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US Evangelicals ponder their role, now that gay marriage is law of the land

Following the US Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, Evangelicals have been by turns conciliatory, confident, and troubled. Here is how their debates on the subject are evolving.

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    Church pastors Don Reapsummer, left, and Justin Porter show their for support for Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, Monday, July 13, 2015, at the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky in Ashland, Ky. The U.S. Supreme Court decided June 26 states cannot prohibit issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but Davis has refused to issue marriage licenses citing her religious beliefs.
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Like many here in the South, Hilda Wells, a Southern Baptist, takes the Bible at its word.

Given that gay marriage is now the law of the land, Ms. Wells, a Stone Mountain, Ga., businesswoman, admits to a twinge of concern: What she sees as a biblical sin – homosexuality – is now protected as a constitutional right by a landmark US Supreme Court decision.

But at the same time, her love of Scripture isn’t so strong that she can’t see the dignity and desires of fellow citizens with different sexual orientations.

“For one, I don’t think gay people are going to burn in hell,” says Wells matter-of-factly in her downtown antique store. “In fact, we have a lot of gay friends and customers, and we love them. The way they live their life is none of my business. I just happen to believe that’s it’s none of the Supreme Court’s business, either.”

Wells is one of millions of Christians on the front lines of an evangelical experience that has emphasized marriage as being a union, under God, between a man and a woman. Now, many of these individuals are pondering how to live in an age in which marriage has taken on another legal definition.

For decades now, Evangelicals have had an outsized influence on national politics, wielding considerable conservative power. But the landmark Supreme Court ruling hints at an uncertain future for conservative Christians. And it comes as religious critiques of gay marriage are being condemned more broadly as bigoted.

Given such shifts in fortune, some have called for a Christian retreat from US culture, into communities where they can “keep the light of faith burning through the surrounding cultural darkness,” as author Rod Dreher wrote recently in Time.

But for Wells and many other Evangelicals, retreat is not just impractical, but unnecessary. In their view, the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling provides opportunity for humility, renewed faith, and outreach, even as US churches prepare for new legal and political battles over the extent to which the First Amendment provides “religious liberty” on matters of employment, for example.

“There’s a movement going on here of [Evangelicals] who are looking at the times we live in and who want to answer the question that Paul answered at Mars Hill, which is, ‘How do I reach the people where I live with the love and Gospel of Jesus?’ ” says Michael Wear, a former director of faith outreach for the Obama White House, who remains in frequent contact with hundreds of evangelical pastors across the United States.

He adds: “Now that the [court] decision has been made, how do we move forward while also making sure that we understand we have to be part of this American family?”

In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy avoided labeling anti-gay-marriage views as bigoted. “[I]t must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned.”

Yet to some church critics like Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the rapid cultural changes and landmark court decision mean that “love and the Constitution triumphed over bigotry and religious extremism.”

Such commentary, to be sure, is part schadenfreude, given the influence that Evangelicals had for decades on suppressing gay rights nationally. But for conservative Christians, the potential mainstreaming of views like this marks what some have characterized as “the beginning of a period of persecution and tribulation" for Christians, says Brandan Robertson, a gay evangelical activist in Washington, D.C. For his part, Mr. Robertson calls that "a false narrative."

But following the Supreme Court ruling, many Christians have already been feeling a keen sense of tribulation.

“I think that’s the next frontier: Are people who have deeply held opinions [about marriage] going to be called bigots and treated like the man who wouldn’t give up his seat for Rosa Parks?” says John, an Episcopalian who lives in a liberal Atlanta neighborhood.

To an extent, he answers his own question by asking that his last name not be used: He's concerned that his beliefs could now get him fired from his public-sector job.

“My hope, going forward, is, you all can do what you want, the libertarian part of me says that’s fine,” John says. “But on the other hand, I want my opinion to be protected and respected by the government. What happens if my child is in school and is taught that her parents are bigoted or somehow wrong?”

Such fears are at the root of looming political and cultural battles that could define the aftermath of the court’s ruling.

“I can see [scriptural opposition to gay rights] being used as a wedge [by liberals], and it could make Evangelicals feel more embattled than they are, and it could validate those on the far right who warned about how apocalyptic this would be,” says Mr. Wear, the former Obama faith outreach director.

The response from evangelical leaders, meanwhile, has been largely conciliatory and confident, focused more on matters of law than on doctrine.

“We don’t want people to be afraid” of the gay marriage decision “because, as Christians, God has given us not the spirit of fear, but of love, power, and a sound mind, to act responsibly about how we think about and how we respond to these things,” says the Rev. Michael Griffin, senior pastor at Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell, Ga., and a spokesman for the Georgia Baptist Convention.

Although the Southern Baptist Convention in the past severed ties to pastors who have sided with gay rights, one of the organization’s responses to the same-sex ruling was to embrace LGBT Americans, without condoning their sexual behavior.

“I think we’re going to see ... refugees from the sexual revolution, and our doors need to be open and we need to welcome people no matter what their sexual orientation or no matter what their lifestyle is, into the church, and into the love and grace of the Lord Jesus,” says Mr. Griffin. “We want our churches open to people who are looking for answers.”

In recent years, a number of mainline churches have begun to make major concessions to gay rights, as polls suggest nearly half of all religious Americans see no conflicts between LGBT rights and their faith.

Those concessions, Wear says, come as Christian leaders are increasingly considering the costs of the 40-year span of evangelical political partisanship, which took place as the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans rose. According to the 2007 book "unChristian," young non-Christians overwhelmingly see Christians as anti-gay, judgmental, hypocritical, sheltered, and too political.

Addressing such concerns, Southern Baptists last year disavowed controversial “ex-gay” therapy. The United Methodist Church, while still officially opposing same-sex marriage, has seen bishops refusing to discipline clergy who decide to marry people of the same gender. And the Mormon Church has endorsed laws that support LGBT rights, while pushing for exemptions to such regulations for its own congregants.

Earlier this year, the Presbyterian Church (USA) formally allowed same-sex couples to marry in its churches, and earlier this month, the Episcopal Church did the same.

Yet for Wells, the Stone Mountain store owner, the Supreme Court decision has been in some ways anticlimactic. That’s because of a practical reality: At the end of the day, she says, “This decision doesn’t really impact me.”

Looking at the legal landscape, Robert Schapiro, dean of Emory University School of Law in Atlanta and author of “Polyphonic Federalism: Toward the Protection of Fundamental Rights,” has a similar thought as he ponders how the debate may evolve.

“Yes, the same-sex marriage decision has the potential to expand tensions,” says Professor Schapiro. But, “I think some of the concerns expressed will turn out not to be serious issues over time, as it becomes clear that no church or synagogue is going to be required to allow same-sex marriage, nor will any pastor or minister be required to perform them.”

Robertson, the evangelical activist, is director of The RISE Network, which he says gives him a front-row seat into the evolving debates among the leaders of evangelical America. At times, he himself has felt like a pariah, especially when a religious publishing house refused to publish his book after concerns were raised about a reference to a gay parishioner.

“That’s where the hope lies, at least for me, is sitting in a room with prominent Southern Baptist pastors and realizing that we both think youth homelessness, for example, is a problem that we can move forward to address,” he says. “This period of history gives us a chance to rediscover our common ground and realize that political issues, even though heated, don’t break the bond of the spirit that unites us.”

[Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Brandan Robertson sees the argument that Christians will be persecuted as a "false narrative."]

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