At the moment, I have no plans to publish any commentary or analysis specifically on the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission's conference on the gospel, homosexuality and the future of marriage. Yet, as I am able, I am watching the conference with interest. I wish to share some reflections on the conference's first day.
I am not watching the whole thing, so this is not an exhaustive analysis. Frankly, I expect little that is new from the speakers. (I'm not saying that is good or bad – just a fact.) Everyone knows what the SBC believes about homosexuality. I think the real question is, "What do you guys want for these people?" To that degree, I am most interested in hearing from conference speakers Rosaria Butterfield and the Reverend Sam Allberry.
Here is a partial summary and some analysis, followed by three quick observations.
I missed the Reverend Dr. Albert Mohler's sermon on ministering in a post-Christian culture. However, a number of commentators (or, depending on your perspective, hashtag trolls) seemed heartened that Dr. Mohler acknowledged that sexual orientation is a real thing that does, in fact, exist. I would not have thought such a statement was noteworthy, but it brings to mind the sense that many in the evangelical community cling to the notion that being gay is a choice.
The Reverend Sam Allberry, a same-sex attracted Church of England pastor who is himself a speaker at the ERLC Conference, also appreciated Dr. Mohler's comments.
In an afternoon panel discussion, the ERLC's President, the Rev. Dr. Russell Moore, set the record straight on two issues where American evangelicals often receive criticism. Dr. Moore reiterated that some developing countries have unjust persecution regimes (including criminalization) against gays and lesbians, and that we should oppose them. He also repeated his view that parents should not shun their gay children.
Again, the ever-gracious Justin Lee:
Those in the convention hall may not be aware that Erik Stanley and Kristen Waggoner's presentation received the iciest reception of the day, at least as far as those outside the hall were concerned. Stanley and Waggoner, lawyers with the Alliance Defending Freedom, veered sharply from other speakers' "convictional kindness." Their rhetoric about "the homosexual agenda" offended many. (Though I am usually ambivalent about ADF, I found its involvement in the Idaho wedding chapel drama unimpressive.)
I stepped away for this part, but did Dr. Moore walk back some of ADF's convictionally unkind rhetoric?
Monday evening, I made a point to hear Sherif Girgis's presentation. Girgis is coauthor with Ryan Anderson and Princeton Professor Robert P. George of a book offering a rational argument against amending civil law to recognize same sex relationships as marriage. Girgis won't win many converts, but he does offer a robust defense of what has become (at least in some elite circles) an unfashionable opinion. He pointed out that you do not have to be religious to argue that a healthy marriage culture contributes to the common good.
Girgis asks: If law, culture, schools, and other organs of civil society promote the idea that emotional intensity make a marriage and that it's inauthentic to stay in such a relationship if that intensity is gone, then why will people bother to, say, stay in their marriage for the sake of the kids? Won't the existence of legal same sex marriage harm society the same way legal no-fault divorces have?
Girgis supposes that while secular liberal elites (specifically, polyamorous philosophy professors, evidently) have an agenda against marriage, most rank-and-file people are warm toward same sex marriage because they don't want gays to be lonely. People support SSM to be compassionate without really thinking about why they support it. Or something. Girgis closed with a story about a friend who decided to quit the Church and embrace his identity as a gay man. "What convinced you to leave?" "Dan Savage," the friend said, citing the It Gets Better videos popular on YouTube a few years ago. Girgis said he was sad that his friend rejected the best It Gets Better message of all time: the Kingdom. That line seemed ill-considered and pretty dismissive of gay people's experiences. There are controversial aspects to his argument, of course.
I dwell on the Girgis talk because he and his coauthors have said that there is a secular case against SSM. The trouble is, I don't see any secular people making it. I am actually fairly well disposed toward parts of their argument (namely, that marriage should have more to do with the well being of children than the emotional desires of adults). But I wonder why it only appeals to people who also accept the belief that non-celibate gay people are vile sinners living in active and lifelong rebellion against God.
Can we count on Girgis and the ERLC Conference attendees to support these 7 LGBT issues that "matter more than marriage?"
On Twitter, one person noted that Girgis "drifts smoothly from facts to opinion without batting an eye."
The evening ended with ERLC Vice President Dan Darling moderating a panel with NAMB President Kevin Ezell, FamilyLife CEO Dennis Rainey, Carmen Fowler Laberge of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, and Heath Lambert, executive director of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors.
There was an earlier panel discussion that addressed divorce, cohabitation and other trends. This panel dealt principally with: marital health and flourishing; the devastating effects of pornography and sexting; and the urgent need for pastoral holiness and accountability so that clergy can experience and model healthy, vital marital relationships and preach and teach on marriage with integrity.
I note this catalog of issues to make the point that the ERLC Conference is not a non-stop, 3 day sermon against homosexuality. Reasonable people can disagree about whether they focus too intently on this one issue. The fact is, plenty of other issues are receiving attention.
Finally, I urge people on both sides of the marriage and sexuality debates to watch the rest of the conference in light of these three observations:
1. Southern Baptists' "Surprising Tone." At least a few observers have been surprised at the tone. I did not hear much (any?) rhetoric about "loving the sinner but hating the sin," the "ick factor," or reparative therapy. Not that Mohler and Moore deserve medals for saying that sexual orientation exists or that gays should not be executed, but their tone is deliberately as conciliatory and compassionate as they believe they can be. For a sympathetic take on the rhetoric, see Chelsen Vicari's initial impressions of the conference. Perhaps the ADF lawyers did not get the memo. But let's see if the rest of the conference adheres to Moore's mantra of "convictional kindness."
2. Areas of Disagreement. There won't be much ideological diversity in the speaker lineup, but there will be some. Are people who disagree with the ERLC to be seen as enemies? Is gay orientation sinful in and of itself? When we talk about Genesis 3 and The Fall, how literal are we being? Should we refer to "gay Christians" or "Christians who experience same sex attraction?" (If at all,) how does Denny Burk depart from Al Mohler? How does Christopher Yuan depart from Sam Allberry? Wouldn't it be helpful to acknowledge that most non-celibate gay people do, in fact, attempt to conduct their sex lives ethically?
3. Good Cop/Bad Cop Roles. At a conference that unanimously views any same sex sexual intimacy as sinful, no one expects a message of acceptance or affirmation. Yet some speakers did receive praise for conciliatory or compassionate remarks, and even for acknowledging a full menu of social ills and sexual sins, so that homosexuality was not held out to be uniquely defiling . But at the end of the day, everyone on the platform believes that all non-celibate gay people will endure an eternity of conscious torment in the fiery pits of Hell. Everyone wants to say something nice, especially when they perceive that elite culture thinks they are mean bigots. Which speakers will ratchet up the "turn or burn" rhetoric?
If time permits, I will try to write another post at the end of the conference.