By Tom Krattenmaker
“This is a new season,” declares Exodus International President Alan Chambers,who has shut down his controversial gay-to-straight conversion ministry and apologized for the hurt the program inflicted. In the weeks following Chambers’ bombshell, the Supreme Court has issued rulings accelerating this change of season for gay rights in America, and same-sex marriage advocates are gearing up for new drives in Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey and Oregon.
For conservative Christians, the people who have fought gay rights the hardest and have wagered a good deal of their religion’s credibility in the process, these latest developments accentuate a predicament that seems to grow worse by the day — along with, we can hope, a chance to pivot toward a more winsome way to engage a rapidly changing culture.
The good news: They need look no further than the Bible, and a growing number in their own ranks, for a way to navigate this new terrain.
Consider what Chambers said last month when he rocked the opening of his group’s conference with the announcement that Exodus would exist no more. In the ashes of the country’s oldest and largest “pray away the gay” Christian ministry, he is launching a new organization. “Our goals,” he says, “are to reduce fear and come alongside churches to become safe (and) welcoming communities.”
The evangelicals and conservative Catholics most aggrieved by the advance of gay rights might find it helpful to follow Chambers’ lead. If there’s anything to fear, it’s the damage that the fear-based anti-gay culture war will wreak on Christianity’s good standing.
Put yourself in their shoes
Yes, when you put yourself in conservative Christians’ shoes, you realize that this new season is a tough one for those alarmed by the rapidly growing acceptance of gays and lesbians. The Boy Scouts will soon accept gay kids. Two active male pro athletes (both professing Christians, not incidentally) are out. Following the Supreme Court rulings in the Proposition 8 and Defense of Marriage Act cases, gay marriage now goes ahead in the country’s largest state, and the federal government will place same-sex married couples on the same respected footing as opposite-sex couples.
To liberal non-evangelicals and to younger Americans of seemingly any religious persuasion, the advance of gay rights is generally welcomed as a triumph for diversity, inclusion and fairness. Imagine what bracing good news this is for a gay or lesbian who grew up under a cloud of demonization in the ’70s and now, depending on the state in which he or she lives, enjoys something approaching full acceptance and equal rights.
Escaping the trap
To those outside of conservative religious circles, this might seem like skin off nobody’s nose. That would be a mistake. Do not underestimate the enormity of the quandary this poses for an evangelical movement that has staked much of its claim on vociferous opposition to homosexuality, and that has based its position on an authoritative text that has not undergone any revisions of late — the Bible, aka the word of God. But as Chambers has demonstrated more than once, the Bible offers not just a limit on what’s acceptable, but also a way out of the trap in which conservative Christianity finds itself.
A couple of years ago, in announcing Exodus International’s resignation from the anti-gay “Day of Truth” in high schools, Chambers said, “We need to equip kids to live out biblical tolerance and grace, while treating their neighbors as they’d like to be treated.” Now, in launching his Reduce Fear campaign, he again draws from the Bible. Exodus, he says, has been “imprisoned in a worldview that’s neither honoring toward our fellow human beings, nor biblical. From a Judeo-Christian perspective, gay, straight or otherwise, we’re all prodigal sons and daughters. … God is calling us to … welcome everyone, to love unhindered.”
Other less-known reparative-therapy ministries will carry on the work that Exodus abandoned. And we can bet that die-hard organizations such as the Family Research Council will continue to slug it out, condemning gays and their supporters and sounding alarms about the downfall of America.
That’s their right. But what is it going to accomplish? The more promising direction is the one framed by Alan Chambers, and by a widening stream of younger Christians who follow Jesus toward a more open-hearted relationship with their gay fellow citizens.
Less fear. More heart.
Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of USA TODAY’S Board of Contributors. He is author of the new book The Evangelicals You Don’t Know.