Amy Tincher is an evangelical Christian who plays bass in the band at her suburban Ohio church, where she and her fellow congregants firmly believe the “words we adhere to” are those in the Bible. But last summer, without telling her husband and two kids exactly what she was doing, she boarded a plane for a conference in Kansas whose purpose many evangelicals would plainly consider heretical.
Tincher was one of 50 people flown from around the country and the world—Canada, China, Nigeria and South Korea—to a four-day Bible boot camp dedicated to discussing, and embracing, gay relationships. The gathering was organized by Matthew Vines, who by then was enjoying modest fame for a 2012 YouTube video in which Vines, looking even younger than his 21 years, delivers an hour-long lecture arguing that the Bible does not, in fact, condemn all same-sex relationships. The video has gone viral, racking up more than 730,000 views to date, landing Vines on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Styles section and helping him raise $100,000 for the conference, where he launched The Reformation Project, a nationwide network of pro-gay evangelicals committed to ending their church’s longstanding hostility toward gay people.
Tincher told me she had once “tried on” an anti-gay attitude to fit in with her conservative community in Liberty Township, outside Cincinnati, but like many evangelicals, she struggled to see how homophobia could accord with an all-loving Christian God. So when her pastor sent her a link to Vines’ video, she recalls, “I remember sitting in my kitchen and just crying. I knew it in my heart, but I had never been told that from the pulpit.”
It’s no secret that attitudes toward same-sex relations have changed in this country: Gay marriage is legal in 19 states plus the District of Columbia, and all major public opinion surveys now show a majority of Americans are in favor of it. But Matthew Vines and Amy Tincher are no longer outliers either: Increasingly, even evangelical Christians, long known for doctrinally condemning homosexuality, are embracing gay people, too.
Over the past decade, evangelical support for gay marriage has more than doubled, according to polling by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute. About a quarter of evangelicals now support same-sex unions, the institute has found, with an equal number occupying what researchers at Baylor University last year called the “messy middle” of those who oppose gay marriage on moral grounds but no longer support efforts to outlaw it. The shift is especially visible among young evangelicals under age 35, a near majority of whom now support same-sex marriage. And gay student organizations have recently formed at Christian colleges across the country, including flagship evangelical campuses such as Wheaton College in Illinois and Baylor in Texas.
Even some of the most prominent evangelicals—megachurch pastors, seminary professors and bestselling authors—have publicly announced their support for gay marriage in recent months. Other leaders who remain opposed to gay unions have lowered their profiles on the issue. After endorsing a gay marriage ban passed in California in 2008, Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of one of the country’s biggest megachurches, said in 2009 that he had apologized to all “all my gay friends” and that fighting gay marriage was “very low” on his list of priorities. Just last month, the Presbyterian Church, a Protestant denomination with a significant, though declining, minority of evangelicals, voted to allow ministers to perform same-sex weddings in states where they are legal.
The change has taken conservative political leaders by surprise, fractured the coalition against gay marriage and begun to dry up funding for some of the traditional-marriage movement’s most prominent organizations. Just a decade ago, conservative Christians powered an electoral surge that outlawed gay unions in 11 states and, in the view of many political analysts, helped to ensure President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection. Barely one in 10 evangelicals supported gay marriage, and church leaders like Warren urged their followers to vote against same-sex unions. Evangelicals “could not stand idly by while the radical gay agenda was forced down their throats,” James Dobson, then the chairman of the conservative Christian advocacy group Focus on the Family, said at the time. At its extreme, evangelical denunciation of gay people turned hateful and violent. Televangelist Jimmy Swaggart drew widespread condemnation in 2004 when he told an audience, “I’ve never seen a man in my life I wanted to marry. And I’m gonna be blunt and plain: If one ever looks at me like that, I’m gonna kill him and tell God he died.”
Now, Christian political groups, including Focus on the Family and the National Association of Evangelicals, have virtually stopped campaigning on the issue, shifting their focus to legal efforts to shield religious business owners from having to cater to gay weddings. Republican politicians, who historically have relied on evangelical support, are backing away, too. In Ohio, where in 2004 evangelical activists were among the first in the nation to campaign for a successful ballot measure outlawing gay unions, both Rob Portman, the state’s Republican senator, and Jim Petro, former Republican attorney general, now support overturning the ban.
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