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Over the last decade, American Christians have become far more accepting of LGBT people and same-sex marriage. Conservative evangelicals remain opposed to such relationships, but by an ever-smaller margin. Now even as some states enact laws allowing religious objections to same-sex unions, the issue is a subject of open debate within the evangelical world. From Louisville, Ky., NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: In the South, preaching is a calling. And it often runs in families, like it did for Nick Wilson growing up in rural Kentucky.
NICK WILSON: Two great-grandfathers were Southern Baptist preachers, and one grandfather was a pastor. Father is a retired pastor, brother's a pastor. We were always in church.
GJELTEN: With lots of gospel music, Appalachian.
WILSON: (Singing) Tempted and tried, we're oft made to wonder -
GJELTEN: Nick learned to play the piano by ear. As a boy, he accompanied the choir in his father's churches.
WILSON: (Singing) While there are others -
GJELTEN: An old piano sits just inside the front door in his little one-bedroom house in Louisville, and he plays it daily. But Nick Wilson was called to preach in his own church. After college, he enrolled at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, but no congregation would ordain him. They all wanted a model family man, and Nick Wilson didn't fit the bill.
WILSON: First off, I'm single. That's a problem. They really want you to be married. But then if you throw in gay, then it's over with.
GJELTEN: Wilson says he knew from the time he was 6 or 7 that he was different. In time, he became open about his sexuality, even taking his boyfriend to church. In the Southern Baptist world, that disqualified him.
ALBERT MOHLER: The Apostle Paul, very explicitly in the 1 Corinthian, says that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
GJELTEN: Albert Mohler is president of the South Baptist Seminary.
MOHLER: Now that means that a biblical Christian can't accept the idea of a Christian who persists in that kind of sin because the Scripture nullifies that possibility.
GJELTEN: At one time, Mohler advocated therapy for LGBT people to get them to change their sexual orientation. He now thinks same-sex attraction may be involuntary. Still, he says those who feel it should not act on it. Better to remain celibate. He also rejects same-sex marriage.
MOHLER: If you can change the way a society or a civilization defines itself at the most molecular level - at marriage and family - and if you can redefine sexual mores pervasively, you will have changed the society utterly.
GJELTEN: This is the Southern Baptist view and the view of conservative Christians generally. Mohler is an intellectual leader in the evangelical world. Not surprisingly, as an evangelical, Nick Wilson has long struggled with being gay.
WILSON: It didn't take long to realize that that was not approved of because I heard my father preach about it. I mean, I have been to the point of suicide over trying to not be gay because I felt early on called to the ministry. But then gay Christian, in the world I grew up in, that didn't go together. You had to be one or the other. And God didn't take it away - the calling or the gay.
GJELTEN: But then a few years ago, Wilson found a Baptist church with an especially open attitude.
UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Says walk in peace, for it is -
GJELTEN: Ridgewood Baptist Church, in a working-class Louisville neighborhood, is a small congregation not affiliated with the Southern Baptist convention. Its pastor, Matt Johnson, now 36, was raised and schooled in the Southern Baptist tradition with views typical for his time and place.
MATT JOHNSON: Homosexuality is wrong, and that's very clear in the Bible. So, you know, that's kind of the end of the discussion.
GJELTEN: But Johnson went to a moderate divinity school, and his views on homosexuality softened after his experience there among some gay Christians.
JOHNSON: People who were there because they want to be ministers and whose faith was very challenging to me and who were just deeply committed Christians and deeply committed to their faith, and who also were gay.
GJELTEN: After a careful study of Scripture, he eventually concluded that biblical references to homosexual activity were not as clear-cut as he originally thought. But it was his encounter with gay ministry students that made the big difference.
JOHNSON: And it was - golly, I see the Holy Spirit working in these people's lives. Who am I to say that they are not Christians or that they are somehow lost or wrong? I don't feel like my faith is nearly as strong as theirs. I'm challenged and humbled by that.
GJELTEN: Pastor Johnson brought those views to Ridgewood. Homosexuality was not itself a big issue there. The congregation did already have a reputation for openness, however. Nick Wilson, uncomfortable elsewhere as a gay man, was welcomed there. Last month, at the age of 51, he was ordained at Ridgewood as a Baptist minister.
The church's gay-friendly reputation has cost it a few members, but most have taken it in stride, if they've even paid attention. For Sarah Thurmond and other members of her youth group at Ridgewood, it's a total non-issue, even in a community where LGBT rights are not well established.
SARAH THURMOND: A lot of the people I end up stuck around find it hard to believe. Like, when I say that we have a gay member in our church, they just don't understand how we allow that. So I was like, what do you mean, how do we allow that? They walk through the door.
GJELTEN: Young people in general are much more likely to support same-sex relationships, but it is not universal. The men who choose to attend the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville do so knowing their church's position. Matt Mihelic, 28, preparing to be a pastor, says if a young man were to come to him and confide that he's gay, he'd advise him to embrace God's view of sexuality alone.
MATT MIHELIC: He should, again, refrain from sexual activity until he's married and...
GJELTEN: ...To a woman.
MIHELIC: To a woman, yeah. Marriage between one man and one woman.
GJELTEN: But he would have to refrain from homosexual activity for the rest of his life, basically.
MIHELIC: Yes. Yes, indeed.
GJELTEN: Dr. Mohler, the Seminary president, says he's often asked whether he and other conservative evangelicals are obsessed with issues of sexuality given all the evils they could focus on. He defends the emphasis.
MOHLER: This sexual revolution is undergirded by a vast change in the moral thinking and the moral intuitions of Americans. And the reason why we can't drop this is because we do believe it matters to salvation and eternity.
GJELTEN: Other Christian thinkers take a more nuanced view of sexual ethics. And for gay people like Nick Wilson, committed to their Christian faith but unwilling to remain celibate their entire lives, the Southern Baptist approach just isn't realistic.
WILSON: I was raised as Southern Baptist to be a virgin until you're married because sex is just bad, bad, bad.
GJELTEN: Is there such a thing as sexual sin?
WILSON: Oh, I definitely think there can be depending on how sex is used or how somebody is literally used in sex that can be sinful. If you're not honoring that other person and just using them as an object for your gratification, I think that's sinful.
GJELTEN: Nick Wilson is a Baptist, and there's one hymn in particular that identifies his faith tradition. It's one all Baptists recognize as their own and one Wilson has played hundreds of times.
WILSON: (Singing) Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood -
GJELTEN: For a gay man, the words just as I am have special meaning. Playing it at home, Wilson says he often tears up. But the hymn is also about repentance. Born-again Christians turn away from their sins - from drink, from drugs, from promiscuity - and they seek forgiveness. The question is, what does that mean for a born-again gay man?
Nick Wilson acknowledges that he, too, is a sinner, but not because of his sexual orientation, nor because of his hope that someday he, too, will marry. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Louisville.
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