As U.S. Attitudes Change, Some Evangelicals Dig In; Others Adapt America's culture war is being fought inside evangelical Christian circles. Some are resisting secular society's trends that conflict with biblical teaching. Others have found a way to live with them.
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As U.S. Attitudes Change, Some Evangelicals Dig In; Others Adapt

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As U.S. Attitudes Change, Some Evangelicals Dig In; Others Adapt

As U.S. Attitudes Change, Some Evangelicals Dig In; Others Adapt

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In the last few months, several states, mostly in the South, have considered laws meant to uphold religious liberty. Those proposals have come in response to complaints from conservative Christians, who say they're being forced to accept ideas about gender that conflict with their religious beliefs. To support that position, they cite the Bible. But their arguments are being challenged by changing views in society. From Louisville, Ky., here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: About 10,000 evangelicals filled a basketball arena in Louisville last month. It was a Together for the Gospel Conference.

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ALBERT MOHLER: Thanks be to God. We're here together.

GJELTEN: Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, co-founded the Gospel Conference. It's associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest of the Protestant denominations in America, the denominations that trace their history to Martin Luther's revolt against church evils in his time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOHLER: We are here because we believe it was the Protestant reformation. And we are here to say, we're still at it.

GJELTEN: Under Mohler's theological leadership, Southern Baptists are standing up against practices they consider immoral.

MOHLER: Our theme for this year is We Protest, which you might say putting the protests back into Protestantism.

GJELTEN: The conference attendees were mostly men, young men, beginning their careers as church pastors. Under Southern Baptist doctrine, only men can be pastors. On gender roles and on matters of sex, marriage and family, Southern Baptists hold to a conservative position. The broader society is leaving them behind, and Mohler knows it.

MOHLER: We are on the losing side of a massive change that's not going to be reversed, in all likelihood, in our lifetimes. Instead, we've got to shift to asking how we're going to live faithfully in a world in which we're going to be a moral exception to the way the rest of the society is ordered.

GJELTEN: Dr. Mohler wants his fellow Baptists to take what he considers a Biblical stand against such things as no-fault divorce, extramarital sex, transgenderism and gay marriage. And though the rest of America may be willing to accommodate those practices, Mohler's views resonated at the Gospel Conference in Louisville. Joshua Van der Merwe is a student at the Southern Baptist Seminary preparing to be a pastor.

JOSHUA VAN DER MERWE: The Bible makes claims about what is right and wrong. And those claims are often at odds with what everyday people believe. And so Christians are called to protest and to witness to what the Bible claims to be right and wrong.

GJELTEN: But an insistence on strict Bible-based standards of morality excludes some people. They either leave the church altogether or go elsewhere for guidance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATT JOHNSON: And now let's take some time to pray for this space.

GJELTEN: Pastor Matt Johnson grew up as a Southern Baptist. But his current church in southwest Louisville, Ridgewood Baptist, has gradually softened its positions.

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JOHNSON: And now let's offer words of hope, hope for the future of what could happen here, who could come here and find a place to belong.

GJELTEN: Ridgewood now welcomes those who may feel out of place elsewhere, those whose marriages have ended or gay people. Janelle Perry is the youth director.

JANELLE PERRY: We're not the same Ridgewood that we were years ago. It's totally different. Some people are taken aback by that. Women deacons and we'll let most anybody attend, anybody who wants to come, come. We're just open-armed.

GJELTEN: It's not that Ridgewood Baptist caters to liberals. This part of Louisville, pastor Johnson says, is home to a working-class population that feels increasingly disenfranchised.

JOHNSON: I think actually, this community, it represents, in some ways, the new face of poverty. It doesn't look like a poor neighborhood. But it's people that are really living paycheck to paycheck.

GJELTEN: Economic stress is hard on people and hard on marriages. Estelle Power joined Ridgewood with her husband years ago then left the church for a while. Eventually, she came back. After going through a devastating divorce, she needed the kind of comforting environment that Ridgewood offered.

ESTELLE POWER: I don't know what I would've done without this church. I really don't, I guess because I had felt like I was the only person in the world that was going through a divorce. And if it had not been for that, I don't know what I would've done.

GJELTEN: At Ridgewood, she found others whose lives didn't necessarily fit a church ideal. She can relate because of her own experience.

POWER: I've made some friends just saying hello. And somebody would say, well, you're so kind, you know, you're so kind. And I said, no, I am just who I am, you know? But I do think that it makes you a little more humble when you go through something.

GJELTEN: All her life she had heard bad things about women who were divorced. Now she's less inclined to judge. Pastor Johnson says it's people like Estelle Powers his church can serve, people who might not feel comfortable in a stricter congregation.

JOHNSON: There are people who've stopped going to church because they think that all that church is is a place where you're being condemned and where you're just told, this is what you have to think. And, you know, I think we have a church - a really special place here.

GJELTEN: Ridgewood is one of the congregations that broke away from the Southern Baptist Convention about 25 years ago over the role of women. Southern Baptists say men and women complement each other but are not interchangeable, which is why they don't allow women to serve as pastors or even as deacons. At the Southern Baptist Seminary, Dr. Albert Mohler says the church position may seem outdated but comes straight from the Bible.

MOHLER: It's an entire pattern of complementarity that we see woven throughout the account of Scripture, from Genesis 1:26-28, all the way to the book of Revelation. And so it's not a minor matter to suggest that the church can somehow just update its understanding of gender.

GJELTEN: This is a challenging time for Baptists of all views. Many yearn for the certainty they find in a strict reading of the Bible. More than 15 million Americans attend Southern Baptist churches. But can they maintain their strong position indefinitely with the culture changing around them?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) United in the work of love. Unite...

GJELTEN: Down at Ridgewood Baptist, pastor Johnson and his congregants hope their more inclusive approach will help them grow. But their numbers are still small. Some of those who have soured in the Southern Baptist approach now reject church altogether.

And from the outside, Ridgewood looks like all the other Baptist churches in Louisville. That fact could've kept Nick Wilson from joining had he not heard it was a welcoming church.

NICK WILSON: Driving by, seeing Ridgewood Baptist Church, I would not stop. I would just assume that I already know what's going on inside those doors and I'm not welcome or I don't want to be part of it, and would go on.

GJELTEN: Why would Nick Wilson think he'd be unwelcome at a church like Ridgewood? Because he's an openly gay man. Later today, on All Things Considered, his story, being Baptist and gay. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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