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.

Central to this outreach has been a message that emphasizes religious teachings about compassion, tolerance, and humility. Religious leaders and followers want to feel that they're not choosing politics over religion but bringing the two into alignment. When President Obama came out in favor of gay marriage more than a year ago, he framed it as a matter not of separating church and state but of following Christian teaching: "When we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it's also the golden rule," he said. "Treat others the way you'd want to be treated." Senator Rob Portman of Ohio wrote of his switch on the issue, "Gay couples' desire to marry doesn't amount to a threat but rather a tribute to marriage, and a potential source of renewed strength for the institution."

As van Capelle and other activists will tell you, some churches have been more receptive than others. African-American Protestants and white Evangelicals have been the most challenging -- but not impossible. In Maryland last year, a black megachurch pastor named Delman Coates came out in favor of gay marriage and testified at the state legislature. A decade ago, clergy who went out on a limb like this sometimes found themselves quickly and effectively put out of business as their conservative congregations abandoned them. Churches literally shut down over the issue. But Coates' flock of 8,000 did not punish him -- it grew. "The people in the pew are further along on this issue than those of us in the pulpit," Coates told the Washington Post.

Turning South
It's no coincidence that the two sects most hostile to gay marriage are concentrated in the American South -- the region where same-sex marriage polls the worst. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, as of March 2013, 43 percent of Southerners support allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry (up from 25 percent in 2004), as opposed to 62 percent of Northeasterners, 53 percent of Midwesterners and 58 percent of Westerners. If the campaign for gay marriage is to convert this region, it will have to do so through its institutions -- primarily its conservative churches, black and white alike.

Among the most conservative Christian denominations, there are signs of fatigue with the culture war. Two of the religious right's most vocal combatants, James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, have stepped down in the past few years, ceding their posts to more moderate-minded successors. Jim Daly, Dobson's replacement, is a 52-year-old Californian who has met with gay-rights leaders and appeared at the White House for a fatherhood initiative.

Russell Moore, the Southern Baptists' new head of public policy, put out a statement after the Supreme Court's gay-marriage rulings in June that notably declined to criticize the decisions or inveigh against the court. "Same-sex marriage is headed for your community. This is no time for fear or outrage or politicizing," Moore wrote. "It's a time for forgiven sinners, like us, to do what the people of Christ have always done. It's time for us to point beyond our family values and our culture wars to the cross of Christ."

With nearly 16 million members in more than 46,000 congregations, the Southern Baptists are America's largest non-Catholic denomination. In an interview this week, Moore, a 41-year-old former aide to a Mississippi Democratic congressman, stressed that the church's doctrine has not changed. "Among churchgoing, conservative evangelicals, the convictions haven't changed at all," he said. "But there is fatigue -- more than fatigue -- there is a rejection of seeing those who disagree with us as enemies."

The younger generation in particular, he said, prizes "speaking with conviction but also speaking with kindness as gospel people. We believe we're all sinners. No one stands in some sinless point of judgment except for God." Significantly, Moore, who recently taught a Christian ethics class on the subject of how to minister to a transgender congregant, says he has received no negative feedback on the new tone he's taken.

Conservative religious leaders like Moore and Daly -- and indeed Pope Francis -- aren't backing down from their opposition to gay marriage. But the change in tone is progress from gay activists' point of view. The gay-rights movement has sought to assuage faith leaders' concerns by building guarantees into legislation that no church will be forced to perform a marriage it doesn't approve. Federal nondiscrimination legislation currently being considered by the Senate has a broad religious-liberty clause that exempts all churches and religious nonprofits. These concessions have been hard to swallow for some in the gay activist community, but most see them as a necessary compromise.

A cynic could see these churches' repositioning as a response to market pressure. As the culture changes, they fear being left behind if they don't evolve along with it, particularly considering the overwhelming sentiment of the younger generation. (Even among the most conservative Christian group in America, 51 percent of white evangelicals aged 18 to 34 now support gay marriage.) There's no question this is partly the story of an overall change in American public opinion toward gay rights; it's also partly the story of a rising religious left that seeks an alternative focus to the old religious right.

"The faith community in general, like the rest of the country, has been going through a period of soul-searching in regards to gay marriage and gay rights," said Michael Wear, a former faith-outreach official in the Obama White House and on the reelection campaign. "Many Christian leaders, even those who oppose gay marriage, are saying, 'Is there a way to approach this issue that's faithful to our view of Scripture but doesn't turn young people away from the church?'"

For faith leaders and LGBT activists alike, a reconciling, gradual but profound, is under way. "People have been told for decades that homosexuality is a sin, but they know really good LGBT people, and they don't know what to do," said Groves of the Human Rights Campaign. "We need to be going into those conservative religious spaces with messages like the pope -- who am I to judge? Once people see the humanity of LGBT people, it is very hard to hold onto a vitriolic stance."