Amid all of the overheated rhetoric surrounding the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriages across the nation, evangelicals have alternated between defiance and a kind of martyrdom.
“It’s time to be a light in these dark times,” Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, said. Franklin Graham declared that the court was “endorsing sin” and that God’s “decisions are not subject to review or revision by any man-made court.”
Echoing many other conservatives, Graham went on to say that churches and others who oppose same-sex marriage would be subject to discrimination and persecution. A Fox commentator declared that gay rights now trump religious liberty. And R. Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary warned that “the majority in this decision has placed every religious institution in legal jeopardy if that institution intends to uphold its theological convictions limiting marriage to the union of a man and a woman.”
Evangelicals like to present their position as biblical and therefore immutable. They want us to believe that they have never before adjusted to shifting public sentiments on sexuality and marriage. That is not so.
Divorce — and especially divorce and remarriage — was once such an issue, an issue about which evangelicals would brook no compromise. But evangelicals eventually reconfigured their preaching and adapted just fine to changing historical circumstances.
When I was growing up within the evangelical subculture in the 1960s, divorce was roundly condemned by evangelicals. Jesus, after all, was pretty clear on the issue. “And I say to you,” he told the Pharisees, “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”
Anyone who was divorced was ostracized in evangelical circles. In some congregations, membership was rescinded, and at the very least the divorcee felt marginalized. Any evangelical leader who divorced his spouse could expect to look for a different job.
Evangelical culture began to change in the mid-to-late 1970s, when the divorce rate among evangelicals approached that of the larger population. Some studies even suggested that the divorce rate among evangelicals was higher than average, although that claim was a trifle misleading since evangelicals were more likely to marry in the first place.
The ringing denunciations of divorce emanating from evangelical pulpits abated. No one outright supported divorce, but it became less and less of an issue as pastors found it more and more difficult to judge individuals within their own congregations — or their own families.
Forced to acknowledge the reality of divorce close to home, pastors responded with compassion rather than condemnation; the words of Jesus were treated as an ideal rather than a mandate. Megachurches provided support groups for divorcees and then, later, those groups functioned for many as the evangelical equivalent of singles clubs.
Although evangelical attitudes changed incrementally over many years, it’s possible to identify the real turning point with a fair amount of accuracy: 1980.
Not long ago I surveyed the pages of Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism and a bellwether of evangelical sentiments. Condemnations of divorce, which had been a regular feature in the 1970s, ceased almost entirely after 1980.
More telling, the “family values” movement, which took off in 1980, largely ignored this once crucial subject. Jerry Falwell and other conservative preachers attacked abortion, feminism and homosexuality, but they rarely mentioned divorce.
What happened? In a word (or two words): Ronald Reagan. When leaders of the religious right decided to embrace Reagan as their political messiah, they had to swallow hard.
Not only was Reagan divorced, he was divorced and remarried, a clear violation of biblical teaching. As governor of California, moreover, Reagan signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce law in 1969. Having cast their lot with Reagan in the 1980 election, evangelical denunciations of divorce all but disappeared.
If evangelicals can alter their attitudes toward divorce, they can do likewise with homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Indeed, views may soften as LGBT evangelicals come out of the closet and, like divorcees, make their communities confront their existence.
Censure is much easier to pull off in the abstract than face to face. Time and again throughout his ministry, Jesus dealt with people one on one, and demonstrated the principle that love always trumps law, that acceptance is superior to condemnation. That is the radical — and transformative — power of the gospel.
Franklin Graham, Al Mohler and other evangelical leaders claim to articulate biblical principles relating to sexuality and marriage. If so, they should start with divorce; Jesus was much clearer on that issue than he was about homosexuality, about which he said nothing whatsoever.
If, however, they truly seek to be biblical in the much broader sense of following Jesus, I invite them to exercise the Christian ethic of love unstintingly. Should they require a proof text, allow me to suggest Matthew 7:1, from the Sermon on the Mount: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College. His most recent book is “Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter.”