Despite its claims to the contrary, the Religious Right often changes with the times
Writing for the Christian Century magazine, Randall Balmer EXPLAINS a developing change of course on the Religious Right:
The closing of the doors of Exodus International earlier this summer doesn’t just signal a sea change in evangelical thinking about homosexuality. It also highlights some evangelicals’ dubious claims of adherence to immutable convictions.
After 37 years, Exodus—which advocated “reparative therapy”—finally gave in to scientific evidence and changing cultural attitudes. In announcing the move, president Alan Chambers issued an extended apology. “I am sorry for the pain and hurt that many of you have experienced,” Chambers said, addressing the gay community.
Exodus and similar programs occasionally trotted out trophy success stories, gays who claimed to have been “cured.” But the reparative therapy movement suffered a greater number of recidivisms and embarrassments. Chambers, after announcing the cessation of the organization, acknowledged that 99 percent of those who endured gay-conversion therapy failed to shed their same-sex attractions. “There have been people that we’ve hurt,” he told the Exodus gathering. “There have been horror stories.”
Exodus also had to contend with changing cultural dynamics. A Gallup Poll in May 2013 found that 59 percent of Americans believe that lesbian and gay relationships are “morally acceptable,” an increase of 19 percentage points since 2001. And despite their protestations, evangelicals are not impervious to cultural change.
Case in point: divorce. When I was growing up as an evangelical in the 1950s and 1960s, divorce was considered the defining moral issue. Anyone who was divorced became a pariah in evangelical circles. Many had their church memberships rescinded; at the least they were shunned. I remember my mother telling me that our family could never support Nelson Rockefeller for president because he was divorced.
But evangelical attitudes changed with cultural trends. By the late 1970s, the divorce rate among evangelicals was roughly the same as the rest of the population, and evangelicals suddenly were forced to confront the issue. There was also this catalyst: the candidacy of Ronald Reagan, a divorced and remarried man, for the presidency. Religious right leaders were so eager to embrace Reagan that they brushed aside what would previously have been a disqualifying circumstance…
Evangelicals like to assert that, because of their fidelity to the Bible, their convictions are timeless. But this certainly is not the case. Generational transitions also play a role. As late as the 2008 presidential election, old-line religious right leaders like James Dobson and Chuck Colson insisted that the main moral issues were abortion and same-sex marriage. A younger generation of evangelicals, however, saw things differently, detecting a much broader spectrum of moral issues, including war, hunger and especially the environment. They have evinced little interest in matters of sexual orientation or in taking a stand against gays and lesbians.
No matter how vigorously they protest, evangelicals are swept along by cultural currents together with everyone else. “We’ve fought the culture,” Chambers declared in his valedictory address to Exodus, “and we’ve lost.”