This is the third in a series comparing the current plight of American white evangelicals (AWE, for short) with the travails of Pharaoh in the Exodus story. Just as Pharaoh was afflicted with ten plagues, so the AWE nation feels itself under siege. First, we talked about 9-11, then the election of America’s first Black president (you can find links below). Now we turn to the curious fact that the AWE nation feels itself plagued by gay people.
The ten plagues of Egypt eventually compelled Pharaoh to release the enslaved Hebrews. Thus far, the plagues befalling the AWE nation have only induced a form of madness. But there is a method in this madness. Specifically, white evangelicalism has responded to the myriad of perceived threats considered in this series by grasping for the levers of political power. America is perceived as a good-evil binary and it is essential that the good guys win. If they don’t fight like hell, they believe, they won’t have a country anymore.
The Pharaoh of the Exodus story was in a similar position. His power, to use Walter Brueggemann’s term, was “totalizing”, it impacted every aspect of Egypt life. By this point in Egypt’s political-theological evolution, Pharaohs were virtually worshipped as demi-gods. They were the point of connection between Ra (sometimes called Re) the sun god and his vast pantheon of sub-deities. But for this connection to function, the proper religious ceremonies had to be performed meticulously. Pharaoh wasn’t just Egypt’s king; he was the national high priest. The power of Ra flowed through Pharaoh to the lowliest minions of the realm.
But there was a quid pro quo. There always is. When things were going well, it was thanks to Pharaoh. When things were not going well, cracks began to appear in the plaster of national life. The credibility of the cult was undermined. The obvious questions were whispered in the shadows.
Why was Pharaoh so desperate to prevent his enslaved population from walking free? It was an economic issue, of course. We are just beginning to understand how phenomenally profitable Southern plantation slavery had become by the eve of the Civil War. It was a ghastly enterprise, as every sensible person was well aware; but it was too profitable to surrender.
But the sudden disappearance of Pharaoh’s pool of slave labor also called the fundamental structure of Egyptian society into question. Pharaoh’s power had to be perceived as total, a great dam holding back chaos. Even a small crack in that dam was bound to spread. The system was sacrosanct and thus impervious to change. When slaves march free the dominos begin to fall. Where will it stop?
The Church once wielded that kind of power (and lived with that kind of paranoia). In Medieval Europe, the Church was the glue of Christendom. The Church held the keys of eternal salvation. Only through its ministrations could souls find salvation. As a consequence, popes and bishops wielded great power. But there was a quid pro quo. There always is. The Church held its power by blessing the established order. To be baptized into the Church was to become a citizen of the realm. The Church held its power by allowing kings and princes a great deal of leeway. The crown and the cross often tangled, with nasty results. Things worked best when princes and priests worked out a rough compromise.
This power sharing agreement between crown and cross may sound like a relic of ancient history. After all, we no longer have kings and queens, or, if we do, their role is largely symbolic. After the American Revolution, a separation was forged between church and state. Each had its own realm (although, exactly where the lines were drawn has always been a bit fuzzy.)
But in Southern slave culture, the Church retained remarkable authority. If you wanted to be seen as a man of good moral standing, you went to church. If you thirsted for assurance of eternal salvation, you walked the aisle and, in most cases, submitted to believers’ baptism. If you aspired to elected office, you sought the blessing of prominent clerics.
Southern culture desired a strong and authoritative Church. The business of enslaving human souls was too horrendous to persist without absolution and blessing from on high. Ecclesiastical power came with a price. It always does. The Church could remain central to the religious, moral, social and political life of the South only by absolving white society of all wrongdoing.
But what happens when the rules change? With the demise of slavery, the Church was briefly at a loss. But with the emergence of segregation and the cancellation of basic civil rights for the South’s Black residents, the Church had a new mess to bless. The mess was blessed and the power of the Church was preserved.
With the rise of the civil rights movement, the Church stepped in to bless massive resistance to school integration and voting rights. When the Supreme Court required integrated schools, evangelical churches maintained segregated education by creating “Christian” schools across the South.
Thus far, I have said little about the gay rights movement because, it didn’t really exist. As a consequence, the plight of gay America was rarely discussed in straight society. A closeted gay community was easily ignored. Besides, there was a rough consensus that same-sex attraction was a maladaptive perversion that should be condemned, discouraged or, preferably, simply ignored.
That changed in the 1970s. Once LGBTQ persons were able to make their case, the obvious injustice of the dominant view was exposed. With every decade, the fear and loathing diminished until a few brave souls began to debate the pros and cons of gay civil unions. Some even advocated gay marriage.
Then, in 2015, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, declared that the Fourteenth Amendment requires all states to grant same-sex marriages and that same-sex marriages granted in other states must be recognized.
For American White evangelicals, the Obergefell decision created a full-blown existential crisis which was particularly acute in the South. How could evangelical Christians maintain their role as moral arbiters and as official dispensers of eternal salvation if the mess had become too toxic to bless?
As the sexual ethics of mainstream society changed at breakneck pace, evangelicals feared they were being forced to the margins of society. AWE churches and parachurch organizations could bless the new social configuration in hopes of retaining a vestige of credibility, or they could reverse the course of social change.
If the folks in the pew were down with gay marriage (as they had been with slave culture, Jim Crow and massive resistance) the churches would have adapted to a new reality. But the vast majority of evangelical church folk didn’t like the Obergefell decision one little bit. Neither did most card-carrying Republicans (and four Supreme Court justices).
Besides, decades of bashing the LGBTQ community in Jesus’ name had established a precedent. You can’t denounce “the homosexual lifestyle” for decades and then turn on a dime. You can’t declare that same-sex attraction was unnatural and then say “never mind”. You can’t counsel young people to pray the gay away and then tell them to give it up as hopeless. The church couldn’t change its mind about LGBTQ people without looking weak, foolish, hypocritical and pliable.
So, AWE nation decided to stand its ground and fight. Churches that couldn’t go along were disfellowshipped. You could have as many gay congregants as you liked, so long as they remained closeted. You could pray for people afflicted with same-sex attraction; you could exorcise the gay demon (if your church was into that sort of thing), but you couldn’t allow an openly gay person to join your church or, God forbid, teach Sunday school.
Mainstream American culture wasn’t impressed. The optics were awful. AWE world was denounced as bigoted, extreme, hateful and retrograde.
Evangelical leaders stuck to their guns. Homophobia could be good for business. In a world where gay-bashing was no longer acceptable, gay-hating churches provided a perverse sort of sanctuary. By flashing their anti-gay credentials, evangelical megachurches could promise a safe space for traumatized suburbanites desperate to worship with their own kind.
Evangelicals have always been adept at self-promotion. As new communication tools come on line, evangelicals master them in milliseconds. With America divided into two warring camps, AWE nation helped define the conservative option.
But the cracks in the plaster worsened with each passing year. The Obergefell decision lent a surprising patina of respectability to gay marriage. By 2017, a major survey reported that 47% of evangelicals born after 1964 had made their peace with the practice. With over 80% of Americans under the age of 35 in support of gay marriage, many young evangelicals had lost the will to fight. By contrast, only 26% of older evangelicals were willing to tolerate the new moral regime.
Mandatory homophobia isn’t the only source of AWE perplexity, but it is a major contributor. The mainstream opinion of evangelicals is increasingly negative. The outflow of young people is approaching flood stage, and many of the younger evangelicals who remain in their churches are growing restless. Because evangelicals are so good at getting their message out, they have become the face of American Christianity for many unchurched Americans. America’s churches are either anti-gay or are too internally conflicted to speak to the question. Silence is interpreted as acceptance of the AWE perspective.
Evangelical leaders see themselves as the target of unremitting persecution. A 2017 poll revealed that, while Americans as a whole are twice as likely to see Muslim Americans as more persecuted than Christians, among evangelical respondents, 57% believe the reverse. This evangelical persecution complex is driven by growing willingness in mainstream culture to affirm the civil rights of LGBTQ persons. Evangelicals feel persecuted because they are no longer free to discriminate against gay people.
Or so they say. The real source of AWE panic lies elsewhere. Evangelicals are waking up to the fact that, outside Republican political circles, they have surrendered the last vestige of moral authority. The bond between Republicans and the AWE nation is so powerful that “Republican” and “evangelical” have become practical synonyms. Republicans can’t see a future without their most motivated and vocal core constituency; evangelicals can’t see a way forward without protection from the Republican political machine. Evangelicals of color are generally conservative on the gay rights front, but they don’t view it as an existential threat.
In AWE nation, the gay rights movement has created a zero-sum game. More rights for gay Americans means fewer rights for evangelicals. As the LGBTQ community is normalized, the AWE nation is increasingly stigmatized. Gay people are viewed as an affliction, a persecution, a plague of biblical proportions.
AWE nation can’t win this fight. In 2007, 90% of evangelicals (regardless of race) believed their home church forbade the inclusion of gay people. By 2020, only 63% felt that way. The times they are a changing. The change may be slow within the AWE nation, but a change is gonna come. With every birth and each funeral the equation shifts toward inclusion.
Which is precisely why AWE nation is in such a panic. And why, with its numerical size shrinking, its grasp on the legislative agenda, in Washington and in Red-state America, continues to grow. Things will get worse, I fear, before they get better.