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Column: Swept Along by Cultural Currents

The Religious Right has yielded on key social issues, including gay rights. Above, a 1977 gay rights demonstration in New Orleans against Anita Bryant. (Associated Press)

The Religious Right has yielded on key social issues, including gay rights. Above, a 1977 gay rights demonstration in New Orleans against Anita Bryant. (Associated Press)

The closing of the doors of Exodus International on July 1 signals not only a sea change in evangelical thinking about homosexuality, it also highlights the dubious claims on the part of some evangelicals of adherence to immutable convictions.

After 37 years, the organization, which advocated “reparative therapy” or “gay cure” therapy, finally gave in to scientific evidence and changing cultural attitudes toward homosexuality. In announcing the move, Alan Chambers, president of the organization, issued an extended apology. “I am sorry for the pain and hurt that many of you have experienced,” Chambers said, addressing the gay community. “I am sorry some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents.”

Exodus International was formed as an evangelical ministry to gays in 1976, the year before Anita Bryant rallied evangelicals behind her Save Our Children campaign. Bryant’s efforts began as an initiative to overturn an ordinance in Dade County, Florida, that had banned discrimination against gays, and she played to popular fears. “Gays can’t reproduce,” she warned darkly, “they have to recruit.”

The success of the Save Our Children campaign — the ordinance was defeated in a popular referendum by a two-to-one margin — emboldened conservative evangelicals. Jerry Falwell credited his appearance at one of Bryant’s rallies as his introduction to political advocacy. Bryant’s crusade, in fact, together with attempts to stop the rescission of tax benefits for segregated schools, provided the impetus for the emergence of the Religious Right in the late 1970s.

Soon, Religious Right leaders began criticizing what they called “the gay lifestyle,” a phrase that implied, incorrectly, that sexual orientation was volitional — that is, individuals could “choose” whether or not they wanted to be gay. (I remember so clearly a gay friend of mine, a former graduate student, scoffing at that notion. Given the popular opprobrium directed against homosexuals, especially during the heyday of the Religious Right in the 1980s, he said, why would anyone “choose” to be gay?) The outbreak of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s was cited by Falwell and others as God’s judgment on the “gay lifestyle.” In the midst of all this, Exodus International forged ahead. The organization’s message that gays could “overcome” their homosexual impulses drew wide support, financial and otherwise, especially from politically conservative evangelicals. Reparative therapy, however, was rarely benign. Treatment ranged from counseling to shock therapy — all based on the erroneous premise that individuals can reject the “gay lifestyle” simply by choosing not to be gay.

Exodus International and similar programs occasionally trotted out trophy success stories, gays who claimed to have been “cured” of their homosexuality. But the reparative therapy movement suffered an equal or greater number of recidivisms and embarrassments. Chambers, after announcing the cessation of the organization, acknowledged to the Los Angeles Times that 99 percent of those who endured gay-conversion therapy failed to shed their same-sex attractions. “There have been people that we’ve hurt,” Chambers told the Exodus gathering. “There have been horror stories.”

Aside from the absence of demonstrable results, Exodus International also had to contend with changing dynamics in the culture and among evangelicals themselves. A Gallup Poll in May found that 59 percent of Americans believe that lesbian and gay relationships are “morally acceptable,” an increase of 19 percentage points since 2001. And despite their protestations, evangelicals are not impervious to changes in the culture.

Case in point: divorce. When I was growing up as an evangelical in the 1950s and 1960s, divorce was considered the defining moral issue. Anyone who was divorced became a pariah in evangelical circles; many had their church memberships rescinded, or at the least they were shunned. I remember my mother telling me that our family could never support Nelson Rockefeller for president because he was a divorced man.

But cultural attitudes changed, and evangelical attitudes changed as well. In the case of divorce, one factor contributed and another served as catalyst. The contributing factor was that, by the late 1970s, the divorce rate among evangelicals was roughly the same as the rest of the population, and evangelicals suddenly were forced to confront the issue. The catalyst was the candidacy of Ronald Reagan, a divorced man, for the presidency in 1980. Leaders of the Religious Right were so eager to embrace Reagan that they brushed aside what would previously have been a disqualifying circumstance: the fact that he was divorced and remarried.

The change in evangelical attitudes toward divorce was dramatic. In the course of writing Thy Kingdom Come several years ago, I went through the pages of Christianity Today, the flagship publication of evangelicalism, and found at least eight articles denouncing divorce in the 1970s. That number dropped to nothing after 1980. These days, the ranks of evangelical leaders who are divorced include such luminaries as Charles Stanley and the notorious Benny Hinn.

Evangelicals like to assert that, because of their fidelity to the Bible, their convictions are timeless. But that claim, as demonstrated by the issues of both divorce and homosexuality, is disingenuous. Generational transitions also play a role. As late as the 2008 presidential election, the old-line leaders of the Religious Right like James Dobson and Chuck Colson insisted quite explicitly that the only salient moral issues were abortion and same-sex marriage. A younger generation of evangelicals, however, saw things differently, detecting a much broader spectrum of moral issues, including war, hunger and especially the environment. At the same time, this younger generation of evangelicals has evinced little interest in matters of sexual orientation or in taking a stand against gays and lesbians, especially when those individuals are friends or family members — or themselves.

No matter how vigorously they protest, evangelicals are swept along by cultural currents together with everyone else. “We’ve fought the culture,” Chambers declared in his valedictory address to Exodus International, “and we’ve lost.”

Randall Balmer, chair of the religion department at Dartmouth College, was recently appointed interim chaplain and dean of the Tucker Foundation at Dartmouth. His column appears monthly in Perspectives.