Increasingly, those churches and Christian groups that simply refuse to engage the current conversation are the real outliers. The demands of their own LGBT people, allies, and families, of cultural and missional relevance, and even of public policy, simply are becoming too overwhelming for most Christian groups to remain avoiders. If gay marriage becomes national law, every church will have to decide what to do. If discrimination against gay people is legally barred without exception for religious groups, every Christian institution will have to decide what to do. Simply not having the conversation when these two very real possibilities are imminent is head-in-sand stuff.
Everyone else I am meeting in this Christian conversation ranges along a predictable spectrum. Some are engaging the conversation but leaving it with minds unchanged, or policies unchanged — but rarely with hearts entirely changed. The increasingly frequent involvement of actual gay Christians in conversations about gay Christians is gradually changing the spirit of how most of these Christian churches and organizations are dealing with this issue.
Less and less influential are the truly implacable Christian hardliners, the Apostle Sauls of our time, rocks in hand. More and more influential are voices that have moderated their rhetoric, acknowledged that gay people exist and should be treated with dignity, and agreed that the straight-majority church has much to repent in its treatment of gay people. That’s real change.
Many times on the road I have met deeply conflicted Christians and leaders, that is, those who feel deeply torn between the demands of their “heart” and “head,” or their “theology” and “love,” or even the politics of balancing their institution’s affirmers and non-affirmers. Many such Christian leaders are at least creating more friendly contexts for LGBT people even when they “can’t quite get there” theologically or politically to a place of full inclusion.
And I am seeing more and more contexts where the last barriers are falling, either gradually or precipitously. People are indeed changing their minds and hearts, with more and more churches announcing some kind of third way or full acceptance move. In the evangelical world, most of these newly full-inclusion churches seem to be youthful nondenominational and/or founder-led congregations, such as the delightful EastLake in Seattle, which I had the privilege to visit in January.
As for me, I have no regrets. I have exercised my vocation as I felt God called me to do. I have lost a few friends and opportunities. I have gained many more friends and many more opportunities. But mainly I have had a chance to participate in what I think is a major Gospel and Kingdom and Spirit movement of our time. And I have experienced the sacred through grateful tears, in conversations with those once exiled by the church finding a way back home to Jesus.