Recently the news dropped that the Michigan-based Bethany Christian Services, a large and influential conservative Christian adoption and refugee resettlement agency, has moved to grant LGBTQ people the same access to adoption and foster care that it affords straight couples at all its branches across the United States.
Readers familiar with my work will know that I am highly skeptical of the possibility that conservative, mostly white evangelicalism can ever be systemically reformed. So does the case of Bethany prove that my skepticism has been wrongheaded? That all evangelicals need is a little more compassion and understanding from “liberals” and the press, and eventually they’ll come around? It would be nice if that were the case, but in fact the changes at Bethany, which have been a long time coming, evidently resulted from external pressures, meaning that continuing to coddle evangelicals and other social conservatives is not an effective means of encouraging them to become more inclusive.
What defines evangelicalism as a religious and cultural community, if not that it is, as University of Pennsylvania Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies Anthea Butler puts it in her new book, “predicated on fear of the other”? I would argue that that fear is baked into evangelical theology itself, particularly when it comes to “biblical inerrancy” and the imperative to convert others.
The censorship, LGBTQ exclusion, purges, and crackdowns that characterize evangelical colleges and universities represent one example of this working out in practice, as I’ve documented time and again in investigative deep dives. Queer alumni and students have been trying to create more supportive environments for LGBTQ students, as well as officially recognized LGBTQ student groups, with little measurable success.
While legacy media outlets prefer to highlight small protest movements at schools like Liberty University or Taylor University as if they mean real change is in the air, the truth is that, while the faculty at these colleges tend to be quietly more liberal on average than the administration (and even the students), financial incentives keep even schools that might otherwise be open to reform from making substantive changes. Faculty that make waves are often purged. And the young evangelicals who refuse to live within the imposed strictures are far more likely to become ex-evangelicals than to succeed at changing evangelical institutions and culture from the inside.
Examples abound outside evangelical institutions of higher education as well. Richard Cizik, for instance, was purged from the National Association of Evangelicals in 2008 over his support for pro-environment politics and then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. And, in an example with parallels to the policy change at Bethany that’s currently making headlines, in 2016, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a parachurch student ministry with recognized branches on many secular college campuses in the United States, purged all staff who supported LGBTQ affirmation and inclusion and banned all such student members from leadership positions, although previously some disagreement had been tolerated.
Despite its deep roots in the Dutch Reformed tradition, Bethanyhas moved in the opposite direction. This does, of course, mean that, on rare occasions, evangelical institutions do change for the better. But, if we want to address the question of whether evangelicalism can be reformed from the inside, it’s important to ask the question of how evangelical institutions change, and in response to which kinds of pressures and incentives.
Once fiercely opposed to the possibility of placing children with same-sex parents, Bethany allowed its Philadelphia branch to change in order to retain access to public funding it had initially lost over its discriminatory policy in 2018. Subsequently, some other Bethany branches switched to LGBTQ-inclusive foster parent and adoption policies while others did not, resulting in a confusing patchwork that, as of early this year, has been replaced with a Bethany-wide policy of allowing same-sex couples to foster and adopt.
At least as late as 2014, internal communications from Bethany executives continued to stress that “God instituted marriage as a life-long covenant between one man and one woman,” and the organization continued to lobby for “religious freedom” exemptions to non-discrimination requirements, as I documented in a 2018 investigative piece looking at Bethany in the context of the Trump administration’s cruel policy of separating the children of asylum seekers from their parents at the border, and of America’s history of predatory and harmful adoption practices.
Now, as Ruth Graham reports for The New York Times, Bethany takes the position that “Christians of mutual good faith can reasonably disagree on various doctrinal issues, about which Bethany does not maintain an organizational position.” This, of course, stops short of endorsing LGBTQ identities or same-sex marriage.
Still, it’s a significant positive change, so it’s worth asking what motivated Bethany to take this step. Ultimately imposed from the top down, the new policy was clearly prompted by public, external pressure affecting certain Bethany branches more than others, rather than by internally driven reform efforts. And, it’s important to note, this is not atypical. As ex-evangelical author and advocate Cindy Wang Brandt argues, when evangelicals do take (generally quite limited) positive steps, they come precisely as the result of outside pressure.
“When the larger society threatens to disrupt the evangelical worldview,” Brandt once commented in a blog post on why she does not attempt to be a bridge builder within evangelicalism, “evangelicals either 1) cry persecution, defending their position as the divinely ordained one… or 2) they do what they do best: rebrand.” She adds, “It matters to evangelicals where ‘the world’ is at because of their particular dance with it,” meaning that a degree of common ground is required for successful conversion efforts. I am not sure I agree that what “the world”—that is, everything that exists outside of what evangelicals consider to be orthodox Christianity—thinks especially matters to all evangelicals, but it certainly matters to evangelicals invested in respectability, which is certainly largely true of members of the Christian Reformed denomination associated with Bethany.
Then again, even Bob Jones III, chancellor of the notorious fundamentalist university that bears his name, once felt compelled to issue a mealy-mouthed apology in 2015 for comments he’d made in 1980 advocating the stoning of gay people. Astute readers may also recall that Bob Jones University, which lost its tax-exempt status in 1983 over its refusal to admit African-Americans, eventually started admitting non-white students with certain restrictions before finally rescinding its ban on interracial dating in 2000. BJU, however, remains a very oppressive place, and I’m not one for celebrating the meeting of very low bars. For its part, Bethany Christian Services is not going to stop being the paternalistic, anti-choice, right-wing organization dogged by credible allegations of coercive and manipulative practices that it has always been just because it takes one step in the direction of progress and equality.
In a recent newsletter, Brandt also reminded readers that Bethany’s decision could be rescinded in response to backlash from its core conservative Christian constituency, as happened in 2014 when evangelical child sponsorship organization World Vision implemented, and then quickly reversed, a decision to permit the employment of staff in same-sex marriages. However, Brandt says, “I suspect the climate even in evangelical culture has shifted so that the backlash won’t be as severe as in 2014,” taking the opportunity to reiterate her stance that “the way to push for progress against toxic theology and culture isn’t to do it from the inside. I know, because I’ve tried.”
Instead, we foster progress “by pushing for mainstream cultural shift and advocating for policies to change,” Brandt maintains. “Which is exactly what has happened in this case. Gay activists marched, protested, gave their lives to change the laws, and the culture subsequently began to change, and now, even the evangelicals are compelled to progress.” That “even” is important. White evangelicals remain America’s most right-wing demographic, and they don’t take steps toward inclusion and equity without being dragged kicking and screaming.
So, celebrate Bethany’s baby-steps if you will. But in so doing, don’t forget that it’s not evangelicals themselves who bring evangelical institutions to meet the lowest of bars for progress toward equality. Instead, it’s the advocates and activists dedicated to the pursuit of a just and equitable society whose efforts eventually, finally, compel “even” some evangelicals to come along, at least a little.