The Quiet Gay-Rights Revolution in America's Churches

A shift among people of faith is moving public opinion -- and changing gay Americans' lives in profound ways.
Margaret Miles and Cathy ten Broeke, the first women to wed legally in Minnesota, are married by Rev. James Gertmenian on August 1. (Stacy Bengs/Associated Press)

For most gay Americans in the 20th century, the church was a place of pain. It cast them out and called them evil. It cleaved them from their families. It condemned their love and denied their souls. In 2004, a president was elected when religious voters surged from their pews to vote against the legal recognition of gay relationships. When it came to gay rights, religion was the enemy.

A decade later, the story is very different. Congregations across the country increasingly accept, nurture, and even marry their gay brethren. Polls show majorities of major Christian denominations -- including American Catholics, despite their church's staunch opposition -- support legal gay marriage. Leaders of some of the most conservative sects, like the Southern Baptists, have moved away from the vitriolic rhetoric of yesteryear and toward a more compassionate tone. Mormons march in gay-pride parades. A sitting Republican senator, a Methodist from the heartland state of Ohio, says the question was settled for him by "the Bible's overarching themes of love and compassion and my belief that we are all children of God." A new pope says, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"

The votes, too, are going differently these days. Ballot measures, state legislatures, and Supreme Court decisions testify to a new public consensus on gay marriage, the political issue that currently serves as the chief proxy for attitudes toward gay rights and acceptance.

Gradually, and largely below the radar, religious Americans have powered this momentous shift. In 2004, just 36 percent of Catholics, the Christian sect most supportive of gay marriage, favored it, along with 34 percent of mainline Protestants; today, it's 57 percent of Catholics and 55 percent of mainline Protestants. Even among white evangelical Protestants, the most hostile group to gay marriage, support has more than doubled, from 11 percent in 2004 to 24 percent in 2013. "This debate has gone from a debate between nonreligious and religious Americans to a debate dividing religious Americans," said Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, who has closely tracked the evolution in public opinion.

This change -- from most religious Americans opposing gay rights to many of them supporting it -- didn't happen by accident. It is the fruit of an aggressive campaign by a determined gay-rights movement that realized, particularly in the wake of the 2004 elections, that you cannot win politically in America if you are arguing against religious faith. It is a recent development -- Jones dates the "tipping point" to 2011 -- and it has helped marginalize gay-marriage opponents by discrediting their most powerful claim: that they speak for the religious community.

For gay Americans, the consequences are already profound: a new generation of gay youth that may grow up less scarred by caustic preaching. The political repercussions, still unfolding, hold the key to further progress in the fight to expand gay rights, particularly marriage, nationwide.

"After the 2004 elections, the story was that we were losing to the value voters," said Sharon Groves, director of the religion and faith program of the Human Rights Campaign -- a position created in 2005. "Family values were defined, largely, as anti-LGBT. The people making the case for the family values side were religious leaders, and we as a movement were responding with advocates and lawyers." The message audiences got from that image: Religion was on one side and gay rights was on the other.

Groves spent last weekend manning a booth for her organization at the Wild Goose Festival, an annual gathering of social-justice-minded Protestants in rural North Carolina sometimes dubbed "Woodstock for Evangelicals." It was the first time the Human Rights Campaign had a formal presence at the festival. Over and over, people came to her tent, burst into tears, and said, "I'm so happy you're here."

"I get it all the time," she said. "People have been told for so many years if you're a gay person you basically don't belong in the religious community. And straight folks, too, want to see their religion as a source of love and inclusion that's making people's lives better, not shaming people or keeping them out."

Reaching Out
In 2003, the head of New York's largest gay-rights group, the Empire State Pride Agenda, had a realization. If gays were the only people who cared about gay rights, they would lose. "In Albany, who do legislators listen to?" Alan van Capelle asked his fellow activists at a dinner at the Sheraton in Manhattan. "Corporations, labor unions, and people of faith. If we can win their support, we can win the issue."

Out of this epiphany came three campaigns, dubbed "Pride in My Workplace," "Pride in Our Union," and "Pride in the Pulpit." Van Capelle, a former labor organizer, set out to build "an army of unusual allies." The pulpit campaign began with a single organizer who rounded up a handful of supportive clergymembers. They crisscrossed the state talking to priests, pastors, and laypeople. "Somewhere in your congregation, there is a parent of a child who's just come out, looking to be comforted," they told them. "There's a gay or lesbian kid struggling with their identity and looking for leadership." To many clergy, it rang true. Even when clergy members weren't receptive, the activists went to the congregations, drawing support from the rank and file.

By the end of the campaign, they counted 800 congregations and 1,000 clergy on their side, including the Episcopal bishop of Rochester. A lobbying delegation to the legislature in 2005 included two priests, complete with vestments and crosses around their necks. As legislators inched toward supporting same-sex marriage, these religious activists were there to provide cover, whether they hailed from a white district upstate or a Hispanic district in the Bronx. "We felt like we were doing something radical at the time -- using faith as a tool not only to move our agenda but also to begin to heal a very wounded community," van Capelle said recently.

Gay marriage passed in New York in July of 2011. Van Capelle now heads a Jewish social-justice group called Bend the Arc that focuses on domestic issues. (American Jews are by far the most supportive religious group of gay marriage: 81 percent are in favor, a greater proportion even than the 76 percent of nonreligious Americans who support it.) His 2007 commitment ceremony was attended by then-Governor David Paterson, a drag queen DJ, a rabbi, a priest, and a nun.

"Our job now is to take the lessons we learned to congregations in other parts of the country that are looking to win the right to marry," van Capelle said. "I hope the larger progressive community is beginning to understand that we need people of faith for all of our struggles. Once they are organized, they are an incredibly powerful force for change."

Other gay-rights campaigners have come to the same conclusion. All four of the successful state campaigns for gay-marriage ballot measures last fall -- Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, and Washington -- had dedicated organizers working in the faith community. Often they were greeted, like van Capelle, by an outpouring of pent-up support. Campaigners who invited faith leaders to an organizing meeting in Minneapolis in 2011 were stunned when the turnout of 700 more than tripled their expectations, packing a Methodist church and spilling out the doors. By the end, the campaign had the support of all six of the state's Lutheran bishops.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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