America's culture war, waged in recent years over gender roles, sexuality and the definition of marriage, is increasingly being fought inside evangelical Christian circles. On one side are the Christians determined to resist trends in secular society that appear to conflict with biblical teaching. On the other side are the evangelicals willing to live with those trends.
For Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., the key question is "whether or not there is a binding morality to which everyone is accountable."
Mohler is a co-founder of the biannual Together for the Gospel conference, which brought together thousands of evangelicals last month at a sports center in Louisville, a few miles from the Southern Baptist campus. Electronic signs around the top of the arena carried such messages as "We Were Born Out of Protest" and "We Stand on Scripture Alone, Not Man's Wisdom."
"Our theme for this year is, 'We Protest,' " Mohler tells NPR. "You might say [it's] putting the 'protest' back in Protestantism." He and his fellow conservative leaders urge Christians to take a "biblical" stand against such things as no-fault divorce, extramarital sex, "transgenderism" and gay marriage. His new book is We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking Truth to a Culture Redefining Sex, Marriage, & the Very Meaning of Right & Wrong.
Mohler and other conservatives are pushing against strong headwinds, however. Survey data show that the number of Americans who think divorce is morally acceptable has increased significantly in recent years, while disapproval of homosexuality and same-sex marriage has declined sharply. (Click to see changing attitudes on homosexuality and same-sex marriage by religion.) The latter holds true even for white evangelicals, among the groups most resistant to LGBT rights. For church leaders like Mohler, the challenge is unmistakable.
"Conservative Christians in America are undergoing a huge shift in the way we see ourselves in the world," Mohler says. "We are on the losing side of a massive change that's not going to be reversed, in all likelihood, in our lifetimes." In his view, Christians must adapt to the changed cultural circumstance by finding a way "to live faithfully in a world in which we're going to be a moral exception." (It is this goal, Mohler says, that explains the passage of "religious liberty" laws to protect people who want to express their opposition to same-sex marriage or "transgenderism.")
'At Odds With What Everyday People Believe'
Living as the moral exception was the prospect facing the Together for the Gospel attendees. Most were young men training to be pastors in Southern Baptist churches. The Southern Baptists are one of the Protestant denominations that do not ordain women, even as church deacons. Some Southern Baptist congregations do not even allow divorced men to serve as pastors.
Many in their millennial generation may reject conservative thinking on social issues, but the young men who choose to be Southern Baptist pastors have full knowledge of the church teachings. Their church mandate is somewhat limited: not to persuade the broader culture of new moral truths but rather to help their own congregants live their lives as a "moral exception" to the rest of society.
"The Bible makes claims about what is right and wrong, and those claims are often at odds with what everyday people believe," says Southern Baptist seminary student Joshua Van der Merwe, 24, of Louisville, during a break between conference sessions. "Christians are called to protest and to witness to what the Bible claims to be right and wrong."
An insistence on strict Bible-based standards of morality may exclude some of those everyday people, however.
For them, one alternative is Ridgewood Baptist Church in a working-class suburb of Louisville. The pastor, Matt Johnson, grew up as a Southern Baptist, but his church is one of a group that broke from the Southern Baptist Convention about 25 years ago. It now serves a diverse congregation, and the men and women who make up Johnson's lay advisory "Dawnings" committee advocate that it opens doors to everyday people.
"Let's offer words of hope," Johnson prayed at a recent Dawnings meeting. "Hope for the future of what could happen here, who could come here and find a place to belong." The committee members included Janney Gilbert, a medical office manager whose son is gay, Estelle Power, a retired former deacon who became involved in the church after a painful divorce, and Janelle Perry, whose mother was the first female deacon at Ridgewood and who now serves as the church's youth director.
"I've been here all my life, and Ridgewood is not the same church we were 40 years ago," Perry says. "Everyone can come. Some people are taken aback by that — [and] women deacons. And we'll let most anybody attend. ... We're just open-armed."
It is not that the church serves highly educated liberals who might be expected to support a progressive agenda. The surrounding community, according to Johnson, is "a conservative area, with a lot of folks who feel disenfranchised. I'd say it represents the new face of poverty."
The Role Of Women
Economic stress can be hard on marriages, and Ridgewood's membership includes several people who have been divorced. "I don't know what I would have done without this church," Power says. "I felt I was the only person in the world that was going through a divorce."
Now 76, Power says she has found others at Ridgewood whose lives didn't necessarily fit a church ideal. She can relate to them, she says, because of her own experience.
"I've made some friends, just saying hello," she says, "and somebody would say, 'You're so kind.' I said, 'No, I'm just who I am.' But I do think that it makes you a little more humble when you go through something."
Power grew up in rural Kentucky with divorced parents. Her father drank too much but listened faithfully to Baptist preachers on the radio. Having heard bad things all her life about women who divorced, she welcomed the less judgmental attitude at Ridgewood.
"There are people who have stopped going to church because they think that all that church is is a place where you're being condemned," Johnson says, "and where you're just told, 'This is what you have to think.' " Such people, he says, are among those whom he now hopes to reach with his own ministry.
The church's rupture with the Southern Baptist Convention was in a dispute over the role of women. Southern Baptists believe that men and women "complement" each other but are not interchangeable, which is why women are not allowed to serve in prominent church leadership roles.
Mohler says the church position on complementary gender roles may seem outdated but comes straight from the Bible.
"It's an entire pattern of complementarity that we see woven throughout the account of scripture," he says, "from Genesis 1:26-28 all the way to the Book of Revelation. So it's not a minor matter to suggest that the church can somehow just update its understanding of gender. This is where we must be found faithful, regardless of the cultural understanding around us."
More than 15 million Americans attend Southern Baptist churches. Many Christians yearn for the certainty and direction that come with a life based on a strict reading of the Bible. With the culture rapidly changing around them, however, the future of conservative evangelical Christianity is not clear.
By contrast, the more moderate Baptist churches would seem to have an ever-growing market. On the other hand, some of the people who have soured on the Southern Baptist approach now reject church altogether. The evangelical Protestant share of the U.S. population is declining, so the growth prospects for a congregation like Ridgewood Baptist are also unclear.
From the outside, with a cross prominently placed on the plain brick front, it looks like any other Baptist church in Louisville. Nick Wilson, the church pianist and most prominent gay member, says he would never have approached Ridgewood had he not heard it was a welcoming church.
"Driving by, seeing Ridgewood Baptist Church, I would not stop," he says. "I would just assume that I already know what's going on inside those doors, and I'm not welcome, or I don't want to be part of it, and would go on."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In the last few months, several states, mostly in the South, have considered laws meant to uphold religious liberty. Those proposals have come in response to complaints from conservative Christians, who say they're being forced to accept ideas about gender that conflict with their religious beliefs. To support that position, they cite the Bible. But their arguments are being challenged by changing views in society. From Louisville, Ky., here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: About 10,000 evangelicals filled a basketball arena in Louisville last month. It was a Together for the Gospel Conference.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ALBERT MOHLER: Thanks be to God. We're here together.
GJELTEN: Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, co-founded the Gospel Conference. It's associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest of the Protestant denominations in America, the denominations that trace their history to Martin Luther's revolt against church evils in his time.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MOHLER: We are here because we believe it was the Protestant reformation. And we are here to say, we're still at it.
GJELTEN: Under Mohler's theological leadership, Southern Baptists are standing up against practices they consider immoral.
MOHLER: Our theme for this year is We Protest, which you might say putting the protests back into Protestantism.
GJELTEN: The conference attendees were mostly men, young men, beginning their careers as church pastors. Under Southern Baptist doctrine, only men can be pastors. On gender roles and on matters of sex, marriage and family, Southern Baptists hold to a conservative position. The broader society is leaving them behind, and Mohler knows it.
MOHLER: We are on the losing side of a massive change that's not going to be reversed, in all likelihood, in our lifetimes. Instead, we've got to shift to asking how we're going to live faithfully in a world in which we're going to be a moral exception to the way the rest of the society is ordered.
GJELTEN: Dr. Mohler wants his fellow Baptists to take what he considers a Biblical stand against such things as no-fault divorce, extramarital sex, transgenderism and gay marriage. And though the rest of America may be willing to accommodate those practices, Mohler's views resonated at the Gospel Conference in Louisville. Joshua Van der Merwe is a student at the Southern Baptist Seminary preparing to be a pastor.
JOSHUA VAN DER MERWE: The Bible makes claims about what is right and wrong. And those claims are often at odds with what everyday people believe. And so Christians are called to protest and to witness to what the Bible claims to be right and wrong.
GJELTEN: But an insistence on strict Bible-based standards of morality excludes some people. They either leave the church altogether or go elsewhere for guidance.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MATT JOHNSON: And now let's take some time to pray for this space.
GJELTEN: Pastor Matt Johnson grew up as a Southern Baptist. But his current church in southwest Louisville, Ridgewood Baptist, has gradually softened its positions.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHNSON: And now let's offer words of hope, hope for the future of what could happen here, who could come here and find a place to belong.
GJELTEN: Ridgewood now welcomes those who may feel out of place elsewhere, those whose marriages have ended or gay people. Janelle Perry is the youth director.
JANELLE PERRY: We're not the same Ridgewood that we were years ago. It's totally different. Some people are taken aback by that. Women deacons and we'll let most anybody attend, anybody who wants to come, come. We're just open-armed.
GJELTEN: It's not that Ridgewood Baptist caters to liberals. This part of Louisville, pastor Johnson says, is home to a working-class population that feels increasingly disenfranchised.
JOHNSON: I think actually, this community, it represents, in some ways, the new face of poverty. It doesn't look like a poor neighborhood. But it's people that are really living paycheck to paycheck.
GJELTEN: Economic stress is hard on people and hard on marriages. Estelle Power joined Ridgewood with her husband years ago then left the church for a while. Eventually, she came back. After going through a devastating divorce, she needed the kind of comforting environment that Ridgewood offered.
ESTELLE POWER: I don't know what I would've done without this church. I really don't, I guess because I had felt like I was the only person in the world that was going through a divorce. And if it had not been for that, I don't know what I would've done.
GJELTEN: At Ridgewood, she found others whose lives didn't necessarily fit a church ideal. She can relate because of her own experience.
POWER: I've made some friends just saying hello. And somebody would say, well, you're so kind, you know, you're so kind. And I said, no, I am just who I am, you know? But I do think that it makes you a little more humble when you go through something.
GJELTEN: All her life she had heard bad things about women who were divorced. Now she's less inclined to judge. Pastor Johnson says it's people like Estelle Powers his church can serve, people who might not feel comfortable in a stricter congregation.
JOHNSON: There are people who've stopped going to church because they think that all that church is is a place where you're being condemned and where you're just told, this is what you have to think. And, you know, I think we have a church - a really special place here.
GJELTEN: Ridgewood is one of the congregations that broke away from the Southern Baptist Convention about 25 years ago over the role of women. Southern Baptists say men and women complement each other but are not interchangeable, which is why they don't allow women to serve as pastors or even as deacons. At the Southern Baptist Seminary, Dr. Albert Mohler says the church position may seem outdated but comes straight from the Bible.
MOHLER: It's an entire pattern of complementarity that we see woven throughout the account of Scripture, from Genesis 1:26-28, all the way to the book of Revelation. And so it's not a minor matter to suggest that the church can somehow just update its understanding of gender.
GJELTEN: This is a challenging time for Baptists of all views. Many yearn for the certainty they find in a strict reading of the Bible. More than 15 million Americans attend Southern Baptist churches. But can they maintain their strong position indefinitely with the culture changing around them?
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) United in the work of love. Unite...
GJELTEN: Down at Ridgewood Baptist, pastor Johnson and his congregants hope their more inclusive approach will help them grow. But their numbers are still small. Some of those who have soured in the Southern Baptist approach now reject church altogether.
And from the outside, Ridgewood looks like all the other Baptist churches in Louisville. That fact could've kept Nick Wilson from joining had he not heard it was a welcoming church.
NICK WILSON: Driving by, seeing Ridgewood Baptist Church, I would not stop. I would just assume that I already know what's going on inside those doors and I'm not welcome or I don't want to be part of it, and would go on.
GJELTEN: Why would Nick Wilson think he'd be unwelcome at a church like Ridgewood? Because he's an openly gay man. Later today, on All Things Considered, his story, being Baptist and gay. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.