By Scott Schieman
Although popular culture war depictions have often presented evangelical elites as intransigent in their opposition to homosexuality, authors of a new study published by Sociology of Religion find that during the last several decades, evangelical elites have actually been subtly but significantly changing their moral reasoning about homosexuality. Based on content analysis of the popular evangelical magazine Christianity Today, authors Jeremy N. Thomas and Daniel V. A. Olson identify the shifts that compose this change, and propose that various combinations of these shifts align with and map onto four overarching responses to homosexuality — biblical intolerance, natural intolerance, public accommodation, and personal accommodation. They suggest that the development of these responses demonstrates a trajectory of change that portends the increasing liberalization of evangelical elites’ positions and attitudes on public policy debates related to homosexuality. Thomas and Olson argue that these changing responses are largely the result of underlying shifts in the sources of moral authority to which evangelical elites have been appealing when making arguments about homosexuality.
The article “Evangelical Elites’ Changing Responses to Homosexuality 1960–2009” investigates how divergent views of moral authority have played into disagreements and debates about homosexuality, specifically from the perspective of evangelical Christians, a group that James Hunter, author of the controversial culture wars thesis, and many others have frequently identified as being one of the prime constituencies of cultural conservatism. In particular, the authors investigate how the moral reasoning of evangelical elites has been changing with regard to homosexuality during the 50-year period from 1960 to 2009. They seek to understand not only how evangelical elites have been shifting the sources of moral authority to which they have been appealing when making arguments about homosexuality, but also the corresponding shifts that have been occurring with regard to their assessments of the personal morality of homosexuality, and with regard to their positions and attitudes on public policy debates related to homosexuality.
Thomas and Olson believe that this investigation is important for at least three reasons. First, it helps clarify the history of one of the most contentious topics in American cultural life. Second, it challenges the culture wars thesis and potentially paints a new and perhaps counter intuitive picture of contemporary evangelical elites’ moral reasoning about homosexuality, which may, in turn, have significant implications for considerations of evangelicals’ civic and political engagement. Third, it identifies a key mechanism by which many generally conservative religious groups may find themselves subtly shifting toward more progressive positions and attitudes on a variety of public policy debates. As suggested throughout the article, when generally-conservative religious groups engage in public policy debates, they are often tempted to shift the sources of moral authority to which they appeal in order to make arguments that they believe others will find more convincing. However, once they grant legitimacy to these new sources of moral authority, such religious groups become increasingly subject to the possibility that competing interpretations of these new sources may be persuasively used to convince them to adopt more progressive positions and attitudes.
While evangelical elites have certainly not embraced this change, they have not been immune to it either. Instead the authors suggest that evangelical elites have been responding to America’s growing acceptance of homosexuality by subtly but significantly changing their moral reasoning. In particular, they observe three shifts. First, evangelical elites have not only been reducing the frequency of their appeals to biblical sources of moral authority when making arguments about homosexuality, but they have also regularly been making appeals to other less orthodox sources, particularly science, medicine, and the natural order. Second, evangelical elites have been reducing the frequency of their negative assessments of the personal morality of homosexuality. Third, although they remain largely committed to traditional positions on public policy debates related to homosexuality, a growing proportion of evangelical elites have been demonstrating more tolerant and/or pluralistic attitudes both toward popular depictions of these debates and toward gay persons on the other sides of these debates.
The authors go on to conclude that the connection between moral authority and public policy has significant implications for considerations of how other generally-conservative religious groups may find themselves responding to various cultural changes when they are located in and attempting to influence a surrounding culture that discounts the validity of orthodox sources of moral authority. Their research suggests that sociologists of religion should give further consideration to the ramifications of moral authority and especially to the ways that generally-conservative religious groups may be tempted to shift the sources of moral authority to which they appeal — and in doing so — may find themselves also shifting their positions and attitudes on a variety of public policy debates. The research further suggests that even though Hunter’s culture wars thesis has been largely and correctly discredited, his idea of explaining cultural conflict through underlying differences in moral authority remains an important insight and a powerful analytic tool. Although this investigation has been limited to evangelicals and homosexuality, the findings indicate that the workings of moral authority provide a key mechanism for interpreting and predicting a wide range of cultural conflicts and related cultural changes.
Scott Schieman is the Editor of Sociology of Religion and Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto. Jeremy N. Thomas is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Idaho State University and Daniel V. A. Olson is Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University.
Sociology of Religion, the official journal of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, is published quarterly for the purpose of advancing scholarship in the sociological study of religion. The journal publishes original (not previously published) work of exceptional quality and interest without regard to substantive focus, theoretical orientation, or methodological approach.