A significant number of evangelicals believe both that homosexuality is a sin and civil unions for same-sex couples should be legal, according to research recently presented at the American Sociological Association annual meeting. These evangelicals find themselves in the "messy middle," Baylor University researchers Dr. Lydia Bean and Brandon Martinez argue, due to competing notions about how to engage with homosexuals: both wanting to show love and compassion for their gay neighbors, and wanting to remain loyal to the teachings of their faith. Those in the "messy middle," they find, are more similar to conservative than liberal evangelicals.
Evangelicals sustain "two competing scripts about homosexuality," explain Bean, assistant professor of sociology, and Martinez, a doctoral student in sociology. First, evangelicals believe homosexual behavior is sinful and harmful to those who engage in it. Second, evangelicals emphasize the importance of sharing their faith with others by building relationships in love and empathy. Expressing belief in the first can sometimes make the second more difficult because of the commonly expressed view that it is hateful to say that homosexual behavior is a sin.
Using data from the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey, Bean and Martinez divide their sample of evangelicals into three camps: "cultural progressives" (those who do believe homosexual behavior is not morally wrong and support civil unions for same-sex couples), "gay rights opponents" (those who believe homosexual behavior is morally wrong and do not support civil unions), and "ambivalent evangelicals" (those who believe homosexual behavior is morally wrong and support civil unions).
While one possible hypothesis is that the ambivalent evangelicals, who comprised 35 percent of the sample, hold competing views because they have loose ties to the evangelical subculture, Bean and Martinez find this not to be the case. Rather, the ambivalent evangelicals are much like the more consistently conservative evangelicals, or gay rights opponents. Unlike cultural progressives, 24 percent of the sample, ambivalent evangelicals score high on measures of religious participation, religious salience and religious practice. Like the gay rights opponents, 41 percent of the sample, ambivalent evangelicals attend church often, read their Bible often and have a high number who believe in a literal interpretation of scripture. (All three groups do not differ much in frequency of prayer.)
Using a term from sociology, Bean and Martinez said this can be explained as "structured ambivalence." Unlike "psychological ambivalence," which entails simultaneously holding contradictory views, structured ambivalence occurs from different demands and expectations based upon different social settings.
"Structured ambivalence emerges at the overlap between social institutions, like family, religion, and work, as individuals struggle to perform the contradictory demands and expectations that they encounter there," they wrote.
The authors use Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church, as an example of structured ambivalence. Warren publicly expressed support for a ban on same-sex marriage, then later expressed regret for speaking out on the topic.
"Structured ambivalence," Bean and Martinez claimed, "has taken hold within evangelicalism: not just secularization or accommodation of broader cultural trends, but institutionalized sources of ambivalence that generate tensions within evangelicalism. When leaders like Rick Warren express ambivalent, qualified attitudes about gay rights, they are not prophetic voices crying in the wilderness: they speak for a solid constituency of people in the pews who agree with them."
The authors conclude from their study the structural ambivalence of evangelicals will have political consequences, and that opposition to redefining marriage to include same-sex couples will not have the same "staying power" as the pro-life movement.
The paper, "How the Messy Middle Finds a Voice: Evangelicals and Structured Ambivalence Towards Gays and Lesbians," has been submitted for publication in a scholarly journal. A copy was provided to The Christian Post.