BY RELEVANT RELATIONSHIPS / LIFE April 23, 2009

Once again gay marriage is all over the news. Within one week both Iowa and Vermont legalized gay marriage, and DC passed a legislature that recognized gay marriages performed in other states.  Also, New York is currently considering joining the bandwagon. For gay rights activists, all signs point to victory, but for others it is a cause for concern.

This past Sunday, the debate even took over the Miss USA pageant, when Perez Hilton, one of the judges and an openly gay celebrity blogger, asked contestant and eventual runner-up Carrie Prejean what she thought about gay marriage: “Vermont recently became the fourth state to legalize same-sex marriage. Do you think every state should follow suit. Why or why not?”

Prejean, a Christian, answered: “Well, I think it’s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And you know what, in my country, in my family, I think that I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there, but that’s how I was raised and that’s how I think it should be—between a man and a woman. Thank you very much.”

Hilton, decidedly unimpressed, later described Prejean rather unfavorably on his blog and others in Hollywood have followed suit—including Twitters from Shanna Moakler, Giuliana Rancic, Holly Madison and Heidi Montag all decrying Prejean’s words about gay marriage. Rancic, an E! News anchor, Twittered that “I know i’m a journalist, and i should be objective … but she is an ignorant disgrace and she makes me sick to my stomach.”

But Prejean says she’s received an outpouring of support from those who agree with her position: “Lots of phone calls. I’ve gotten over 500 Facebook friend requests, hundreds of messages from people I don’t know, saying how proud of me they are that I stood my ground.”

Why does this issue keep coming back around? Why is there such a deep, deep divide over it? Is there really no way for us to all “just get along” and live in harmony?

Many Christians worry that legalized gay marriage will infringe upon religious liberties. Conservative blogger Rod Dreher says there are many religious organizations currently facing legal consequences for their moral convictions. According to his blog, such cases include a Christian photographer being fined for not photographing a gay wedding, a psychologist fired for not counseling a lesbian about her relationship, and Christian fertility doctors facing the Supreme Court after refusing to artificially inseminate a lesbian patient. “If opposition to same-sex marriage is to be understood as pure bigotry, then no accommodation for religious believers will be made,” Dreher writes. "This is what people have got to understand is at stake in this conflict. It is not a scare tactic, or a made-up charge: there really will be a substantial effect on traditional churches, synagogues, mosques and religious institutions if gay marriage is constitutionalized.”

Gay blogger Andrew Sullivan, on the other hand, says that it is all a scare tactic. "I have nothing against the voluntary and peaceful activities of any religious group, and regard these organizations as some of the greatest strengths of America," he writes. "The idea that gay people somehow want to persecute these churches, that we’re ‘out to get you,’ and hurt you and punish you is preposterous. The notion that there are rampaging mobs of gay people beating up on Christians is also unhinged.” Sullivan, a practicing Catholic, believes that the Bible condemns homosexuality only if it is connected to either prostitution or pagan ritual. He is married to actor/artist Aaron Tone, and is a vocal advocate of gay marriage. “Rod [Dreher] believes that accepting my civil marriage as equal to his somehow erases the meaning of his own union,” Sullivan writes. “But it doesn’t. He is free as a person of faith to regard my civil marriage as substantively void and his as substantively meaningful; he is simply required as a member of this disenchanted polis to accept my civil marriage as legally valid. That’s all. Is that so hard?”

It would seem that some evangelicals, at least younger ones, are starting to agree with Sullivan. According to a Faith in Public Life survey, younger evangelicals are two and a half times as likely to support same sex unions as older evangelicals. This gap has grown by nine points over the last two years.

“Younger evangelicals are doubtlessly shifting their views on marriage,” says Jonathan Merritt, a faith and culture writer who serves as national spokesperson for the Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative, and who has recently written for USA Today and The Advocate (a LGBT publication) on the relationship between the Church and the gay community. “While it may be a sad reality depending on one’s beliefs about marriage, rising generations will not fight for traditional marriage with the same fire and in the same numbers as previous generations.”

Indeed, according to PBS’ Religion and Ethics Newsweekly research, 58 percent of younger, white evangelicals support legal recognition of same-sex civil unions, and yet are still as solidly pro-life as their older evangelical counterparts. Younger evangelicals are not splitting in total from the values of their parents’ and other older generations—they are not simply bowing to the pressures of a liberal media, as some might think. They just don’t believe that abortion and same-sex civil unions are as equally worth public debate and constitutional decree.

"Rising generations need to articulate a stance that protects the nature of marriage in a way that is both logical and loving," Merritt says. "We must move away from the us-versus-them, culture war mentality that treats our gay and lesbian neighbors only as our political enemies, and begin embracing them as people of mutual goodwill who happen to see things very differently than we do.”

Eric Bryant, author of the book Peppermint-Filled Piñatas, echoes Merritt’s call to love our gay neighbors. “Christians are known for who we hate rather than how we love,” he writes in his blog. “This moves us out of the conversation and polarizes those involved so quickly, no progress can be made.” Bryant says that it’s crucial for Christians to love people we disagree with, and to discuss the gay marriage issue with civility. “We cannot influence others we have pushed away," he writes. "This includes those who are struggling to figure out what to do with their sexual desires while growing up."

This reminder to keep things personal and not just political resonates with many younger evangelicals who now, more than ever, know members of the gay community. According to Public Religion Research, 37 percent of young evangelicals have a close relative who is homosexual, compared to only 16 percent of older evangelicals.

"Our beliefs are most effectively communicated within the confines of a loving, trusting relationship—not barked over a political podium to the applause of jeering crowds," Merritt says. "As we begin to form meaningful, motive-free relationships with gays and lesbians, our tone will doubtlessly change and our witness will be made stronger."

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