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Is the religious right getting less scary?

Even evangelicals are warming to homosexuality

LOOK THEM IN THE EYE & COME OUT TO THEM. Evangelical Americans are less resistant to social change than we think, argues professor Clyde Wilcox.

If you wonder why Canada and the US differ so much on social issues like gun control, abortion, the death penalty and, of course, homosexuality, look no further than statistics on religion.

Statistics Canada data from 2001 puts the percentage of Baptists here at 2.5 percent, and “other Christians” including Apostolic, born-again and self-declared evangelicals at 2.6 percent — that’s a maximum of 5.1 percent of the population who could be said to be evangelical, compared to 43.2 percent of the population that considers itself Roman Catholic, 9.6 percent United and 6.9 percent Anglican.

In the US, surveys from 2001 put the percentage of Baptists at 16.3, second only to Roman Catholics at 24.3 percent. The other denominations that could be described as evangelical add up to at least another four percent — more than 20 percent of the American population is gung ho for God. No wonder we Canadians feel like dope-smoking, godless pinko perverts around them, why we worry when the US-based rightwing group Focus On The Family starts sending money to its offspring in Ottawa. Evangelical views on gay and lesbian adoption, marriage and antidiscrimination laws are the main reason Canada has such things and the US mostly does not.

Evangelicals are the main obstacle to our progress on this continent. Which is why the research of Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University, is so heartening.

Wilcox, a straight liberal intellectual who was raised evangelical, studies the various intersections of politics, religion, gender and culture, including gay and lesbian rights. He was in Toronto last month as part of a conference on Politics, Religion And Sexuality In The US And Canada; his talk on Faith And Sexuality was the first event held at University Of Toronto’s new multi-faith centre. (You can just hear the debate between the proponents of this centre and the university’s secularists: “We’ll go along with your ersatz religion room, but the queers get to use it first.”)

Here’s what has me intrigued: Wilcox predicts that US Christian evangelicals are going to be nicer to us. In fact, evangelicals are already succumbing to the trend that has affected most people living in rich western countries: the belief that gay and lesbian people should be able to go about their lives. They’re moving more slowly than Canadians, western Europeans and more secular Americans, but they’re headed in the same direction. As one evangelical caught Sunday shopping told a researcher: “If we can forget about the Sabbath, perhaps we can forget about Leviticus.”

Wilcox has a few theories why. Firstly, as a social movement aimed at changing the hearts and minds of Americans, old-school evangelism has failed miserably. Abortion used to be its pet issue; stats show American attitudes on abortion have barely changed in 30 years. Then it latched onto homosexuality, but the speed of homosexuality’s growing social acceptance has been unmatched by any other contemporary social trend. (For example, attitudes toward sex outside marriage, like abortion, have barely budged in the last 30 years.) All that effort, all that money, all that legislation — failure. Rightwingers are likely wondering if they should be playing politics at all.

Which raises the bigger question of why Americans have changed their minds so quickly on the gay issue. It’s because, unlike the subjects of abortion or infidelity, they feel like they have new information on the topic. Wilcox argues that in the last 15 years a) most Americans have come to believe scientific research suggesting that homosexuality is not a choice and b) the number of people who say they know someone who is gay or lesbian has increased to about 75 percent from about 25 percent.

People inclined to make sweeping pronouncements about sexual immorality give different answers when they think about how it affects somebody they know. “Coming out to evangelicals affects them like everybody else,” he says.

Meanwhile, as evangelicals are able to keep their kids attending services and to lure mainline Christians to their growing megachurches, Wilcox says they’re feeling less threatened by immoral marauders. “Maybe the lesbian couple down the street is not the biggest threat to families in America. Maybe AIDS and poverty are bigger threats.” A confident new generation of Bible-lovers doesn’t feel so much need to pick on others.

Will this new generation of right-wingers trumpet gay and lesbian liberation? Wilcox doesn’t think it will happen any time soon. But if these new young evangelicals are, say, working on an AIDS project, they are less likely to storm off in a huff because fellow workers are giving away condoms.

In the last few months, US evangelicals have become less obstructionist about dealing with the issue of global warming — “if God created the polar ice cap maybe he doesn’t want it melted,” says Wilcox — though they prefer the Christian term “creation care” to the secular “environmentalism.”

So maybe it will take a rebranding of our own to close the deal. Are we gay or are we “apostolically attached to men”? Are we promiscuous or are we “walking the way of Mary Magdalene”?

The right wording might very well bring Americans up to Canadian speed.