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.