In 1987, Jim Bakker's sex scandal shocked the evangelical world. The husband of mascara-laden Tammy Faye was a super-televangelist with an average viewership numbering over 12 million and ministry contributions estimated at $1 million per week. Then came a litany of accusations, including the rape of 26-year-old Jessica Hahn and financial fraud. Twenty-three years later, his son, Jay Bakker, is causing another uproar among the faithful. This time, it's over homosexuality.
In his new book, "Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self, and Society," the younger Bakker makes the case that Christians should reconsider their position on homosexuality. Such views may find a hearing among young evangelicals who are shifting on gay and lesbian rights. If the Christian establishment fails to recognize this shift and adjust its rhetoric, leaders may find their young congregants departing, not defending, their churches.
Mr. Bakker, who is straight and divorced, says that religious people for far too long have used selective "clobber scriptures" to condemn gays and lesbians. A closer look at the teachings of the full biblical narrative, he says, leads us away from this position. "The simple fact is that Old Testament references in Leviticus do treat homosexuality as a sin ... a capital offense even," Bakker writes. "But before you say, 'I told you so,' consider this: Eating shellfish, cutting your sideburns and getting tattoos were equally prohibited by ancient religious law."
Reflecting on his call for Christians to drop the sin language on sexuality, religion writer Cathleen Falsani indicated on The Huffington Post that the evangelical church may "be on the verge of a Gay Awakening." She expects that Bakker is a harbinger of things to come, and that Christians are changing their thinking about the morality of homosexuality. In one sense, Ms. Falsani's right: Evangelicals are changing their thinking. But a closer look at the data shows they aren't changing as quickly as she expects or Bakker hopes.
Majority: Gay behavior still 'morally wrong'
The truth is that the vast majority of evangelicals – approximately 7 in 10 – still say they believe homosexual behavior is "morally wrong." Such numbers lend credence to Albert Mohler, president of the conservative Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who says those reconsidering the historic Christian position on homosexuality are coming exclusively from the "far left fringe" of what might be generously described as evangelicalism. He still holds to what he terms "the very clear Biblical teaching" that homosexual behavior is not in God's design for sexuality and is sinful.
After Bakker made his views public, every church where he had speaking engagements scheduled for the coming year cancelled. The withdrawal of his church's biggest donors forced him to lay off his entire church staff.
Nevertheless, the younger Bakker may be something of a bellwether. For one thing, he's not the only prominent evangelical to have argued for a big-tent approach to sexuality. Brian McLaren, bestselling author and founder of the emerging church movement, moved toward affirmation of gays and lesbians in his 2010 book "A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith." He condemns Christians' obsession with sexuality and urges them to construct "a more honest and robust Christian anthropology." Christian music icons Jennifer Knapp and Ray Boltz came out of the closet this past year and asked their fans to reconsider their views.
Such calls for reforming the community's engagement of homosexuality are, I think, having an effect. In my observation, evangelicals increasingly are fed up with the way the Christian church has often spoken to and about gays and lesbians in the recent past. They agree with most Americans that angry rhetoric is unloving, unkind, unproductive, and diametrically opposed to the teachings of one particularly prominent religious leader from the past – Jesus.
Even Mr. Mohler admits that the church has often done a poor job of engaging with the issue. "We've lied about the nature of homosexuality and have practiced what can only be described as a form of homophobia," Mohler says. "We've used the 'choice' language when it is clear that sexual orientation is a deep inner struggle and not merely a matter of choice."
It seems many evangelicals still believe like Mohler but increasingly advocate like Bakker. That is to say, they aren't yet budging on morality, but they have shifted in their tone and approach. They believe homosexual behavior is sinful, but many are now quick to add that it is no more or less sinful than their own pride or greed or lust. They agree with Bakker that when it comes to sexuality, "love…should be our guiding light."
Love for their gay and lesbian neighbors is showing up in unlikely places. New books by evangelical publishers, such as "Love is an Orientation" and "Loving Homosexuals like Jesus Would," embody the new approach. They're not exactly the vitriolic polemics one might have expected from the evangelicals of yesteryear. And there is also movement on public policy. Nineteen percent of young evangelicals and ten percent of older evangelicals say they've become more supportive of gay rights in the past five years.
A young generation's shifting support
Robert Jones, president of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), says the data he's collected bears this shift out. For example, PRRI's research found that a majority of young evangelicals (ages 18 to 34) now support recognition for some sort of same-sex union. While PRRI's president Robert Jones is hesitant to predict the future, he notes that the trends among evangelicals on same-sex issues all point in one direction and the group can expect "sea change within a generation."
Such a swing among the most vocal opponents of same sex-rights would be historic, and as one of the most powerful constituencies in the GOP, it could induce change on the national level. Young evangelicals, who are more politically diverse than their parent's generation, already pose a problem for the party. If rising Christian leaders continue to embrace pro-gay policies, the Republican party may have to reconsider its own stance (as some within its ranks have now done) – at least if it wants to retain religious voters.
The group that should be paying the most attention to this ideological change right now is evangelical churches themselves. Retaining young people is crucial, and a more accepting generation will not tolerate business as usual when it comes to the debate over homosexuality. Pastors need not compromise their convictions, but they can expect congregants to call for a more accepting, forgiving message – a more Christian message. If Christian leaders can't make that transition – and quickly – instead of an awakening, evangelicals may be facing an exodus.
Jonathan Merritt is a faith and culture writer whose work has appeared in outlets such as USA Today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, CNN.com, Beliefnet, and The Christian Science Monitor, where this commentary first appeared. He is author of "Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet."
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.