The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From Franklin Graham to Tony Campolo, some evangelical leaders are splitting over gay marriage

Tony Campolo is a progressive evangelical leader who provided spiritual counsel to then-President Bill Clinton. (Religion News Service)

Ahead of a highly anticipated Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, many evangelicals are wrestling with the question of whether you can support the issue and remain an evangelical.

Evangelicals are America’s least likely religious group to support same-sex marriage, but a handful of leaders and churches within the movement have divided publicly on the issue in recent years. Some are wondering whether the shifts are a signal of what’s to come, whether evangelicalism could fracture or whether divided evangelicals can continue to happily live under the same umbrella.

Just in the past few days, Tony Campolo announced his support for same-sex couples’ inclusion in the church, while Franklin Graham announced that he would pull Billy Graham Evangelistic Association accounts from LGBT-friendly Wells Fargo bank. On top of that, retired editor of Christianity Today David Neff announced his support for gay marriage.

The three recent cases represent different approaches within an older generation of evangelicals, a group that tends to hold financial and theological influence among other religious leaders and institutions.

“This issue will eventually break relationships: personally, congregationally and institutionally,” said Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who called today a “crucial moment.” “There’s not going to be any way around it.”

White evangelicals remain deeply opposed to same-sex marriage. Just 27 percent favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry, while 70 percent oppose it, according to the most recent survey research from the Pew Research Center. The support among evangelicals has still jumped 13 percentage points since 2005.

A shift among older evangelical leaders

Campolo, a progressive evangelical leader who counseled President Bill Clinton through the Monica Lewinsky scandal and is a sociology professor at Eastern University in Pennsylvania, announced on his Web site Monday his support for same-sex couples in the church. Most evangelical churches tend to exclude same-sex couples from membership and within leadership.

“It has taken countless hours of prayer, study, conversation and emotional turmoil to bring me to the place where I am finally ready to call for the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the Church,” Campolo wrote in a statement.

After years of publicly taking the opposite stance of his wife, Campolo wrote that he changed his position by interacting with gay couples and studying the Bible. Ultimately, it was through his own marriage that he concluded that “marriage should always be primarily about spiritual growth” and that Christian gay couples can reflect that goal.

Campolo, who declined to be interviewed on the topic, announced in 2014 that the organization he founded nearly 40 years ago would close. At that time, he remained opposed to same-sex marriage. Campolo’s shift at 80 years old was not a surprise to some, as he stands on the progressive spectrum anyway.

“The less surprising it is, the more mainstream it’s become,” said Matthew Vines, an author and speaker working for evangelicals to become more LGBT inclusive. “Even if you knew it was coming, the fact that it came and it’s not surprising is itself a sign of changes that are happening.”

But Campolo joins a handful of Baby Boomer evangelical leaders who have shifted into supporting same-sex marriage. Just 21 percent of evangelicals who are above the age of 50 favor gays and lesbians marrying legally, compared to 37 percent of evangelicals between 18 and 49, according to Pew.

A domino effect?

After Campolo’s announcement, David Neff, retired editor in chief of Christianity Today who still writes a column for the magazine, indicated his similar support on his private Facebook account, drawing notice from some observers.

Neff confirmed his support for same-sex marriage in a statement. Neff says that he still holds a high view of biblical authority, but that he has learned to read the relevant biblical passages in a different way than he used to.

“I think the ethically responsible thing for gay and lesbian Christians to do is to form lasting, covenanted partnerships,” Neff said in a statement to CT. “I also believe that the church should help them in those partnerships in the same way the church should fortify traditional marriages.”

CT issued an editorial Tuesday, writing that “we’re saddened that David has come to this conclusion,” and “yes, another couple of prominent evangelicals have come out in support of gay sexual ethics.” The magazine that Billy Graham founded reaffirmed their position that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

“We at CT are sorry when fellow evangelicals modify their views to accord with the current secular thinking on this matter,” CT’s current editor Mark Galli wrote. “And we’ll continue to be sorry, because over the next many years, there will be other evangelicals who similarly reverse themselves on sexual ethics.”

While a small number of evangelicals appear to be shifting, including Sojourners’ Jim Wallis (who announced his support in 2013) and ethicist David Gushee (who announced his support in 2014), many evangelicals remain steadfast in their opposition to same-sex marriage.

“Evangelicals are like dominoes,” said Randall Balmer, a historian at Dartmouth University. “We’re seeing one more indication that evangelicals are moving on this issue rather dramatically, as is the rest of the culture.”

Holding the line on gay marriage

On June 5, Franklin Graham urged Christians to pull their financial support from LGBT-friendly companies like Tiffany’s, which advertises wedding bands for gay couples, and Wells Fargo bank, which has used a same-sex couple in its advertising. Graham said he will move accounts from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association out of Wells Fargo.

“This is one way we as Christians can speak out — we have the power of choice,” he posted on Facebook. “Let’s just stop doing business with those who promote sin and stand against Almighty God’s laws and His standards. Maybe if enough of us do this, it will get their attention.”

Graham ended up putting the organization’s money into a bank that that has sponsored a Gay Pride festival fundraiser. Graham’s publicist did not return requests for comment on Tuesday.

[After boycott, Franklin Graham moves bank accounts from one LGBT-friendly bank to another one]

One question will be is whether evangelicals who support same-sex marriage will continue to call themselves evangelical or whether they might find a home in more progressive mainline Protestant traditions. With no official doctrine or pope, evangelicals often debate simply who gets to call themselves an evangelical.

There is no universally shared definition of “evangelical,” but one of the ways evangelicals tend to define themselves is by their regard for the Bible as the ultimate authority. For a majority of evangelicals, the concept of LGBT inclusion collides with the authority and proper interpretation of the Bible. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of white evangelicals see “a lot” of conflict between homosexuality and religious beliefs, the highest religious group to see a conflict between the two.

Overall, the percentage of Americans who support gay marriage is much higher among those who see “a little conflict” between homosexuality and their faith is much higher than those who say they see “a lot” of conflict between the two (54 percent compared to 27 percent).

A small number of evangelical churches have announced their shift on same-sex relationships in church. For instance, a prominent evangelical Christian church in San Francisco announced in March it will no longer ask members who are LGBT to remain celibate. And earlier this year, GracePointe Church in Nashville, Tenn., and Seattle’s EastLake Community Church reversed their celibacy policies.

Evangelicals in the pews don’t always follow what national leaders say publicly. Many of them do not follow what many leaders have said on support for climate change or immigration reform, for instance.

The issue reared its head in 2014 when World Vision announced it would allow its employees to be in same-sex marriages. The policy was short-lived; the $1 billion relief group reversed it within 48 hours after supporters threatened to pull donations.

Mohler also noted the number of evangelical pastors and leaders who don’t speak about same-sex marriage from the pulpit or otherwise.

“Every one of us is going to have to give an answer in short order,” Mohler said. “There are good number of evangelicals who have been trying to fly under the radar. It isn’t going to work.”

(This story has been updated.)

Want more religion coverage? Follow Acts of Faith on Twitter or sign up for our newsletter.

Eyeing gay marriage case, evangelicals and Catholics rally around battling poverty

Controversial preacher Mark Driscoll stripped from megachurch Hillsong conference lineup

I went to church with Bruce Jenner. Here’s what Caitlyn Jenner taught me about Jesus.