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Why the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage represents a new era for evangelicals

File photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This opinion piece is by Collin Hansen, the editorial director for The Gospel Coalition.

Within the network of schools and churches and parachurch ministries that make up the evangelical movement, the fight over same-sex marriage has only just begun with the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage Friday. The trickle of voices advocating gay-friendly views may swell into a flood, especially if the federal government interprets the Supreme Court decision as justifying an expanded anti-discrimination agenda.

As admitted by U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verelli in oral arguments, “It is going to be an issue.” Evangelical colleges and universities that uphold moral standards among students, faculty, and staff depend on various sources of federal funding. The pressure to change their standards and sanction homosexual behavior, if the alternative is closing their doors, may prove irresistible.

Expect in this scenario to hear many calls for a national spiritual revival that will unexpectedly halt the progress of the sexual revolution. Expect disagreement over what the compassion of Jesus Christ demands of believers in this brave new world.

Many of the loudest voices will say evangelicals must re-interpret the Scriptures as we hear how traditional views have harmed LGBTQ friends. Few will notice the faithful pastors and confidants poised to offer good news, a helping hand, and a warm shoulder to the victims and perpetrators of our age’s most dramatic cultural transformation.

Most interesting will be to observe how evangelicals understand the call to courage in a new era. Until recently in the West, Christianity demanded a particular brand of courage to resist holier-than-thou stereotypes. Criticism of evangelicals tended to highlight either naïveté or hypocrisy.

The Supreme Court's gay marriage decision explained in 60 seconds. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Think about the kind of Christians you’ve seen on TV. Evangelicals are the goody-two-shoes rubes, most likely from the Midwest or South, like Ned Flanders from “The Simpsons” or Kenneth Parcell from “30 Rock.” Or they’re the judgmental hypocrite like Angela Martin on “The Office,”  who would take only the Bible and “The Purpose-Driven Life” to a desert island but still sleeps around with her coworkers. Think of former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert as an alleged real-life example of this type: preening moral superiors in public but deviant hypocrites in private.

Already, though, you can see the stereotypes shifting. No longer will the world try evangelicals for hypocrisy. Instead, they’re charged with bigotry, our culture’s worst sin. No longer suspected of false moral superiority, they’re accused of real moral inferiority. Rather than Victorian prudes, evangelicals have already been likened to Jim Crow segregationists for opposing gay marriage.

To much of the world, this new era looks like a tolerant utopia. But what if we’ve merely traded one older Judeo-Christian morality for modern, untested alternative? Anyone familiar with reality TV knows we’re still tempted to think better of ourselves by looking down on someone else.

We judge one another as immoral for not using the right light bulbs. For not buying organic. For voting against the anointed candidate. For sending our children to the wrong schools. For eating the wrong fast food. For buying the wrong shoes. For watching the wrong shows.

[Why the church should neither cave nor panic about the decision on gay marriage]

Whether you admit it or not, we all live by a moral code that rewards certain behaviors and punishes others. And this new morality shifts under your feet with the rise and fall of new internet memes.

One day you’ll chuckle at a celebrity’s crazy antics. The next day you’ll shake your head when you learn he checked into a drug rehab center. One day you’ll laugh at the wide receiver knocked silly by the hard-hitting safety. The next day you’ll mourn the linebacker who took his own life after suffering too much head trauma while delivering those blows.

You don’t know what the new morality will bless and condemn with each new day. You just know there will be something to bless and something else to condemn. The rage machine never breaks down or loses power.

Imagine this unexpected scenario: what if evangelicals emerged from exile from polite company as advocates for grace and mercy?

Imagine that Bible-thumpers reviled for following an oppressive moral code and finding solace in a judgmental God became a safe haven for the burned-out and discarded. In fact, that’s exactly what happened the last time evangelical laments of social decline reached such a fevered pitch.

The megachurch boom of the 1980s and 1990s followed the Jesus People Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. The era of free love and anti-war protests didn’t just give us good ice cream. It gave us Southern Baptist pastors in Hawaiian shirts.

Evangelicals have often been told they must get with the times. But the times to tend to have a way of catching back up with evangelicals.

Collin Hansen is author of the new book “Blind Spots: Becoming a Courageous, Compassionate, and Commissioned Church.”

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