For decades, opposition to same-sex marriage was a marquee issue for the religious right in the United States. Activists like Anita Bryant, Jerry Falwell and James Dobson characterized homosexuality as a threat to traditional family life.
When the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, the head of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins, initially warned that the case would be “the downfall of America.” The evangelist Franklin Graham told Christianity Today in 2015 that the country had “taken a nosedive off of the moral diving board into the cesspool of humanity.”
But the Obergefell ruling changed the landscape, ending state-by-state battles over the question and somewhat deflating the marriage issue specifically among the religious right’s base, which is now much more focused on issues about gender.
Public opinion on same-sex marriage has turned rapidly toward acceptance this century. In the early 2000s, about 60 percent of Americans opposed it, according to the Pew Research Center. Now, that is the same share that support it. And views have also been shifting among many Christians, including young evangelicals. Another poll by Pew found that almost half of white evangelicals born after 1964 favored same-sex marriage in 2017, compared to about a quarter of older white evangelicals.
Some faith groups that have traditionally opposed gay rights now support some accommodations for same-sex marriage. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced its support in November for the Respect for Marriage Act, which President Biden signed in December, enshrining into law federal protections for same-sex marriage. Still, many other religious groups with conservative leadership opposed it.
In recent years, conservative Christians concerned about same-sex marriage have found themselves protecting a narrower piece of legal turf. They have defended multiple small business owners like Lorie Smith, who work in creative industries and resist taking jobs associated with same-sex weddings specifically. They have also focused on maintaining the tax-exempt status for churches and universities, including those that exclude people in same-sex relationships from some jobs.
Jim Daly, the president of the influential conservative group Focus on the Family, which is based in Colorado, suggested in an interview last year that the shift was all but inevitable. “People see the handwriting on the wall, to use an Old Testament term,” he said, adding, conservative Christians “realize we cannot control the culture.”
Ruth Graham is a Dallas-based national correspondent covering religion, faith and values. She previously reported on religion for Slate. @publicroad
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