In case you haven’t heard, progressive “evangelical” leader Jim Wallis has recently come out in favor of gay marriage—sort of. In two separate interviews—one with The Huffington Post and another with Jonathan Merritt—he was asked about gay marriage. In both interviews, he gave a meandering response that sounded like support for gay marriage. Also in both interviews, the interviewers had to follow-up with a clarifying question, “Just to be clear, do you now support gay marriage.” He answered in the affirmative both times.
What’s going on here? Why is Wallis being so cagey about his newfound support for gay marriage? I don’t know the man’s motives, but I can think of some reasons that I would be reticent if I were in his position.
1. It’s uncomfortable to have to admit that you’ve been on the “wrong side of history” until now. As recently as 2008, Wallis was saying that he was opposed to gay marriage. Now he’s saying that he supports it. He even suggests that he supported it all along in principle by supporting equal protection under the law. He told Jonathan Merritt, “So I’ve always believed in equal protection.” But he hasn’t always supported gay marriage, and that’s a distinction that liberals notice. That is why liberal writer Sarah Posner excoriated Wallis’ less-than-prophetic stance on the issue. For those who have been supporting gay marriage all along like Posner, Wallis appears to be flipping conveniently with the winds of public opinion.
2. It’s difficult to make a cogent case for supporting gay marriage while offering no serious biblical or moral reflection on sexuality and marriage. In no interview that I have seen has Wallis given any serious theological or biblical foundation for his change in opinion. In 2008, Wallis told Christianity Today that “I don’t think the sacrament of marriage should be changed… Marriage is all through the Bible, and it’s not gender-neutral.” While he supported civil unions in 2008, he specifically rejected gay marriage for biblical reasons. So why the change now? As far as I can tell he offers two reasons for his conversion. First, polls show young people are demanding gay marriage, and he has decided to follow what the young people want. Second, the sociological data showing marriage in decline mean that marriage needs to be strengthened. And that includes figuring out how to include homosexuals in the institution. This reasoning isn’t exactly prophetic. It isn’t even Christian.
3. Declaring support for gay marriage shrinks your platform with evangelicals. Folks like Jim Wallis thrive on being the progressive voice of reform from within the evangelical movement. But now he has revealed himself not to be speaking any longer from within but from without. Embracing gay marriage by necessity means abandoning biblical authority. Abandoning biblical authority by necessity means abandoning evangelicalism. Wallis will no longer be able to credibly call himself an evangelical (for my definition of evangelical see here and here). That means that a very large constituency of people who buy books and attend conferences will be increasingly off-limits to him. Once an “evangelical” declares support for gay marriage, he forfeits his ability to speak to bona fide evangelicals.
Wallis’ meandering responses in these recent interviews sound like a man who is still trying to split the difference between evangelicalism and protestant liberalism. He wants to have a place at both the progressive and evangelical tables. But it has become increasingly clear over the last year that the issue of gay marriage is making that impossible. Any public figure who calls himself a Christian is going to get smoked-out on this issue and will have to choose a side. Unfortunately, Wallis has chosen the side that rejects what the Bible says about marriage.