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Evangelicals and Gay Marriage: Why 'Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin' Doesn't Work

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Shortly before National Coming Out Day, Focus on the Family's Jim Daly published an Op-Ed on CNN.com. "'Hate' is too big a word to be used with such little restraint," he argued, urging advocates of gay rights to realize that evangelicals don't hate gay people, just gay sexual activity.

Such sentiments are widespread among evangelicals, even encapsulated in a maxim: "love the sinner, hate the sin." They explain why well-meaning people think keeping gays from marriage is the loving thing to do. But as an overriding moral principle, the maxim fails miserably.

The best way to understand why is to look at it in light of Christian history. Slave-holding Christians in the 1700s and 1800s believed that, because God had ordained some be slaves, keeping slaves in chains was actually the loving thing to do. As slave-turned-orator Frederick Douglass recounted the reasoning: "God made one portion of men to do the working, and another to do the thinking." And if that's the case, isn't more loving to insist slaves occupy the roles God has created for them than ignore God's will and allow slaves to be free? Many brilliant, well-meaning, genuine Christians at the time answered "yes," including Charles Hodge, a Princeton theologian and father of modern evangelical theology.

Although some evangelicals were heroically involved in the campaign to end slavery, a century later, many actively resisted the civil rights movement. According to Paul Weyrich, one of the founders of the evangelical Right, the movement formed in response to "Jimmy Carter's intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation." As the government sought to enforce de-segregation, it intruded into the the relatively isolated evangelical subculture, with a sorry result. "Whereas evangelical abolitionists of the nineteenth century sought freedom for African Americans," as Randall Balmer, an evangelical and historian at Columbia University laments, "the Religious Right of the late twentieth century organized to perpetuate racial discrimination."

Most evangelicals today are not consciously racist against African Americans. And in 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention apologized for its complicity with racism. But because evangelicals usually view prejudice as individual, conscious animus toward others, many are blind to the ways in which policies they support systematically disadvantage particular groups. Christian Smith, a long-time evangelical (though current Catholic) and professor of sociology at Notre Dame, co-directed a study with Michael O. Emerson of evangelicals and race in America. "Despite devoting considerable time and energy to solving the problem of racial division," they concluded "white evangelicalism likely does more to perpetuate the racialized society than to reduce it." His study shows that it is possible for individuals to consciously love another class of humans even while unwittingly supporting systematic discrimination against them.

Evangelical history on the subject of feminism and environmentalism also teach us how late twentieth-century evangelicalism has tended to mistake it's own fear of social change for God's will. As the evangelical Right took form, the Equal Rights Amendment emerged as a powerful force for female quality. The popular evangelical press decried it as among the "problems that are tearing America apart today." With many evangelicals interpreting the Bible as teaching female subservience to men, the culture as a whole resisted the movement. Most evangelicals, at least in theory, support some form of female equality today.

Due to a combination of apocalyptic expectations, belief in the dominion of humans over Earth, and the acceptance of conservative political ideology, the evangelical community has been among the most visible opponents of environmentalism in America. Ronald Reagan's secretary of the interior justified complacency because he expected Jesus to return soon and Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals was nearly expelled from the organization for endorsing climate science. According to a 2007 Barna poll, "Evangelicals stood out regarding their views on the environment. Only 35% said that protecting the environment should be a top priority -- the lowest score recorded among any of the 80 subgroups studied." Most mainstream evangelical leaders now support environmentalism, with even the Southern Baptist Convention declaring "the time for timidity regarding God's creation is no more."

The same cultural mechanisms responsible for the community's past, self-acknowledged blunders are at work today in its response to homosexuality. Evangelicalism still has an orientation against social change, still bases views on pseudoscience, still has a simplistic and overconfident approach to biblical interpretation, and still is unwilling to tolerate those who disagree.

Evangelicalism's greatest failure on homosexuality is not that all evangelicals are filled with conscious hatred toward gays, but its unjustified self-confidence, its close-mindedness, and its egregious failure to learn from its own history.

And that's why "love the sinner, hate the sin" doesn't cut it. Christians are too prone to mistake their own prejudice and fear of social change for God's will. As a result, love cannot only require holding others accountable to systems of morality; it requires reconsidering systems of morality too. Part of "loving the sinner" must be making sure that legitimate desires are not classified as "sin."

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