As the Gay Rights Movement’s victories keep rolling in, there are two that the theologian in me was particularly interested in. First of all, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the largest Presbyterian denomination in America and the denomination into which I was baptized (my current church of choice is the Unitarian Universalist Association, except on Christmas Eve, when I still attend Presbyterian services), has just adopted a policy of performing same-sex weddings in states where it is legal. Secondly, in the United Methodist Church, where gay rights issues have long been an apple of discord, an appeals panel has reinstated Reverend Frank Schaefer after the minister was defrocked for officiating his son’s same-sex wedding. This is significant, because these institutions are two of the primary “mainline” Protestant denominations in the United States. The term “mainline” means that a denomination is moderate and is used to distinguish such religious institutions from fundamentalist or evangelical Protestant denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention and liberal Protestant denominations like the United Church of Christ.
I believe that the recent decisions by these two mainline denominations signal a major shift in where religious institutions stand on gay rights. For a long time, it has been mostly liberal denominations that have embraced gay rights. While plenty of individual mainline churches have supported gay equality, the leadership of these denominations has typically straddled the fence on gay rights, opposing full equality. In all probability, we are now rapidly heading toward a time when mainline churches are generally in favor of gay equality. Evangelical and fundamentalist churches will probably continue to oppose equal rights, at least for a long time. The Roman Catholic Church may be the wild card in all of this. In a case of massive disconnect between church leadership and church members, the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops continue to vehemently oppose gay equality even as a clear majority of American Catholics favor it. Francis has softened the church’s rhetoric since becoming pope, but as a cardinal, he labeled attempts to legalize gay marriage and adoption a plot by Satan. Just a few months ago, he reaffirmed his opposition to marriage equality. Francis has probably received more unearned praise for his symbolic gestures to gays than anyone since Bill Clinton, but as mainline Protestant denominations begin to support gay marriage, the pope is likely to begin looking more and more reactionary and may face greater pressure to change his church’s policy on gay marriage.
It would be naive to deny that for mainline Protestant denominations, doing the right thing will probably come with a high price. The Episcopal Church has already suffered a split over gay rights, and other denominations probably will as well. A similar shift and split happened when slavery was still legal in the United States. When radical abolitionism gained attention in the 1830s, most denominations opposed it. When William Lloyd Garrison first began delivering abolitionist lectures, he used the church of a pantheist named Abner Kneeland, the last person in America to be jailed for blasphemy, because most other churches refused to host him. Stephen S. Foster, an abolitionist who made a practice of disrupting the meetings of churches who refused to support the movement, wrote The Brotherhood of Thieves. This work detailed unwillingness of most churches to come out against slavery. To be sure, individual ministers and other devout Christians were staunch abolitionists in the 1830s, but most denominational leadership was not. By the 1840s and 1850s, however, the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist churches were gripped by disputes over whether or not God was O.K. with slavery, and all of these churches ending up splitting as a result. In the case of slavery and, it seems, in the case of gay rights also, the change of views by mainline Protestant churches marked a turning point. The turning point in the 1800s was the moment at which strong opposition to slavery became mainstream rather than simply a belief expressed by abolitionists (who were never more than a small minority prior to the Civil War.) The turning point in the twenty-first century was the moment at which support for equal rights for gays became mainstream. In both cases, mainline Protestant churches made changes that reflected changes in public opinion.