For decades, conservative Christians who oppose LGBT equality have singled out the federal government or secular atheists as their preferred enemy in public settings, blasting both groups for supposedly attacking “traditional marriage” or infringing on their religious liberty. Yet in the months surrounding the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage across the country, right-wing Christians have become increasingly willing to cast blame — seemingly hypocritically — on a group they have often dismissed or outright ignored: Progressive Christians, especially those who support marriage equality.
The first hints of a growing front against liberal Christians came in May, when a coalition of conservative churches in Fountain Hills, Arizona publicly ganged up on a local progressive Methodist community. Unhappy with the church’s teachings, eight congregations launched a campaign entitled “Progressive Christianity: Fact or Fiction?,” a coordinated teaching and preaching series that included op-eds, a half-page advertisement in a local newspaper, and a massive banner with “progressive” written in jagged red letters and hemmed in quotation marks.
“The progressives are at it again, and for a small fee you can join the primary proponent of this apostate religious movement to get answers,” Tony Pierce, a pastor of First Baptist Church of Fountain Hills and one of the participants in the effort, wrote in a letter to the editor. “The good thing about the progressive movement is it gives people a clear choice. The ironic thing about progressive Christianity is that it is neither!”
The source of their outrage? Rev. David Felten, the left-leaning pastor of Fountains United Methodist Church. He reportedly stoked ire by preaching a variety of progressive concepts to his parishioners, such as theological support for interfaith dialogue, scientific discovery, and, of course, LGBT equality.
Felten, like many progressive Christians, was used to criticism for his views — he has even published a book about progressive Christianity. But the intensity of the local attack — which included churches from denominations that are generally more liberal than his own United Methodist Church — caught him off guard.
“When you have an effort collaborated by multiple churches in one community to try to discredit one other way of thinking, that’s when it becomes alarming,” Felten told the local Fox affiliate.
This same sentiment reemerged in June in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges, which was gleefully celebrated by a host of progressive faith groups. Just a few days after the decision, Kevin DeYoung, a pastor in East Lansing, Michigan, published a blog post at the Gospel Coalition entitled “40 Questions For Christians Now Waving Rainbow Flags” that quickly spread through conservative and progressive Christian circles. Many of the inquiries were phrased in an accusatory manner, harping on old tropes that LGBT parents harm children and that supporters of marriage equality also support polygamy: “Do you think children do best with a mother and a father?” question 14 asked, followed by, “Do you think close family members should be allowed to get married?” and “On what basis, if any, would you prevent consenting adults of any relation and of any number from getting married?”
The post launched a heated war of words between progressive and conservative Christians, including LGBT evangelical Protestants such as Matthew Vines, who published his own list of 40 counter-questions in response. It, predictably, triggered spirited retorts from traditionalist conservatives.
But while DeYoung’s post was at least framed as an attempt at theological dialogue, other subsequent critiques of progressive faith have abandoned conversation for castigation. In mid-July, Peter Leithart, a Reformed theologian and head of the right-leaning Theopolis Institute, penned a piece in First Things that bemoaned the Court’s decision and explicitly asked conservatives to condemn LGBT-affirming Christians.
“Most important is what happens in the churches,” Leithart writes. “Even before Obergefell, some churches were making peace with same-sex marriage. Now that same-sex marriage is law, the tribe of ‘Good Churches’ will increase, and the division in the churches over sexual morality will sharpen. Many leaders, churches, and denominations have condemned the Court’s decision, and more will; but others support it, and we have no trans-denominational mechanism to adjudicate between them.”
“Saying what’s right is necessary, but it’s not enough. Pastors need to be willing to say that other churches [that support marriage equality] are wrong, and dangerously so.”
Granted, conservative Christian denunciation of people who hold different beliefs than they do isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Organizations such as the Institute on Religion and Democracy, which has spent years lobbying against LGBT equality from within several Christian denominations, have long sought the eradication of liberal theology. Right-leaning Catholics and evangelical Christian leaders such as Franklin Graham have repeatedly made sweeping claims as to what “Christians” believe, implying that people of faith who don’t share their views are not, in fact, Christians. What’s more, faith communities — conservative or otherwise — have lashed out at each other almost since their inception, so it’s not necessarily surprising that conservative Christians, having lost legal battles over LGBT issues, are now sliding into a theological debate with fellow believers.
Yet the newest push against liberal Christianity appears hypocritical, as it coincides with a massive campaign waged by various right-wing Christians to insist that the political left respect their “religious liberty” — namely, the right to deny jobs and services to LGBT people in the public sphere, private business, and in Christian schools by invoking faith. Within hours of the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, Andrew Walker, Director of Policy Studies at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, began insisting that the decision will only lead to the erosion of religious liberty — for evangelical Christians.
“Slowly and surely, Americans are now witnessing a slow erosion of religious liberty happening in the public square,” he wrote. “From backlash at expressing a belief about marriage that results in dismissal, to the real fear that institutions that desire to maintain accreditation may not be able to do so, the concerns registered in the past are being catapulted into the present.”
To be sure, this argument has circulated for some time, and a few conservatives have occasionally extended this logic to progressive people of faith when they make their own claims to religious liberty. This includes Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler, who cautiously supported a lawsuit filed by progressive North Carolina clergy last year that accused the state of criminalizing their ability to officiate same-sex marriages, which they consider a spiritual rite.
But Mohler caught intense criticism for his position, inspiring a slew of articles from right-wing writers such as Mark Creech of the Christian Action League and Ryan Anderson of the Heritage Foundation. Both passionately dismissed the case and Mohler’s support for it, reframing the lawsuit as another supposed assault on conservative Christians.
“In a growing number of incidents, the redefinition of marriage and state policies on sexual orientation have led to intolerance and intimidation of citizens who believe that marriage unites a man and a woman and that sexual relations are properly reserved for marriage,” Anderson wrote, speaking of the court case.
A few conservative writers have even sought to cast progressive Christians as bullies unto themselves, calling them “heretic hunters” for speaking up for LGBT people. This, even as the Southern Baptist Convention continues to kick out LGBT-affirming member churches, the Catholic Church repeatedly fires schoolteachers for being openly gay, and liberal churches receive bomb threats — and possibly shootings — simply for supporting LGBT people and marriage equality.
If the goal is to persuade the faithful masses back to traditional marriage, however, then conservatives may be too late. A poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in April revealed that majorities of almost every major religious group in America now support marriage equality, including members of traditions that officially condemn homosexual acts, such as Catholicism. Only white evangelical Protestants and black Protestants disapproved of same-sex marriage in the poll, but African American pastors — unlike many white theological conservatives — appear far less willing to tout their religious beliefs as justification for policies that discriminate against LGBT people.