When a group of traditional evangelical leaders this week released a manifesto-like document laying out their opposition to LGBTQ sexuality and marriage, many progressive voices predictably denounced it. Black Lives Matter leader DeRay Mckesson said “the God I know does not support it,” while comedian Kumail Nanjiani tweeted profanely that it was “evil.”
What was surprising this week was the backlash against “the Nashville Statement” among some conservative evangelicals. The comments of those who would otherwise be behind the statement’s traditional views show the way the Trump presidency has scrambled internal evangelical debate in the United States — particularly on the question of who has legitimacy to speak about morality in the public square.
“Had white evangelicals leaders … withheld support for Mr. Trump after the infamous ‘Access Hollywood’ tapes, maybe their opposition to same-sex marriage would be viewed … as a principled, rather than a bigoted, position,” said Skye Jethani, a prominent Chicago-area pastor and author. The Nashville Statement met such criticism in part because white evangelicals’ broad voting support of Trump, at 81 percent, despite his moral violations, “squandered” their moral authority, he said.
Conservative criticism also focused on the timing: It came in the midst of a major domestic natural disaster as well as regular marches and protests related to racism, post-Charlottesville. It showed that the new era means diverse evangelical voices have much more influence; the old ways of communicating and assumptions about who has authority to speak for a whole religious community are changing.
Jethani called the timing “horrible” and the statement’s tone unhelpful.
“It’s difficult to imagine what the authors of the statement hoped to accomplish given the cultural climate and social media realities,” he said. “If their goal was to … open minds to biblical teaching, they miscalculated spectacularly.”
Part of the marketing challenge comes from the fact that the Nashville Statement was created by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a 30-year-old organization that is well known among many conservative evangelicals but whose name will probably befuddle the typical American. Its core mission historically has been to teach complementarianism, the belief that men and women have distinct, God-given roles in the church and home. If you haven’t followed evangelical insider debates since the Carter administration, you wouldn’t get the context, and the idea on its face may turn off many people.
CBMW was founded in 1987 to counter the influence of feminism among evangelicals. It teaches that God created men and women equal in worth and dignity but with distinct roles in the home and church. CBMW opposes women’s ordination and teaches that men are to lead in marriage and family life. By contrast, evangelical egalitarians support women’s ordination and stress mutual submission in marriage. Both groups exist within the broader tent of evangelicalism, with various denominations taking their own views on women’s ordination.
With the Nashville Statement, CBMW seems to be shifting its traditional focus from gender roles to opposition to homosexuality and “transgenderism.” “[T]here are many ‘evangelicals’ who are trying to convince people that same-sex immorality and following Jesus can indeed go together,” wrote CBMW President Denny Burk. The statement is intended to draw a line around the evangelical label using LGBT opposition as the marker.
Scott Sauls, lead pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, agrees with CBMW’s conclusions about same-sex marriage but says the statement’s “matter-of-fact tone” might alienate people who are LGBT — or the pastors who lead them. Likewise, Pieter Valk, who runs a group that advocates for better church-LGBTQ relationships, said the statement “left a bad taste in my mouth” and “will only widen the divide between LGBT people and Christians, and as a result, between LGBT people and God.” Valk said the statement focuses on the “no” of Christian teaching without offering LGBT people any sort of “yes.”
But behind all the details was one overarching one: Trump.
Of the 187 initial signatories of the Nashville Statement, at least 10 have publicly endorsed Trump. Four — Richard Land, James Robison, Ronnie Floyd and Jack Graham — are members of his unofficial evangelical advisory council. Last fall, Wayne Grudem, CBMW’s co-founder, defended Trump after the candidate was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault. To be sure, other signatories have criticized Trump, even drawing threat of censure from their own denominations. But for other signatories to support Trump while issuing a hard stance against same-sex relationships seems to many morally inconsistent.
“Based on his own behavior and words, not even Trump appears to have a traditional Christian sexual ethic,” notes Nicola Menzie, a religion reporter and the founder of Faithfully Magazine, which aims to cover conversations of Christians of color. Indeed, the president has bragged of cheating on his wives, appeared on the cover of Playboy, and has been accused by several women of sexual assault.
Wendy Horger Alsup is the author of several books for Christian women, and has been critical of Trump.
“Trump has exacerbated real issues of immorality and injustice concerning immigration, sexual assault and white supremacy — Scripture isn’t gray about these issues,” Alsup said. She believes that when evangelicals minimize such issues, or support leaders who do, they lose some moral authority on other issues that Scripture is clear on — which to her include traditional views on sexuality and marriage.
One of the most discussed elements of the Nashville Statement among evangelicals is something called Article 10. There, the authors state that “it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism,” and that this is not an issue “about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.”
“Readers who perceive Article 10 as a line in the sand have rightly perceived what this declaration is about. Anyone who persistently rejects God’s revelation about sexual holiness and virtue is rejecting Christianity altogether, even if they claim otherwise,” CBMW President Denny Burk said Wednesday.
Menzie affirms the Nashville Statement on same-sex relations, but says Article 10 seems to be “adding to the gospel.” Traditional Christians believe that following Christ as Savior is what’s necessary for true faith.
And it’s being applied inconsistently, she said. “I doubt many of the Nashville Statement’s signatories would apply the same measure to the racist, enslaving white theologians whose writings they hold dear,” even though the Bible categorically condemns racism.
In other words, why is sexuality and not a whole host of other issues today’s litmus test within evangelicalism? And why doesn’t that focus on sexuality include Trump’s own behavior?
Alsup notes that CBMW in the past used “line in the sand” language on women’s ordination. And yet today, many evangelicals, even complementarians, accept that one can ordain women and still be faithful to Christ and a “real” evangelical. In the light of swift cultural change around LGBT matters, many evangelicals are now wondering whether LGBT acceptance means “denying Christ,” as Burk claimed, or being wrong on one point of sexual ethics.
Through it all, said Jethani, the Nashville Statement and others like it tend to halt conversation — “which is precisely the opposite of what most churches and Christian communities need right now.” Statements help to clarify, but many evangelicals are now left wondering how to apply it to flesh-and-blood neighbors in their midst.
Katelyn Beaty is an editor at large with Christianity Today magazine and the author of “A Woman’s Place.”