Sex and the Southern Baptist

Is the denomination really softening its views on homosexuality and pre-marital relations?

The culture war is over, and the gays and the liberals have won. Or at least this is what recent reports of changing attitudes toward gay marriage and sexuality in Southern Baptist communities have implied. Evangelical pastors are accepting their defeat in the public sphere of values and urging an adjustment to the times, NPR, MSNBC and Nashville Public Radio have reported, running headlines like "Southern Baptists Leaders Seek Softer Approach to Homosexuality"; Slate's Will Saletan even wrote a treatise on "The Collapse of Anti-Gay Religion." As evidence, most of these outlets pointed to the comments of one pastor, Jimmy Scroggins of Florida, who spoke at a recent Southern Baptist ethics convention. "Let's stop telling Adam and Steve jokes," he said. "We're all in agreement that the cultural war is over when it comes to homosexuality, especially when it comes to gay marriage."

Although this may be true at a few churches, at the national level, it doesn't seem to be the case. Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says media reports are overemphasizing a minority viewpoint.

“We believe that sexuality isn’t something that is recreational: This is a deeply meaningful, spiritual, theological act, which is why it is to be confined within marriage," he says. "It’s about a man and a woman giving themselves to each other for life.”

No matter what's happening politically with same-sex marriage, he says, Baptist beliefs about homosexuality haven't changed. “There’s space in Southern Baptist churches for people who are same-sex attracted, but who are chaste, and who are repentant. There is not space in Southern Baptist churches for someone who is unrepentantly engaged in homosexual conduct.”

Moore isn't saying anything new; evangelical Christians have long used this language to describe their views on marriage and sexuality. It's his job to articulate the public-policy views of the Southern Baptist Convention, and part of that is taking stock of where congregations stand. Theologically, Southern Baptists are not "softening" their views, he says—in fact, many Christians are immersing themselves in what he describes as a sexual "counterculture."

“Right now, there is much cultural confusion about morality and about marriage—whether marriage is even a good thing, much less the definition of what it is," he says. “One of the most counter-cultural things we can say is that we believe in sin."

He qualified this in an interesting way: Testifying to belief, even fundamental views about sexuality and marriage, can be civil. "Because we are a missionary people, we believe in calling sin what it is, but we don’t believe in making fun of people—you don’t ridicule people into the kingdom," he says.

It's tempting to look for cracks in the evangelical worldview in this acknowledgment. It's even more tempting to look for signs of a total "culture war" victory, especially considering the recent sweep of same-sex marriage legalizations. But there are a few problems with trying to detect these kinds of trends among Christian denominations, and particularly Baptists. For one thing, the Southern Baptist Convention is only a loose network of members and congregations. Although roughly 50,000 churches are affiliated, and some send delegates to the organization's conventions and help with the selection of its leaders, the Baptist community is fairly diffuse. One pastor in Florida may be taking a stand against "Adam and Steve" jokes, but it's hard to tell what that means for any other church—or the overall denomination.

The question is not whether Southern Baptists will finally "admit defeat" and cede their theological views.

And the bigger issue is the concept of a "culture war" itself. It provides vivid imagery: Warriors on behalf of two world views, fundamentally opposed, shouting at each other across a giant gulf of values and judgement. Historically, Southern Baptists have been pegged as the prototypical culture warriors, and preachers like Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson were a big part of the rise of the Christian right and the Moral Majority in 1980s American politics. But as mores on sexuality have loosened, and especially as the landscape of same-sex marriage has changed, that "majority" is changing, too. It's easy to revert to the framework of a culture war and claim that evangelicals are losing, especially because Baptist communities are struggling to maintain their membership rates.

But pluralism is much messier than that; homosexuality doesn't win while evangelicalism loses, and vice versa. As laws on marriage change, popular belief may change, too, and that may affect the strength of the Southern Baptist movement. But no matter what environment the denomination is operating within, Moore seems to be saying, the core of their beliefs remain the same. Sex is a procreative act, defined by the intention of giving life. Marriage is biblically circumscribed, a union created by God, not the state. And Southern Baptists believe it is their duty to evangelize, to share these views with the world. Insofar as they succeed in creating converts, they will have persuaded those people that this is the right way of seeing marriage and sexuality, just as gay-marriage advocates have persuaded others that theirs is the right view. This doesn't have to be a "war," with one winner and one loser; people can have a variety of opinions that are fundamentally at odds, and Moore seems to believe that can happen with civility. As he said at a recent discussion held by the Ethics & Public Policy Center:

I don’t think that what we’re seeing is a move within evangelicalism ... away from, for instance, a Christian sexual ethic. I do think, though, that we’re seeing an era in which Christianity is able to be clear. Nominal, cultural, almost-gospel Christianity is going away, and with it, the impulse to try to make Christianity marketable by making Christianity normal.

The creative question is not whether Southern Baptists will finally "admit defeat" and cede their views, now that many states are starting to allow gay marriage and many people are having pre-marital sex. It's how Southern Baptists will live side-by-side with those who live and believe differently than them. And especially in Southern states, which will be the next to see same-sex marriage legalized, the question is how gay couples—and the reporters who sympathize with them—will do the same.