Remember when divorce was immoral?

Franklin Graham speaks at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association on March 25.
Franklin Graham speaks at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association on March 25.

Amid all of the overheated rhetoric surrounding the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriages across the nation, evangelicals have alternated between defiance and a kind of martyrdom.

“It’s time to be a light in these dark times,” Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, said. Franklin Graham declared that the court was “endorsing sin” and that God’s “decisions are not subject to review or revision by any man-made court.”

A Fox commentator declared that gay rights now trump religious liberty. And R. Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary warned that “the majority in this decision has placed every religious institution in legal jeopardy.”

Evangelicals like to present their position as biblical and immutable. They want us to believe that they have never before adjusted to shifting public sentiments on sexuality and marriage. That is not so.

Divorce – especially divorce and remarriage – was once such an issue.

When I was growing up within the evangelical subculture in the 1960s, divorce was roundly condemned by evangelicals. Jesus, after all, was pretty clear on the issue. “And I say to you,” he told the Pharisees, “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”

Anyone who was divorced was ostracized in evangelical circles. In some congregations, membership was rescinded. Any evangelical leader who divorced his spouse could expect to look for a different job.

Evangelical culture began to change in the mid 1970s, when the divorce rate among evangelicals approached that of the larger population.

No one outright supported divorce, but it became less of an issue as pastors found it more difficult to judge individuals within their own congregations – or their own families.

Forced to acknowledge the reality of divorce close to home, pastors responded with compassion rather than condemnation.

The real turning point was 1980, when the “family values” movement took off and conservative preachers attacked abortion and homosexuality but rarely mentioned divorce.

What happened in a word (or two words) was Ronald Reagan.

Not only was Reagan divorced, he was divorced and remarried.

Having cast their lot with Reagan in the 1980 election, evangelical denunciations of divorce all but disappeared.

If evangelicals can alter their attitudes toward divorce, they can do likewise with homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Views may soften as LGBT evangelicals come out of the closet and make their communities confront their existence.

Censure is much easier to pull off in the abstract than face to face. Time and again throughout his ministry, Jesus dealt with people one on one, and demonstrated that love always trumps law and acceptance is superior to condemnation.

If Graham, Mohler and other evangelical leaders want to articulate biblical principles relating to sexuality and marriage, they should focus on divorce; Jesus was much clearer on that issue than he was about homosexuality, about which he said nothing.

If, however, they truly seek to follow the Bible in the broader sense of following Jesus, I invite them to exercise the Christian ethic of unstinting love. Should they require a proof text, allow me to suggest Matthew 7:1: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”

Randall Balmer is an Episcopal priest and professor of religion at Dartmouth College.