South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a Democratic presidential candidate, has been facing a lot of criticism from conservative Christians due to his outspokenness about his own Christian faith and his experience as a married gay man.
On Wednesday, Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, criticized Buttigieg’s sexuality and called into question his standing as a Christian.
Graham tweeted, “Mayor Buttigieg says he’s a gay Christian. As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized. The Bible says marriage is between a man & a woman—not two men, not two women.”
But LGBTQ Christians say that criticism only shows how out of step Graham — and others like him — are with changes in how Christians practice their faith. LGBTQ people are making progress in their churches, slowly but surely in some cases, and they say progressive Christians and LGBTQ Christians’ voices should be more prominent in media and political narratives about Buttigieg.
Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, founder and editor of Resistance Prays, a daily devotional for progressive Christians who are trying to spiritually and politically defeat Trump, said he often sees news reports pit LGBTQ people against Christians like they’re mutually exclusive groups.
“Of course they’re not. People like myself and Mayor Pete exist in large numbers … And I think that really is the context for this Franklin-Graham outrage, is that fundamentalists are scared, because not only is the country changing, but Christianity is changing and progressive Christians are more vocal and out in public than they’ve ever been in my lifetime, including Mayor Pete,” Graves-Fitzsimmons said.
A lot of the conservative criticism stems from comments like the one Buttigieg made about his faith at a CNN town hall on Monday.
“It can be challenging to be a person of faith who’s also part of the LGBTQ community and yet, to me, the core of faith is regard for one another,” Buttigieg said. “And part of God’s love is experienced, according to my faith tradition, is in the way that we support one another and, in particular, support the least among us.”
Graham isn’t the only prominent conservative Christian who has made comments about Buttigieg. Earlier this month, Vice President Mike Pence responded to Buttigieg’s comments about him at the LGBTQ Victory Fund National Champagne Brunch in Washington, D.C.
Buttigieg said, “If me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade. And that’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand. That if you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me — your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”
Pence responded to Buttigieg’s comments, telling CNBC, “He said some things that are critical of my Christian faith and about me personally. And he knows better. He knows me … I have my Christian values. My family and I have a view of marriage that’s informed by our faith.”
Graves-Fitzsimmons said he’s seen a lot of evidence of Christian religious institutions changing to become more inclusive of LGBTQ people.
“The largest Anglican, Presbyterian, and Lutheran denominations in the U.S. have all evolved in the past few years to embrace same-sex marriage specifically and LGBTQ rights generally and we’re even seeing it in the more conservative quadrants of Christians in the U.S.,” he said. “We’re seeing this huge evolution happen and it’s not always reflected in the media or our politics.”
Support of same-sex marriage is growing among Christians. Two-thirds of Catholics, white mainline Protestants, and Orthodox Christians say they are in favor of it, according to a 2018 Public Religion Research Institute survey. Only 40% of Mormons and 34% of white evangelicals say they support same-sex marriage, but even for these groups most opposed to same-sex marriage, support has grown. There’s also a major age gap. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that only 26% of baby boomer-and-older evangelicals support same-sex marriage, but 47% of Generation X/Millennial evangelicals do.
Many churches are still evolving on LGBTQ issues and that change takes time, which is why LGBTQ activists are doing the long-term work to shift attitudes and policies.
Matthew Vines is the founder and director of the Reformation Project and author of God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. Vines’ Reformation Project runs conferences and training programs for LGBTQ Christians and allies who want to shift policies in their churches and move churches from being non-affirming of LGBTQ people to affirming.
Vines said that generally, most non-affirming churches have three different groups of Christians as it relates to their views on affirming LGBTQ Christians. There is a minority of sympathetic people who are not vocal about affirming LGBTQ people, another typically larger minority of vocal people who are strongly opposed to same sex marriage and transgender people, and the majority of people who are not affirming of LGBTQ people or invested in the conversation.
“The work we do is getting that first group of people — the silent sympathizers — to be more equipped and vocal because they’re going to be in the best position to start reaching people in the middle category who are like ‘Oh here is this person I respect and know from church and they actually have a point of view about this and are able to tell me how and why from a biblical standpoint.’ But we don’t expect to be able to reach people who are the most entrenched opponents right now,” Vines said.
The hope is that in time, even the most entrenched opponents — the Franklin Grahams — will change their views.
“We’re going to put the most of our energy and investment in empowering people who are going to be able to speak to people who are more reachable on this conversation and over time, in many spaces it may take 10 or 20 years in the community,” he said. “But over the years, you may have more people in that first group become more vocal over time and the people you can’t reach today, in 10 or 20 years from now, will be more reachable.”
Vines and Graves-Fitzsimmons said that Graham is a particularly poor messenger when it comes to issues of moral authority, given his support of President Donald Trump.
Vines said that after his book came out in 2014, the Southern Baptist Convention, which is under the evangelical umbrella, released an e-book that served as a rebuttal to his arguments. In their rebuttal, SBC leaders said the question of same-sex relationships in the church is an issue of a different magnitude than most other issues since it is a question of unrepentant sin.
“While I disagree that same-sex relationships are inherently sinful, I at least was able to appreciate the logic of that argument, that if you believe that I understand why you would see this as a different type of sin than other theological disagreements,” Vines said. “What has been so revealing and discouraging about the last few years is the extent to which the issue of unrepentant sin didn’t seem to matter when it came to Donald Trump.”
In 2015, Trump said he’d never sought forgiveness for his sins.
Vines said that looking at the same lens Graham has viewed same-sex relationships through — sexuality — Trump’s unrepentant adultery should count. Last year, Graham commented on the president’s infidelity in 2006 with adult film actress Stormy Daniels and said, “I believe at 70 years of age the president is a much different person today than he was four years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago. He is not President Perfect.”
“It’s been remarkable the extent to which so many people, including Franklin Graham, revealed their hypocrisy on that most fundamental of their arguments against accepting same-sex marriage in the church and that has been pretty devastating to their ability to wield any moral authority outside of the very specific part of the church where they have influence,” Vines said.
Graves-Fitzsimmons said Graham’s comments make a “mockery of his dad’s legacy.” Billy Graham was not a supporter of LGBTQ people. However, he did apologize quickly for homophobic remarks about the AIDS crisis that he made in the 1990s. Graham did not speak often about LGBTQ people.
“Billy Graham, the most famous evangelist of the 20th century, was really about evangelism for Jesus and he met with Democrats and Republicans … He has this legacy he’s destroying by being an evangelist for Trump,” he said.
Graves-Fitzsimmons said it’s unfortunate that voices like Graham permeate so much of the media atmosphere, because the voices of progressive religious people, which should be a constituency for Democrats in the same way the religious right is viewed as a constituency for Republicans, are often drowned out.
“Everyone has heard so much about [the Christian right] and that they are going to lead us down the road to The Handmaid’s Tale, but they’re a faction of Christianity. They have no right to be the Christian voice.”