That was fast.
After first dipping a toe in the waters of marriage equality, World Vision — one of the nation’s largest and most prominent Christian charities — ended up pulling a 360 on its employment policies regarding LGBT individuals. Just 48 hours after announcing the organization would open its doors to employees in same-sex marriages, World Vision President Richard Stearns abruptly reversed course and asked for “forgiveness.”
“Rather than creating more unity [among Christians], we created more division, and that was not the intent,” said Stearns to reporters on Wednesday. “Our board acknowledged that the policy change we made was a mistake.”
World Vision’s move to accept same-sex couples could have marked a dramatic victory for the marriage equality movement with a powerful religious group easing back on employment discrimination against LGBT individuals. Instead, it only took a matter of days for powerful religious groups, like the National Association of Evangelicals and the Assemblies of God, to exert enough pressure on the Washington-based charity to roll back the policy change and deny same-sex couples equal rights. World Vision’s flip-flop adds just the latest layer of tension testing many younger, more liberal Christians who are unsure of how to reconcile their religious beliefs with the rapidly-shifting landscape on same-sex marriage.
“This whole situation has left me feeling frustrated, heartbroken, and lost,” wrote blogger Rachel Held Evans. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more angry at the Church, particularly the evangelical culture in which I was raised and with which I for so long identified.”
For years, as marriage equality transformed from a quixotic endeavor to a widely-accepted inevitability, religious institutions have traditionally lagged behind. Never more apparent has that resistance been than among conservative evangelicals, who consistently record the lowest level of support for same-sex marriage among Christian groups. In a March survey from Pew Research Center, 23% of white evangelical Protestants said they favored marriage equality — the same share as the year before. By contrast, 77% of religiously unaffiliated respondents said they supported same-sex marriage.
It would be easy, then, to look at the World Vision SNAFU and lose faith that an organization with a largely conservative evangelical base could ever change with the times. A new group of religious experts, however, say this is only the beginning.
“I think what the entire debacle really demonstrates more than anything is that Christians who disagree with each other about same-sex marriage are still barely talking to one another,” said Matthew Vines, an openly gay evangelical and founder of the The Reformation Project, an organization dedicated to softening the church’s position on gay rights.
“My response would be to roll up my sleeves and get to work,” he said to msnbc. “I’m optimistic that we can have a dialogue.”
In his upcoming book, “God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships,” Vines tackles six passages in the Bible that equate homosexuality with sinful behavior. The problem with interpreting those verses today, says Vines, is that they’re not dealing with the kind of loving, committed, monogamous same-sex relationships that exist in modern times. Rather, he explained, the Bible describes same-sex behavior in the same framework as gluttony or drunkenness — as an impulse toward excess.
“It’s not that [the apostle] Paul was wrong,” said Vines. “It’s that he’s not talking about gay Christians. The Bible says nothing about same-sex marriage in anything like the way we understand it today.”
Sociologist Jeremy Thomas, an assistant professor at Idaho State University, agrees that the way forward for evangelicalism involves looking at gay couples under the same “moral rubric” as heterosexual couples. In that lens, to quote World Vision’s president before he retreated from the policy change, “abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage,” becomes the standard.
“Obviously, it didn’t work this time, but it will work,” said Thomas. “These are the tremors before the big earthquake that’s coming in evangelicalism.”