Is Marriage Equality the New “Scopes” Moment? Sort of…

Is same-sex marriage the new evolution? I was prompted to think about this seemingly bizarre question by a conversation with Paul Miller, a very smart young alumnus of Gordon College, and a founder of the LGBTQ and allies advocacy organization, OneGordon.

Gordon, an Evangelical liberal arts school in Wenham, MA, is currently caught up in controversy over President D. Michael Lindsay’s decision to fight for the “religious freedom” of Christian institutions to discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community. Tenured faculty have been fired; pro-LGBTQ voices on campus have been silenced. According to Miller, however, this victory for Lindsay and the Evangelical establishment is a Pyrrhic one. Jonathan Orbell has made a similar argument here on RD, noting that Evangelicals’ “us vs. them” ethos comes with a cost. Have American Evangelicals arrived at a new Scopes “Monkey” Trial moment, then, as Miller suggested?

It was almost exactly 90 years ago—July 21, 1925—that the Scopes decision was handed down upholding a ban on the teaching of evolution in Tennessee’s public schools (though Scopes’ fine and conviction were later reversed on a technicality). But it was the Evangelical community that lost in the court of public opinion. The refusal to adapt to the findings of modern science made the adherents of “Old Time Religion” look ridiculous, ushering in a couple of decades of tactical retreat and reduced influence.

American religious right historian Neil J. Young told me that he “would push back at the Scopes comparison” as it wasn’t, in retrospect, all that unique. Evangelicals frequently lament the loss of their influence on “the culture” yet, in Young’s words, they take “the longer view,” spending periods in the wilderness retooling and rebuilding toward future social and political influence. This pattern makes neither the Scopes trial, nor the present, particularly unusual.

Still, while Young’s caveat is important, it also, in a sense, reinforces the comparison provided one acknowledges the tidal nature of Evangelical influence. Which is to say that, rather than as retreat, per se, we ought to see any potential reduction in influence as a period of retooling, though whether and when they may be able to regain it this time around is open to question.

And indeed, amid efforts to hold the line on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ affirmation, there are more and more voices suggesting that Evangelical influence is on the wane. Recent comments by Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, suggest that Evangelicals may be headed toward a tactical retreat. And, while some Evangelicals are attempting to distance themselves from Rowan County, Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis, the fact is that even most of these Evangelicals agree with her on substance and only disagree on tactics, all of which suggests a sense that it may be unwise to fight this battle so publicly.

Like it or not, Davis symbolizes Evangelicalism to the American public at present, and I for one cannot resist teasing out what seem to be echoes of 1925 in her unfolding drama. When she emerged from jail with Mike Huckabee (a sort of grotesque latter-day William Jennings Bryan) at her side, the buffoonish picture of Evangelical intransigence on LGBTQ rights was on full display. Evangelicals have given Americans every reason to associate Christianity with an anti-LGBTQ stance.

It seems that most of America is moving on and that it’s Evangelicals who will be left behind so long as they refuse to, well, evolve on same-sex marriage and LGBTQ affirmation. But before proponents of a secular civil society start partying like it’s 1925, we should heed Young’s reminder that conservative Evangelicals will not quietly retire their theocratic tendencies, but instead will retool and bide their time in the hopes of once again regaining influence.


  •' Jim Reed says:

    It is a different American environment for Christianity. In the past, the number of vocal non-believers was very small, and at that level they can be suppressed and ignored. Today it is a significant size who can say what they want and no longer be silenced. That makes a big difference because you end up with the voices of change with lots of potential for speaking truth to religion, and you have the faithful who are having a harder time making any sense.

    The issues of the day might ultmately be pretty small compared to the issue of was Jesus a real person, or a myth that was developed decades later and backdated to year one. How will Christianity do without Jesus? At the moment they can see how it could work out just fine, but once they get farther into it they might see more of the contradictions that Christianity has generated.

  •' Well_Read says:

    IF jesus lived, his point was to love your neighbor, assimilate, pray with everybody, inclusion. Christians have abandoned that kind of thinking in favor of worshiping jesus the man/god. It’s much easier to worship someone else than to be the kind person he wanted them to be.

  •' Well_Read says:

    early colonies were awash with christians killing christians over their beliefs. what followed was an era of enlightenment, reason, deism, atheism. the pendulum has always gone both ways. In response to the godless constitution we had an era of religious fervor in the early 19th. Then Darwin’s theory and the legs that gave the irreligious, the response from evanges was contempt for science. Kill anything that proves the bible wrong. Then the roaring 20’s where it was a free for all, the first sexual revolution. Then the pendulum swung back in the 50’s forward with the church telling us america was synonymous with christianity, they put god on the money and in the pledge. Then the sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s followed by the religious right demanding a place in our govt to push toward a theocracy or the reconstruction of a christian america.

    But starting in 1947 with the Brown decision the 1st amendment and 14th were combined in a scotus decision. That started rebuilding the wall between church and state and christians are loosing in court decisions taking them out our schools, parks, and city halls. Now the majority of america is non christian, non religious, and non practicing christians and the pendulum is done.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    If the pendulum doesn’t swing, it might fall, and it is heavy enough to crush some people.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    A religion can’t last very long unless its priority is self-preservation.

  •' ObscurelyAgnostic says:

    Whoever the historical Jesus was or wasn’t, the Jesus of the Gospel narratives made it pretty clear he deemed his message more important than his identity — in face he kept telling the disciples not to tell others who he was …

  •' gapaul says:

    “The Messianic secret” is the literary device found in Mark, mostly. And most theologians/text critics would say the point of that Gospel writer was not to define him by the miracles, but by his death and resurrection. That’s why Mark’s gospel was called “a passion narrative with an extended introduction” by German scholar Martin Kahler, a judgment most assume. I don’t think you can make a case for the primacy of teaching over identity from the gospels. Not that you have to believe it, I just don’t think you can make your point about what Jesus deemed important from the gospels themselves.

  •' ObscurelyAgnostic says:

    But aren’t we talking about the Jesus we find in “the gospels themselves”? — in fact I assume that’s the ONLY Jesus we can talk about 🙂 … the motives of that Jesus are very much open to the personal subjective interpretation we’re all exercising here — which raises the question of the ultimate subjectivity of the scholarly opinion you cite, which I rate as informed conjecture at best …

  •' gapaul says:

    Guess I don’t follow. You initially made a claim about Jesus’ intentions, “The Jesus of the gospel narratives made it pretty clear he deemed his message more important than his identity,” — and I said, basically, “you won’t get much agreement.” Not only would you have to reckon with the gospel of John in which identity seems pretty much primary, (true to the intention of Jesus or not) but you’d have to find a group of scholars who take the “don’t tell anyone” lines of Mark to mean Jesus — or even the gospel writer– wanted the focus on “his message.” (Which I presume you are limiting to ethical teaching?”) If the only part of any of the gospels we had was the sermon on the mount, maybe you could make some such case, but like I said, don’t think you can do it with what we have. You end up with Jefferson’s Bible — nice, but not true to the form or substance of the gospels themselves.
    And of course the actual motives of the actual person of Jesus are only available to us as interpretations of the documents we have. But in fairness, there are better and worse ways of reading those ancient documents. I’d compare it with the US Constitution — that we won’t agree about everything doesn’t mean we can’t say anything — or that there are hair-brained readings, and better informed ones.

  •' ObscurelyAgnostic says:

    This post cites Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, as “suggest[ing] that Evangelicals may be headed toward a tactical retreat” … Moore is in fact suggesting neither a retreat nor a tactic, but a repudiation of the fusing of faith and civil religion that typifies evangelicalism in America … here’s a quote that shows this important distinction:

    “The Bible Belt is collapsing. The world of nominal cultural Christianity that took the American dream and added Jesus to it in order to say you can have everything you’ve ever wanted and heaven too is soon to be gone and good riddance,” Moore said when he took over the ERLC in 2013: “We’ll be stronger without nominal believers who have been following a civil religion as though it was the gospel.”

  •' ObscurelyAgnostic says:

    As a pastor in a liberal tradition I eschew on principle the hopelessly Sisyphean task of ‘squaring the circle’ of the four divergent accounts of Jesus we find in Gospels … leaving aside biblical scholarship (a largely subjective/conjectural enterprise!), I see the point of interpreting the several Jesus’s we find in the New Testament as answering Bonhoeffer’s perennial question — “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?

  •' gapaul says:

    No argument. But that contradicts your first statement, “The Jesus of the Gospel narratives made it pretty clear he deemed his message more important than his identity.” As you say, there is no singular Jesus of those gospel narratives.

  •' ObscurelyAgnostic says:

    I guess I assumed everyone else would assume I was expressing my personal subjective opinion 😉 … how about, “The Jesus I find it expedient to preach in our modern age made it clear …”

    As for the cosmic Jesus we find in John’s gospel (and Paul’s epistles), my (highly subjective) interpretation is that although his divine identity is certainly emphasized, nevertheless the reason for the incarnational incursion was to bring us “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (the message!)

  •' Ruth1:16 says:

    I am not sure I can agree with your claim that the “majority
    of America is non- Christian, non religious, and non practicing Christians.”
    Out of the 315 million people in the United States, it is estimated that 247
    million identify as Christians. Of course this number has the potential to be
    problematic since what it means to be Christian is different for each
    individual, for example whether they identify that way because they were raised
    Christian, or they are currently practicing, or they go to Church on Christmas,
    etc. Nevertheless, these numbers are still significant and must be kept in mind
    as we discuss the changing Christian American landscape. The point is, that
    there are more Christians and we are a more Christian-based and influenced
    country then many of us care to admit. In the acknowledgement of this fact, in
    response to the article, I think that it is necessary to support institutions
    such as Gordon College in whatever decision they come to on whether or not to
    support the LGBTQ community on their campus. Each one of us Christians have our
    own interpretation of what the Bible says and teaches about homosexuality, and
    if Gordon College chooses to base its campus off of their interpretation, then
    so be it.

  •' Well_Read says:

    there are companies that track those things, the ‘unchurched’ (born christian but have never gone), believe or not in the inerrancy of the bible, believe or not that jesus is god, only go to church on holidays, go occasionally, go regularly, believe in separation of church and state, how many are leaving organized religion and where to they go (to the nones, go atheist, or change religions). In other words we dont have to guess how christian or not this country is, latest count of ALL of them is 72% and shrinking fast.

    You also miss- the purpose of the bill of rights is to protect the individual against the majority. The majority rules at the polls, but in the law each individual is equal. An atheist can sue a public school and get a prayer taken off the wall of a gym against the will of a whole community (who threatened to kill the atheists whole family) because prayer by the school is unconstitutional.

    Gordon can ‘interpret’ however they want, and the public can judge them as to how far in the weeds they are, how ridiculous. Every time a christian does something crazy (in the eyes of the public) another christian becomes unchurched. The numbers back that up.

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