In early July, Dr. David P. Gushee, the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, began a series at the Associated Baptist Press, using his weekly column to reflect on evangelical Christianity’s relationship with LGBT issues. Dr. Gushee, who is also vice-chair of the PRRI board, notes in his first column that the question of how Christians should engage with LGBT issues creates wide cultural conflicts—from national policy changes that make morning headlines to the everyday decision-making that happens within churches and families. Some Christians, he says, want to hold on to what they understand to be traditional Christian and cultural values about sexual ethics. Others want to see changes to biblical interpretations, church practices, cultural attitudes, and laws. But most just want to avoid talking about the issue altogether.
Dr. Gushee, who has tackled hot-button issues ranging from abortion to torture over the course of his 20-year career, writes that he hopes to “provide some helpful commentary for others who might like to get past avoidism and move toward some convictional clarity” using a methodology that is “recognizable and usable by other Christians.” PRRI sat down with Dr. Gushee to discuss the series, and how it fits into the broader scope of his work. You can follow the series online here.
Why did you decide to do this series? What do you hope it will accomplish?
Well, every generation seems to present its most contested and important issue. The LGBT issue seems to be that topic for this era. As a Christian ethicist, I feel a responsibility to address the issues of our time. I’m a generalist, so I write about all kinds of things—abortion, war, torture—but I have not really done much with this particular issue. I feel now that it’s time to break my relative silence. Where the issue now stands for evangelicals is, if you have a norm that the only legitimate sexual relationship is heterosexual and marital, how might one reconsider that norm? On what basis might such a norm be reconsidered within the structures of evangelical Christianity? I’m also a Baptist pastor, so the decisions that are being made by congregations affect real people that I know. I want us to get this right. My life experience enables me to see pretty well, I hope, all sides of this issue. As an evangelical Christian, I’ve spent my entire career around people who might oppose same-sex marriage or any change in Christian thinking about sexuality. These are my friends and my colleagues. I refuse to allow them to be simply dismissed as bigots. On the other hand, I have a sister who is an out lesbian and good friends who are LGBT. I’ve gotten to know the world from their perspective, too. So I’m trying to lower the temperature on this conversation. I want my writing on this issue to make people on all sides feel that they’re being respected, and help clarify what’s going on and how we might be able to deal with it.
You mentioned in a recent column that there’s been pretty significant change on LGBT issues within the evangelical community over the past couple decades. How have you see evangelical opinion on this issue shift?
I was trained to take history and context very seriously. In my career, I’ve noticed that a lot of times, people engage with issues in an ahistorical way, as if the way we’re talking about an issue now is the way we’ve always talked about it. I wanted to highlight that in the past 40 years, traditionalist Christians have moved a long way. You can think back to the 1970s when people like Anita Bryant and Tim LaHaye were conducting there were full-throttle anti-gay campaigns, classifying gay men as a threat to children just by definition and that kind of thing. Now, many pastors are trying to lead communities to be humane, to be compassionate, to not stigmatize people, to treat people with Christian love—even if those same pastors are not willing to reconsider either civil marriage or Christian sexual ethics. What I’m going to try to show in this series is that there’s a lot you can do to improve the life situation of LGBT people and to soften hearts and make for a more welcoming environment, even if people—at least some Christians—are not going to be able to change their sexual ethics. Because this is not only about sexual ethics. It’s also about how a particular part of the human community is treated. A sizeable percentage of LGBT people in America are professing Christians, which introduces its own obligations about how Christians treat other Christians.
How have people responded to your columns so far?
I’m getting a very positive response. I’m not getting much backlash from either the progressive or conservative side. That may change, of course, as the series moves along. I’m hoping to be able to challenge what I think are weaknesses on all sides. I’ve seen a pattern where younger Christians in particular don’t feel like they need to make a moral argument anymore. There’s a sense that the culture has moved on this, so it’s settled. It’s obvious that there should be no problem with full acceptance of LGBT relationships because that’s where the culture is right now. Well, that needs to be challenged because that’s an assertion, not an argument. Cultural movements have to be evaluated along Christian principles. It can be constructive movement or destructive movement. But there are plenty of assertions happening on the other side, and those need to be challenged as well. Recently, I got a tweet from somebody who said that revising Christian sexual ethics is abandoning the gospel. So that’s also an assertion, not an argument. It’s like saying in a political context that attacks on America pose an existential threat to America. To call something a gospel issue is basically saying it’s an existential threat to Christian integrity. That’s worth exploring, whether that’s a fair statement. I think that the traditionalist or conservative side on this issue is at risk of sometimes raising the rhetorical temperature beyond what it’s legitimate to do. When their understanding of sexual ethics becomes a gospel issue, I think we have to ask again, what is the gospel? I want to be a fair-minded analyst of the rhetoric on both sides.
Can you give a preview of what the next few installments have in store?
In the next column, I’m going to talk about the growing recognition that gay people can be Christian. After that, I’m going to talk about options that congregations have for relating to gay Christians who come their way. That can involve accepting and integrating people without attempting to rethink sexual ethics. Along those lines, I’m going to talk about things that traditionalist Christians can do to show that they do not accept the stigmatization and mistreatment of gay people, even if they’re not willing to reconsider sexual ethics. Only after doing all of that will I engage the state of the conversation about sexual ethics question. I’ll review the arguments of the traditional view, then review the challenges to those arguments and evaluate the new arguments that are being made to revise that view of sexual ethics.
What’s been the toughest column for you to write so far, and why?
It’s been a wonderful process of discovery and clarity. Some people say that extroverts process by talking—I process by writing. I’ve been chewing over this issue for a long time, so it’s exciting to finally put pen to paper. I haven’t begun to do the hardest work. That’s wrestling with the Biblical arguments. And because this has become the litmus test issue of our time, there’s a lot at stake here. I’m aware that people’s view of my work and of my integrity as a Christian ethicist will be affected by how I do this. And for some people, it’s so personal that it may cost me some friends. One of the costs of doing the work that I’m called to do is that people care about it so deeply and get so passionate about it that you can lose friends over an issue like this. But beyond what’s at stake for me personally, there are also people who have been waiting for somebody in the evangelical community to do something substantive on this. Whenever I tremble a little thinking about friends I might lose or people who might not respect me anymore, I try to remind myself of those—notably, gay and lesbian young people—for whom that is their everyday experience in the Christian and evangelical world. If I can do something that can create conditions for them to be treated better, for church and evangelical Christianity to be a safe place for them, I’ll take whatever heat people can fire at me.