Tony Campolo has become the latest evangelical leader to declare for gay marriage. It is perhaps not a surprise: Campolo has been a gadfly in the evangelical world throughout his career and his adoption of this cause is of a piece with many of his other pronouncements over the years. While his move is unlikely to have a great impact on evangelicalism—far more significant will be the coming shifts on the issue by megachurch pastors—his statement is emblematic of the way evangelical attitudes are likely to change.
What is surprising in the statement is the complete absence of any thoughtful argumentation in his articulation of his position. Though he professes to have heard every kind of biblical argument against same-sex marriage, he does not burden the reader with any of these, or why he has found them so lacking. Instead, he prefers to use straw men, false dichotomies, and the rhetoric of social science to present his case.
First, he sets up a straw man, or rather a straw couple, as the alternative to his position. While Augustine may well have tended to reduce the purpose of marriage to procreation, I know of nobody who would do that today. Even in Roman Catholicism, the assertion of the inseparability of unitive and procreative dimensions of sexual intercourse does not reduce the purpose of marriage simply to procreation. The lack of natural procreative potential in gay marriage is not the only reason why people uphold traditional notions of marriage.
Second, Campolo implies that acceptance of gays has to take the form of acceptance of gay marriage. He reinforces this by using reparative therapy as the bogeyman alternative. Rejection of gay marriage does not require acceptance of reparative therapy. Yes, I agree that the Church needs to be loving and welcome. But there are more ways of doing that than simply affirming people where they are and in their chosen patterns of behavior.
Third, Campolo seems remarkably naive regarding “social science.” As with his blithe dismissal of alternative biblical arguments, so he fails even to acknowledge the existence of dissent on the matter in the social sciences. What does he make of government statistics on STDs, one wonders? Or of the research of Mark Regnerus? And given the fact that he has spent his career poking at those in power, it is amazing that he seems to have no awareness of how sexual identity has politicized social science to a level which would make Trofim Lysenko pause for thought.
Fourth, the old rhetorical chestnuts about the Church's view on slaves and women are trotted out. The connotations of such are powerful but it is really a non-argument. The history of the Church’s attitudes to women and to slavery is far more complicated than the useful political clichés would imply; And logically the fact that one was wrong about x does not mean that one is necessarily wrong about y. This plays well to the gallery but will not withstand scrutiny.
The saddest part of Campolo’s change of mind, however, is that it will not be enough, as early responses from the gay community already indicate. Even a moment’s reflection on the Bruce Jenner affair or a casual conversation with a teenager would reveal to him that the gay issue is, as far as the secular world is considered, done and dusted. All Campolo has done as an evangelical is modify his sexual ethics to conform to the comfortable, safe, middle-class tastes of modern America. He will shock no-one but evangelicals—and, I might add, only evangelicals unfamiliar with his other work.
As the ever lengthening DNA chain of the LGBTQQIAAP lobby indicates, Campolo is just the latest example of a perennial evangelical tendency on matters of culture: He is a day late and a dollar short. And the people whose community he now chooses to serve will not be satisfied with that. One wonders if even he will be satisfied with it in the long run.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His previous posts can be found here.