Thursday, I published a commentary for Religion News Service. But I thought I might share some observations from the conference that I was not able to fit in my column.
I watched many of the sessions via live-stream, and intend to go back and watch more of them. I believe this conference is important because it self-consciously seeks to set the tone for conservative evangelical teaching and witness on human sexuality in a rapidly changing (and, in many ways, objectively deteriorating, public moral climate).
Here are a few observations.
-Non-gay Issues. Some twitter commentary represented the ERLC Conference as a three-day gay-bashing confab. That is simply not true. There was talk about marital strength generally and pastors' marital health specifically. There was talk about the devastating effects of pornography generally and specifically for pastors. Panelists talked about cohabitation, divorce, intimacy in marriage, and other issues. The Rev. Dr. Albert Mohler even said that no-fault divorce threatens the family more than gay marriage ever will.
-Tone. Some are noting a somewhat more gracious tone. Not just a lack of "ick factor" and crude, dismissive "Adam-and-Steve" rhetoric, but a sincere desire to engage, to acknowledge that sexual orientation is a thing and that gays are not choosing to be hardwired toward vile sin. And they quite explicitly condemned persecution regimes (including criminalization) in some developing nations. And they said gay homelessness among youth is a big problem and that parents should not shun their gay children. The Rev. Dr. Russell Moore explicitly rejected conversion therapy as counterproductive. Even so, some speakers' presentations and other speakers' life stories seem to reflect the idea that orientation can change.
-New Ideal Types. Substantively, the conference was largely the same ol' people saying the same ol' things. (I'm not saying this is good or bad – just a factual observation.) But they had two new-ish voices: Dr. Rosaria Butterfield and the Rev. Sam Allberry. Butterfield is a former lesbian atheist feminist English professor who was writing an anti-Christian right book and eventually got saved, later became a Reformed pastor's wife. She is being touted by the ERLC/TGC crowd quite prominently ever since she published her conversion story in Christianity Today. She's a kind and gracious woman who talks about how she learned hospitality and community among gay people. She says unbelief was her greater sin, not serially monogamous lesbian relationships. Sam Allberry is a Church of England pastor who is living as a celibate gay man. Perhaps because they rejected not only same-sex erotic expression, but also liberal church and social institutions, these two are being held out as the choicest new converts to the traditional/orthodox view.
-Youth/Demographics. A PRRI report published in February said that 43% of evangelicals 18-34 support SSM. But that's just self-identified evangelicals or people who self identify with an evangelical-denomination or tradition. That level of evangelical support is probably overstated. Mark Regnerus's data has only 11% of 18-39 year old evangelicals supporting SSM. His definition of "evangelical" includes people who both a) self-identify as evangelical and b) attend worship regularly. So basically, the conservative traditions and churches are holding the line on homosexuality pretty well if you do not count infrequent attenders or nominal identifiers. At the elite level, there are strong incentives to toe the party line, as Rich Stearns and other leaders have discovered. The ERLC conference crowd was pretty young, and so were a lot of the speakers. So there's always the question of how long they can sustain their opposition in face of strong cultural pressures and, increasingly, personal and familial relationships, that might lead them to change.
-Reception Outside the ERLC Conference Hall. It was pretty brutal. Justin Lee of the Gay Christian Network tried very hard to be conciliatory, but basically the same ol' people had the same 'ol reactions: That in spite of a deliberate tone that was as conciliatory as the ERLC thinks it can be, gay people are not buying it. Gays still blame these attitudes for gay youth homeless, gay youth suicides, gays ending up depressed and addicted, etc. Might it actually be better for gays if conservative evangelicals just kicked them out and told them to stay away? People will wonder if it might be more psychologically and spiritually harmful for a gay person to endure what the church wants for them than to just stay away and either a) find an affirming church or b) quit religion altogether. This is obviously a very controversial question. But it can be a matter of life and death.
-Effects of Tone Changes. I really think that some of the tone shifts may unwittingly be setting up rank and file evangelicals and some leaders to rethink their positions. As the PRRI (and other) data show, proximity and engagement with LGBT people leads toward acceptance. Lack of proximity helps maintain rejection. If parents let their gay kids stick around, if evangelicals fight for basic civil rights (such as opposing criminalization of homosexuality and blatant discrimination laws), if they befriend gays without an agenda to convert them, if they accept that sexual orientation is innate and not a choice -- then don't many people eventually end up accepting non-celibate gay people? If evangelicals do all these things, then the exegetical leap with regard to a few Bible verses may not be so great after all.
-Politics. Did conference speakers and panelists advocate for religious exemptions and conscience protections? Of course. But I heard nothing implicitly or explicitly suggesting that voting for the Republican ticket in next week's election is going to strengthen the church, the moral fiber of America, or the precarious state of the American family. (I did not watch the entire thing. Maybe I missed something.) This is a significant change. I cannot image a similar ERLC event 20, 10, or even 2 years ago lacking any blatant electioneering or partisan cheerleading a week before a federal election.
Political science research shows that ideology is often a core part of social identity, especially for elites. It takes restraint to eschew partisanship. Democratic and Republican pastors and lay leaders struggle mightily with this tension. No politicians were invited speakers, which was a conscious decision because there are, in fact, politicians who might speak credibly on these issues from a faith perspective as public servants. I am almost certain that the ERLC Conference speaker lineup was unanimously Republican. But, to their credit, whether you agree or disagree with them you have to concede that they do have a higher loyalty than party.
Coincidentally, the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank, held a half-day conference Tuesday morning on economic issues causing and stemming from the breakdown of the family. AEI's proposals are still conservative, but AEI promotes policies that the ERLC and other sensible Christian right groups will end up supporting. There needs to be an acknowledgement that divorce doesn't just happen because people are sinners. There are strong economic forces at play. And frankly, neither the Catholic Church nor Protestants should be okay with the fact that marriage is becoming a luxury good and divorce a plague on the poor. I believe we need more robust economic supports than AEI or reform conservatives are proposing, but I also believe that we need to emphasize virtue and commitment and intact families more than the Left is usually comfortable talking about.
-Conclusion. I offer these reflections in the spirit of fair-mindedness and dialog. I have, at times, publicly and stridently opposed various aspects of Southern Baptist theology and institutional life. But I count many Baptists – clergy and lay, elite and rank-and-file – among my family and friends. I think the approach embodied at the ERLC Conference is intriguing, and I look forward to analyzing Southern Baptists' and other Christians' future debates and engagement on these vital issues.