“Leading ethicist” finally sees the light on gay rights

The blogger Andrew Sullivan gave a shout-out the other day to David Gushee, who has written a book called Changing Our Mind: A call from America’s leading evangelical ethics scholar for full acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church.

Well, congratulations, Dr. Gushee. We’re glad to have you on board, but I have one little question: WHAT IN GOD’S NAME TOOK YOU SO LONG??

Thousands of evangelicals saw the light on this issue decades ago. Let me introduce you to a couple.

When I was a student at Bethel College (now “University,” for some reason), I heard a professor of mine give a lunchtime seminar called “Slavery, Sexism, Homosexuality,” in which he outlined the evolution of Christians’ thinking on various issues, which — surprise, surprise — tends to lag behind that of American culture at large, but always ends up drifting toward the mainstream. If it didn’t, Dr. Smalley argued, Evangelicals would quickly become irrelevant.

This was 1982 (THAT’S THIRTY-TWO YEARS AGO) at a very conservative Christian college in the Midwest that didn’t even allow students to dance. Those were the days when “liberal evangelical” was not an oxymoron. Dr. Smalley was my dad’s close friend, whom I called “Uncle Bill” as a kid. He was also a good Christian with evangelical bona fides and an academic track record that would put most evangelical academics to shame. Like many of my professors, he was a theological and political liberal. He was a thinker of great clarity, and he saw not only that evangelicals were on the wrong side of history, but also that their Biblical defenses of homophobia were no better than their defenses of slavery or sexism.

A few years later another professor at my alma mater was pressured into resignation because he had the gall to declare to a student in a private conversation that homosexual Christians should be in committed relationships. Another good evangelical ethicist by the name of Dr. John Piper used his power and influence to force a good man from his job and stall the advance of modernity into the dank cave of evangelicalism. Dr. Gowdy, according to Piper, should have told the student that homosexuality was wrong in all circumstances.

(Some of these professors’ students took their teachings seriously and remembered what they’d learned, using it to advocate for equality for gays and lesbians even when it made them unpopular.)

It didn’t take some of us quite as long as it took Dr. Gushee to see the light on this issue, so forgive me if I’m not impressed with his conversion. During the last several decades of Dr. Gushee’s career as “America’s leading evangelical ethical scholar,” countless gays and lesbians have been persecuted, discriminated against, hated, and bullied thanks to evangelical Christians dragging their feet and wielding their Bibles like a club.

In a recent blog post, Dr. Gushee all but admits that his lateness to the party was due to cowardice: “I undertook these reflections as a good-faith effort, in response to the suffering of LGBT Christians and my own calling as a Christian ethicist, to end ‘avoidism’ on this issue by myself and in my religious world. For years, everyone has been waiting for someone else to take on the challenge. (‘You first. No, after you.’) Finally, I took the plunge.”

Thanks to “ethicists” like Dr. Gushee, not only was the evangelical church’s inevitable embrace of gays delayed by decades, but the church also became an unfriendly place for those who disagreed, including my mother, my father, and most of my friends. And this was only one issue among many in which evangelical scholars turned the church of my grandparents — once a force for social justice in America — into a handmaiden of the Republican Party.

So again, welcome, Dr. Gushee. Please get it right a little sooner next time.

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