On Monday, Rabbi Denise Eger was installed as the first openly gay president of Reform Judaism’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, which claims around 2,000 rabbis and 862 congregations in the United States.
“It really shows an arc of L.G.B.T. civil rights,” Eger told the New York Times. “I smile a lot — with a smile of incredulousness.”
Eger’s new position is, unquestionably, a historic moment for Reform Judaism. But when placed alongside the greater American religious landscape, her achievement is remarkable in part because of how common such stories have become. It’s hardly the first time a mainstream American faith community has proclaimed spiritual support for LGBT rights — the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association chose a lesbian Rabbi to be their president in 2007, Unitarian Universalists have been passing resolutions affirming everyone regardless of their sexuality since 1970, and several of the largest mainline Christian denominations have moved to embrace various versions of LGBT rights. Since the early 2000s, the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have all voted in favor of supporting gay ordination and same-sex marriage, and the Episcopal Church famously elected Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, to the position of bishop in 2003. And while the United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Christian denomination, officially opposes marriage equality and the ordination of LGBT ministers, Methodist bishops and priests across the country are now refusing to enforce church discipline on clergy who officiate same-sex weddings. Meanwhile, nearly half of religious Americans see no conflict between their faith and LGBT rights.
Yet even as equality advocates toast these victories, more conservative-leaning faith traditions are doubling down on their opposition to homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgender identity. This trend isn’t necessarily astonishing, of course, but as more and more religious Americans move to endorse equality, right-wing faithful are struggling to confront an uncomfortable question: can anti-gay religious groups survive in a country that embraces LGBT rights?
The issue has become omnipresent at the national gatherings of evangelical Christian institutions such as the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), whose leaders disavowed destructive “ex-gay” therapy in 2014 but continue to enforce a no-tolerance policy toward theologies that promote acceptance of same-sex relationships. When a SBC pastor in California told his congregation last year that he had adopted a conciliatory view of homosexuality, for example, national-level officials promptly responded by kicking the church out of the denomination. The larger evangelical community has also adopted a strategy of silencing or rejecting believers who publicly endorse pro-LGBT views: when World Vision, an evangelical charity, announced last March that it would start hiring gay employees, funders began pulling money from the organization, resulting in the group reversing its decision within 48 hours; Brandan Robertson, a young evangelical and author of the popular blog Revangelical, lost a book deal in January after he refused to sign a pledge asking him not to “condone, encourage or accept the homosexual lifestyle”; and in February, the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination “terminated” its partnership with Christ Church: Portland after the pastor preached passionate support for LGBT acceptance.
True, the memberships of both liberal and conservative faith traditions have dwindled over the past few decades, a phenomenon some conservatives have inexplicably blamed on the rise of pro-LGBT theology. But recent surveys suggest that membership in liberal mainlines is now starting to level off, even as flight from evangelical denominations continues. In fact, the ubiquity of hardline stances against LGBT rights possibly triggered a small exodus of believers from evangelical concert halls to the rickety back pews of liberal mainline sanctuaries.
This includes Rachel Held Evans, a prominent faith-based blogger and author whose website has become influential among evangelical audiences. Despite years of identifying and blogging as an evangelical Christian, her forthcoming book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, chronicles her recent decision to leave evangelicalism and join the liberal-leaning Episcopal church. In an interview with the Religion News Service, she said abandoning her faith tradition was fueled in part by evangelicalism’s consistent resistance to LGBT inclusion.
“I felt drawn to the Episcopal church because it offered some practices I felt were missing in my evangelical experience, like … opportunities for women in leadership, and the inclusion of LGBT people,” she said.
Some are responding to anti-gay theology by simply forgoing organized religion altogether. One-third of millennials who left their religion cite anti-gay policies as the motivation for their departure, according to a 2013 survey by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). In addition, new data released on Monday by PRRI reports that cities in the Pacific Northwest are now heavily populated by the so-called “religiously unaffiliated,” people (including many young adults) who do not claim any specific faith organization. A 2012 study by Pew Research found that three-quarters of unaffiliated adults grew up in religious households — meaning they left their religion behind — and while the category is highly diverse, they are united on at least one issue: overwhelming support LGBT rights.
Granted, there likely will be significant differences in how each religious community grapples with the rise of LGBT rights. Some, such as the Mormon church, are trying to establish a shaky middle ground, endorsing laws that support LGBT people while simultaneously advocating for religious exemptions that exclude their believers from those same rules. Similarly, prominent black church leaders such as Rev. Delman Coates and Rev. Al Sharpton, although not always advocates for theology that affirms homosexuality, have begun publicly defending the legal right to same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church continues to oppose marriage equality and homosexual unions from the Vatican, but American Catholics — who are now more supportive of marriage equality than any other religious group in the country — have started simply to ignore the hierarchy, citing scripture and Catholic teaching as they fight for LGBT rights with or without the support of their bishops. And despite evangelicalism’s insistence on cleaving gay-affirming believers from the herd, faith leaders such as Rob Bell, Brian McClaren, David Gushee, and Matthew Vines have begun articulating inclusive LGBT theologies while also fervently claiming an evangelical identity — even if the rest of evangelicalism shuns them.
One thing is clear, however: American support for LGBT rights — and openly gay religious leaders such as Rabbi Eger — are here to stay, and growth-conscience religious conservatives can no longer afford simply to pray away LGBT inclusion. And they definitely can’t ignore examples like Bell, who has not only remained a best-selling author after publishing inclusive books about marriage, but also secured his own television show (endorsed by media mogul Oprah, no less) where he declared last month that the church is “moments” from embracing same-sex marriage.