SAME-SEX SEXUALITY, MARRIAGE, AND THE SEMINARY PROFESSOR by Robert J. Priest

This article — the full title of which is “Same-Sex Sexuality, Marriage, and the Seminary Professor: Catholic, Evangelical, and Mainline Protestant” — presents the results of a survey conducted by the author three years ago. Nearly 800 faculty from one hundred ATS-accredited seminaries in the United States responded. Surveys were also sent to faculty members at St. Vladimir’s, St. Tikhon’s, and Holy Cross Seminaries, but these are combined with other schools that do not fall into the categories of Roman Catholic, Evangelical, or Mainline Protestant.

marriage

In America, both religious and governmental authorities act to validate marriages. Such authorities do not always agree. Most churches, for example, disapprove of behaviors that laws allow and protect—ranging from no-fault divorce to non-marital sex to the production and consumption of pornography. Such laws often protect citizens’ rights to act in religiously disapproved ways without requiring religious actors to endorse or support those actions. But the Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) on same-sex marriage introduced, according to Chief Justice Roberts, “serious questions about religious liberty” (27). And since a majority of American Christians attend churches where only a marriage between a man and woman is thought to constitute a God-approved marriage, religious America would seem to be moving into uncharted waters.

Historically, church leaders understood Scripture to teach that marriage was to be a male-female institution and that any sexual activity outside of such male-female marriage was sinful. Not surprisingly, Christians and churches committed to the authority and truth of Scripture and/or of the Magisterium find “accommodation to current attitudes and norms regarding sexuality” more of a challenge than do “theologically liberal” ones (Adler, 2012: 192; see also Burdette, Ellison, and Hill 2005; Ogland and Bartkowski 2014; Perry 2015; Sullins 2010; Todd and Ong 2012; Whitehead and Baker 2012; Whitehead and Perry 2014), where it is more acceptable simply to affirm that such authorities are wrong, at times, in what they affirm. And yet dramatic cultural changes in how sexuality is understood are creating challenges for older Christian viewpoints, with understandings of Christian communities in flux (Baunach 2012; Bean and Martinez 2014; Cadge et al. 2012; Schnabel 2016; Thomas and Olson 2012b; Thomas and Whitehead 2015). It is difficult to predict future religious and social outcomes.

Religion variables are among the strongest predictors of opinions about same-sex  sexuality and marriage (Burdette, Ellison, and Hill 2005; Olson, Cadge, and Harrison 2006; Perry 2015; Perry and Whitehead 2016; Todd and Ong 2012; Whitehead and Baker 2012; Whitehead and Perry 2014; Woodford, Walls, and Levy, 2012: 5), with members of the three largest religious traditions in America (Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestant, and mainline Protestant) differing significantly in their beliefs on the topic (Gaines and Garand 2010; Haider-Markel and Joslyn 2005; Merino 2013; Olson, Cadge, and Harrison 2006; Perry 2013; Perry and Whitehead 2016; Pew Research Center 2015c; Schnabel 2016; Sherkat et al. 2011; Sullins 2010; Whitehead 2010, 2013; Whitehead and Baker 2012).

Since churches from the three traditions differentially influence adherents’ beliefs and stances on sex and marriage, research also has focused on the formative role of such congregations and denominations (Adler 2012; Adler, Hoegeman, and West 2014; Brittain and McKinnon 2011; Cadge 2002; Cadge, Day and Wildeman 2007; Chaves and Anderson 2014; Djupe, Olson, and Gilbert 2006; Thomas and Olson 2012a; Whitehead 2013). And since religious elites also influence adherents’ views and stances, research has also focused on pastors and denominational leaders (Brittain and McKinnon 2011; Cadge and Wildeman 2008; Cadge et al. 2012; Olson and Carroll 1992; Olson and Cadge 2002; Thomas and Olson 2012b; Uecker and Lucke 2011; Wellman 1999). And yet church leaders receive their training in theological seminaries that themselves deserve attention (Carroll et al. 1997; Finke and Dougherty 2002; Ott and Winters 2011; Stephens and Jung 2015; Turner and Stayton 2014), with seminary professors especially constituting an understudied elite that merits consideration due to their influential role as intellectuals and educators of future pastors and denominational leaders (Hunter 1987; Olson and Carroll 1992).

Reporting on results of a 2015 U.S. Seminary Faculty Survey on Sexuality and Marriage, this article compares and contrasts Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, and evangelical seminaries and their theological faculty, and examines 1) faculty stances on same-sex marriage, 2) tradition-related factors associated with such stances, 3) faculty understandings of what such stances should imply for religious communities and civil society, and 4) the extent to which engagement with these issues represents a prioritized focus. It concludes with a discussion of the findings, considers possible futures, and suggests directions for future research.

THEOLOGICAL SCHOOLS IN THE UNITED STATES

In the fall of 2015, more than 4,500 seminary professors in the United States taught over 64,000 seminarians in 210 theological schools fully accredited by The Association of Theological Schools (ATS).2 Most of these schools may be categorized as Roman Catholic Seminaries (RCS), Evangelical Protestant Seminaries (EPS), or Mainline Protestant Seminaries (MPS).

The “standard way” sociologists have differentiated Evangelical from Mainline Protestant (Woodberry et al. 2012) is based on the classification system (RELTRAD) devised by Steensland et al. (2000). This article’s coding of seminaries in the ATS data (42 RCS, 81 EPS, 68 MPS, and 19 “other” or “mixed”) is also based on RELTRAD. For a full explication of the application of RELTRAD coding that underpins data in Table 1 and in the survey sample selection, see Appendix A.

[…]

The mix of strengths, as measured by enrollment, faculty size, endowment, and faculty scholarship awards, varies in each tradition, as is seen in Table 1. RCS have 9.1 percent of the students, 17.9 percent of the faculty, and 9.5 percent of the endowment money. Their professors win 15 percent of the prestigious ATS-administered Faculty Luce Awards. MPS have 20.8 percent of the students, 28.6 percent of the faculty, and 57.5 percent of the endowment money. Their faculty garner 51 percent of the Luce Awards. By contrast, EPS have 18.8 percent of the endowment money, 45.7 percent of the faculty, and 64.7 percent of the students. But EPS professors win only 5.2 percent of the Faculty Luce Awards. Divinity school faculty at Harvard, Yale, and the University of Chicago (coded as “other/mixed”) won most of the remaining Luce Awards.

Regarding the constituencies of these seminaries, mainline Protestants in America experienced the greatest decline, going in seven years (2007–2014) from 18.1 percent of the U.S. population to 14.7 percent, part of a long-term trend. These same years saw a decline for Roman Catholics from 23.9 percent to 20.8 percent. During this period, evangelical Protestants increased slightly in total numbers (from 60 to 62 million), but as a proportion of the U.S. population, they dropped nearly 1 percent, from 26.3 percent to 25.4 percent (Pew Research Center, 2015a: 3–4).

On one hand, as measured by financial resources and signals of elite intellectual success, MPS have the greatest strength. That EPS faculty have won only 5.2 percent of the Faculty Luce Awards would seem, on any interpretation, to signal their marginality or marginalization from elite theological scholarship. On the other hand, RCS and EPS serve larger constituencies, with EPS seeming to have an outsized influence—if measured by student numbers and by their constituencies’ continuing size and strength of religious affiliation.

SURVEYING THEOLOGICAL SCHOOL FACULTY

This article reports on results of a survey of theological faculty taken during the weeks leading up to the 2015 Obergefell decision and focused on same-sex sexuality and marriage.

Survey Sample

Email contact information was secured online for faculty at twenty out of forty-two RCS (47.6 percent), thirty-two of eighty-one EPS (39.5 percent), thirty-five of sixty-eight MPS (51.5 percent) and ten of the remaining nineteen schools (52.6 percent).7 Since EPS posted online faculty contact information at the lowest rates, with the largest interdenominational EPS underrepresented in the initial sample, administrators at six such schools were queried, with three of them providing faculty contact information, giving a total of thirty-five EPS to match the thirty-five MPS. An additional ten ATS schools were surveyed that were not RCS, EPS, or MPS, for a total of 100 ATS schools out of the 210 total.

In March of 2015, invitations were sent to 2,376 professors from these 100 theological schools to fill out a seventy-item online survey about same-sex sexuality, with 764 respondents completing the survey, a response rate of 32.2 percent. Given the sensitive subject and the survey’s online nature (involving issues with spam filters, for example), this response rate is reasonable, adequate to compare and contrast RCS, EPS, and MPS faculty. A discussion of response rate and evidence for this sample being representative is provided in Appendix C. Table 2 provides socio-demographic information on respondents.

SURVEY FINDINGS

Stance on Same-Sex Marriage by Tradition

Historically, Christian churches understood marriage as a male-female union, a position widely affirmed by evangelical denominations and recently reaffirmed for Catholics by Pope Francis (2016: 190). But mainline Protestant denominations have long deliberated over homosexuality (Cadge, Olson and Wildeman 2008; Olson and Cadge 2002; White 2015), with a majority now officially affirming same-sex marriage. In May of 2015, support for legal same-sex marriage varied markedly by religious tradition and stood at 27 percent of white evangelical Protestants, 33 percent of black Protestants, 56 percent of Roman Catholics, 62 percent of mainline Protestants, and 85 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans (Pew Research Center 2015c). Of course, as with church member views when compared with formal church positions, the degree of congruence between what denominational faculty affirm and official church positions is an open question.

Furthermore, approval of same-sex marriage as a legal option must be distinguished from approval endorsed by God and church. In 2013, Gallup reported that American support for same-sex marriage had solidified at “above 50%” (Jones 2013). In 2015, Pew reported that “a majority of Americans (55%) support same-sex marriage” (Pew Research Center 2015b). In both cases the actual survey question focused on legality, with Gallup asking whether same-sex marriage “should be recognized by the law as valid” and Pew asking whether respondents support “allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally.” These questions are, of course, rather different from asking whether respondents themselves morally approve, or believe God approves. Dillon (2014: 8–9) has argued that Americans often “decouple…the question of legalization” from the question of moral or religious approval and that surveys need to probe and report each separately. It is possible personally to affirm values based on religious beliefs that one does not feel inclined to impose coercively on others (Wellman 1999).

Thus, this survey asked for agreement or opposition to two statements, one focused on civil context: “I support the legality of same-sex (civil) marriage,” and the other focused on religious context: “I support pastors of my church/denomination performing same-sex weddings.” Figure 1 provides the results.

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This article appeared in Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, vol. 14, 2018. Excerpt printed in collaboration with the author and IJRR.

Robert J. Priest is a professor of anthropology at Taylor University in Upland IN. He holds a PhD in Anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley. 

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