During an evening service titled “Stop, Look and Listen” in the spare fellowship hall of Mt. Hebron Missionary Baptist Church, after dire Scripture readings about plagues and last days, the minister rose before a sign that proclaimed, “Jesus saves!”
“I wanted to come by today to keep encouraging you to hold on,” the Rev. Max A. Miller Jr., 52, told the three dozen in attendance. “Stand up for what is right.”
Miller didn’t directly mention the Supreme Court ruling five days earlier that had legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, but the inference was inescapable — hold on as Christianity comes under attack and fight to preserve our values. Hold on.
In Miller’s nearby study, several church members gathered after the service to share their unease with the ruling, as a gospel choir practiced within earshot.
“I'm deeply disturbed by the decision the Supreme Court made. It's painful as a Christian to see the leadership — our president — has not taken God into consideration,” said Daryl Fisher, 54, a firewood salesman who clutched a Bible in one hand as he spoke.
“It's an abomination,” he said as the others nodded. “Christians will have to stand up and fight even harder for what's right. The courts have not respected us.”
It’s a sentiment expressed by many conservative Christians since the June 26 ruling — a sense that the rest of the country has lost its way.
As 100 evangelical leaders put it in an open letter after the ruling, “Evangelical churches in America now find themselves in a new moral landscape that calls us to minister in a context growing more hostile to a biblical sexual ethic.”
The Ventura-based Barna Group, an evangelical polling firm, found that 94% of evangelical Christians surveyed opposed the Supreme Court ruling, compared with 66% of practicing Christians as a whole.
Fully 86% of evangelicals agreed that same-sex marriage would have a “negative impact on society,” compared with 59% of practicing Christians.
Along with sadness and dismay, many evangelicals expressed guilt and regret that they did not fight harder against what they believe is a sin.
The Rev. Bill Owens, president of the Memphis-based Coalition of African American Pastors, says conservative ministers are organizing to oppose the ruling, planning protests in the South as they did during the civil rights era.
“It's not over. The Supreme Court has gotten things wrong. It got the Dred Scott decision wrong,” Owens said, referring to the 1857 ruling that propped up slavery.
Miller spoke Tuesday afternoon on behalf of about 60 African American Baptist ministers who vowed at a news conference to stand up against same-sex marriage.
“It may be a right, but it’s not holy. It may be a right, but it’s not God’s word,” Miller said.
“We stand now joined with a unified voice as watchmen on the wall of history to call for a redirection and recommitment to Christian virtues and Christian morals,” he added.
In the Houston suburbs, the pastor of the more than 3,700-member Sugar Creek Baptist Church quickly addressed the court’s ruling, urging the congregation to repent and hold fast to biblical principles.
He let them know on the church website that a Republican state lawmaker who belongs to the church had sponsored legislation to protect pastors from having to marry same-sex couples, and church volunteers had already started organizing to support similar efforts with an email list and separate website.
“It's our Judeo-Christian values that our country was built and founded upon, our biblical values, that are obviously under attack,” said Sugar Creek’s associate pastor, the Rev. Clif Cummings, 58. “It's a continued eroding taking our nation down a vast, slippery slope.”
In his majority opinion for the Supreme Court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that the 1st Amendment guarantees that religious organizations and people “may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned.”
That’s little comfort to some.
Texas’ Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed the Pastor Protection Act last month to further guarantee ministers’ right to decide whom they marry, and he and other state leaders have spoken out since the ruling about protecting religious liberties. But, Cummings said, “With this last decision by the Supreme Court, I’m not sure we can say anything is concrete anymore.”
At Mt. Hebron and other African American churches, worshipers said they felt particularly betrayed by President Obama, who cited his Christian faith in opposing same-sex marriage when he first campaigned for president.
But in December 2010, the president said his position was evolving, and he fully endorsed same-sex marriage six months before the 2012 general election.
Fisher, the firewood salesman, noted that he had voted for Obama.
“Ask me if I regret it,” said Fisher, still holding his Bible. “I do. If I could take it back, I would — on this issue alone. We expect him to rule this nation based on the beliefs in this book.”
The others in the pastor’s study agreed.
They also were upset by the decision to light the White House in rainbow colors after the ruling. That same day, Obama spoke at the funeral for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, an African American minister gunned down at a church in Charleston, S.C. Surrounded by African American clergy, Obama prayed and burst into song — all after supporting same-sex marriage.
“Singing ‘Amazing Grace’ after he led the charge — what a shame,” Fisher said. “The church is under siege; it’s just coming from different directions.”
“They have tried to attach this to civil rights,” said the pastor’s wife, Rhonda Miller, 52.
“No connection whatsoever,” Fisher said.
“Because they have a choice,” she said of gays and lesbians.
They blamed themselves for not standing up sooner, and more forcefully. The Bible told them to love the sinner, hate the sin, but perhaps they had been lax, loving the sinners too much.
“Satan is subtle,” Rhonda Miller said. “You say, ‘I’ll go along with that,’ and before you know it, it’s an abomination.”
Sylvia Sims, 59, the church office administrator, said Christian families had “made allowances” for relatives who had come out of the closet. They have accepted gay and lesbian politicians, including Houston's three-term mayor, Annise Parker. Now Sims sees the ruling as a divine wake-up call.
“President Obama was wrong. Those people were wrong. But they were wrong because we let them be. We let a gay mayor in. And God said, ‘I’m going to show you because you let this in,’” Sims said. “God is sick and tired of us as Christians not standing up for what’s right.”
Sims has been a straight-ticket Democratic voter, but said no more. Rhonda Miller agreed.
After the high court’s ruling, Fisher said he initially vowed never to vote for a Democrat again. Now he wants to be a more discerning voter.
“It's going to make us more diligent” as Christian voters, he said, quizzing politicians before elections because, “We got to know where you stand.”
“And not just where you stand on Sunday,” Sims added.
“If we really look at our values, they're more conservative,” the Rev. Miller said. “Democrats treat us like a 2 a.m. phone call: They come by late in the election, they do nothing for the neighborhood, they give speeches and they sell us out.”
Miller noted that during the last year, he had formed an alliance with local conservatives, including several white Republican activist ministers, against a Houston equal rights ordinance.
He rejected the notion that “gay is the new black” and comparisons between gay and civil rights — a movement dear to the 57-year-old church, which his uncle founded in a garage.
Miller warned his congregation of 1,230 that the city ordinance, which passed in May 2014, would lead to sanctions against Christians.
Last fall, Mayor Parker subpoenaed his sermons along with those of four other ministers. Miller and several others sued the city, saying the sermons were religious speech protected by the 1st Amendment, and were never made to turn over the documents.
Miller doesn't plan to preach about the Supreme Court ruling anytime soon: That would be giving the justices too much power over his work, he said.
In some ways, the minister said, the ruling and other setbacks make it a thrilling time to be a Christian in America.
“You never have testimony,” he said, “if you don’t have a test.”