Expert Commentary

Evangelical elites’ changing responses to homosexuality, 1960-2009

2012 study from researchers at Purdue University published in Sociology of Religion on the evolution in attitudes of evangelicals toward gays over time.

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

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