Evangelical Elites’ Changing Responses to Homosexuality 1960-2009
President Obama’s 2012 announcement that he supports gay marriage intensified the debate between the typically liberal supporters of gay marriage and typically conservative opponents, reigniting what has long been a hot topic in the American cultural debate. Research has shown that support for gay marriage has risen on both the left and the right, and that simply knowing gays and lesbians can influence attitudes.
A 2012 study by researchers at Purdue University seeks to uncover how evangelical leaders’ attitudes regarding homosexuality and their assessment of what they perceive as immorality have evolved over time. Published in Sociology of Religion, “Evangelical Elites’ Changing Responses to Homosexuality 1960-2009” analyzes more than 300 articles in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today that address homosexuality. The magazine’s content was selected for study because it has provided “a consistent, long-term perspective on the moral reasoning of mainstream evangelical elites.”
The study’s main findings include:
- In the articles studied from 1960 to 2009, the frequency that evangelical leaders have posited homosexuality as a personal moral transgression has decreased over time.
- Evangelical elites typically cite one of three “sources of moral authority” when commenting on homosexuality: the Bible, which they say deems homosexuality a sin; the fields of science and medicine, which they say explains homosexuality as pathological and/or dysfunctional; and the natural order, which they say considers homosexuality abnormal and unnatural.
- The composition of sources of moral authority employed by evangelical leaders when criticizing homosexuality has changed over the years, from primarily biblical sources in the 1960s to more commonly of late the “less orthodox sources” of science and the natural order.
- While there is “substantial validity” to the assumption that evangelical elites remain steadfast in their assessment of homosexuality as morally wrong, “there is reason to think that alternative positions on these debates may be developing among some evangelical elites.” The authors note that the analysis uncovered articles that argued for “public and personal accommodation” of homosexuality, with some articles even advocating for the acceptance of gay marriage.
The authors conclude that the observed change over time in the sources of moral authority referenced in criticisms of homosexuality likely signals a gradual “liberalization of evangelical elites’ positions and attitudes on public policy debates related to homosexuality.”
Tags: religion, campaign issue, gay issues
Read the issue-related New York Times article titled "Unions That Divide: Churches Split Over Gay Marriage."
- What key insights from the journal article should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?
Read the full study titled “Evangelical Elites’ Changing Responses to Homosexuality 1960-2009.”
- What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
- Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
- What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
- How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.
Newswriting and digital reporting assignments
- Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
- Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
- Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
- Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.
Class discussion questions
- What is the study’s most important finding?
- Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
- What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
- How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
- How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
- What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?