Keller, later in the session, came back to Rauch and specified how long he thinks any change would take. “He says if orthodox faith does morph to the place where people still have that high view of the text, they’re still people of the book, and we’ve completely embraced homosexuality as one way of loving and married, if that does happen it will take a long time, a very long time, not the sort of thing that could happen in 20 years or 50 years. In which case we need to learn to live together,” Keller said.
Tim Keller is widely regarded as one of the leading intellectuals of evangelical Christianity, having pastored one of the most successful Protestant churches in New York City and written several best-selling books over the past few years.
Keller, who is in his early 60s, does not even like the “evangelical” label, preferring to call himself “orthodox,” and has largely steered clear of politics.
But the gay marriage debate has been front and center in the days leading up to this week’s Supreme Court arguments over two gay marriage cases, so when Keller spoke to a group of journalists at a forum sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center last week, he was asked several times about the issue.
Keller holds the view that marriage is between one man and one woman, but he has avoided focusing on the gay marriage debate, preferring to emphasize Christians’ responsibility to love their neighbor. He has said that “heterosexuality does not get you to heaven,” which earned him criticism from more conservative evangelicals.
At the EPPC forum, however, Keller made a somewhat surprising prediction, given the speed with which much of public opinion seems to be swinging in support of gay marriage. Large numbers of evangelical Christians, even younger ones, he said, will continue to hold the view that same-sex marriage runs counter to their faith, even as they increasingly decide they either support or do not oppose making it the law of the land.
“There’s a tendency to say, where are evangelicals going? I think they’re going to look more and more politically, actually, like conservative Roman Catholics, and like African Americans. I think that’s where they’re going,” Keller said. “But the inertia of the Bible keeps them from, I think, getting really very liberal when it comes to theology and social ethics.”
Keller clarified that “you can believe homosexuality is a sin and still believe that same-sex marriage should be legal.” This is the argument that some religious conservatives are already beginning to make, and looks likely to be the position that most evangelicals end up settling on. Articles on changing attitudes among GOP youth illustrate the move toward separating government-sanctioned marriage and church-sanctioned marriage.
Privately, some conservatives say they are waiting to see what the Supreme Court decides in June before they make a tactical retreat. But regardless of the court’s decision, conservatives will likely conclude that they have lost the broader cultural argument (especially among younger Americans) over the legality of gay marriage. The argument ahead, then, will largely be over the question of religious liberty, and whether moral objections to homosexuality within religious faiths deserve to be protected, and to what extent.
Keller devoted most of his energy at the EPPC forum to laying the groundwork for greater tolerance of the evangelical view. He cited author Jonathan Rauch, who has helped pioneer the arguments in favor of gay marriage, and said Rauch himself has acknowledged that “it’s really pretty obvious that the Bible has a problem with homosexuality.”
Rauch’s exact words, in his December 2010 column for The Advocate, were this: “Unlike white supremacism, disapproval of homosexuality is still intrinsic to orthodox doctrines of all three major religions.”
Rauch continued: “That will change and is already changing (younger evangelicals are much more accepting of same-sex relations than are their parents), but for now it is a fact we must live with.”
Keller did not seem to share Rauch’s conclusion that a change in evangelical belief is inevitable. But he emphasized Rauch’s point that even if there is a change, it will take a long time. He argued that for the foreseeable future, many adherents of the evangelical faith will not abandon their religious views of homosexuality, even if increasing numbers of evangelicals support legal rights for gay couples.