While the battle rages over equality for LGBT people it may be difficult to see how much things will change over the next couple decades, but as Amanda Marcotte correctly points out, it is almost a certainty that Christianity will become less and less anti-gay as time goes by.
Douthat is right about this much: The more unfashionable and distasteful anti-gay bigotry becomes, the more religious people will cut it out. Some will come up with theological rationalizations for their change of mind, which is probably the best solution. Some will simply recede to muttering about the gays behind closed doors as they slowly die off. Preaching homophobia from the pulpit will increasingly become taboo. It’s true that Douthat, as Beutler accuses, doesn’t have the confidence that the supposed rightness of religious bigotry will be enough to allow believers to hold fast in face of changing tides. That shows Douthat has little faith, but he does actually understand the real world in this.
I just want to point out that the reason that Douthat knows this is how it goes is because this is how it went down when it came to the end of Jim Crow and segregation. In the decades leading up to the Civil Rights Act, it was common for Christian preachers to rail from the pulpit about the evils of race-mixing. As Ian Milhiser explained, much to most of the justifications for segregation were religious in nature. The KKK, like many anti-gay groups now, held itself out primarily as a Christian organization dedicated to preserving the family. Brown v the Board of Education was largely battled out on religious grounds, with Christian groups starting private schools for the purpose of excluding black students on religious grounds…
Since then, a lot has changed. Like I said, I heard religious justifications for racism from people in the 90s, but these were things people uttered breathlessly behind closed doors, instead of bellowed from the pulpit. While there’s a lot of de facto segregation still, what used to be unthinkable in conservative Christian circles—racially mixed congregations, desegregated religious schools, acceptance of interracial marriage—have all become normal and accepted. What used to be a prime motivator for the religious right—resisting desegregation—has become a dirty secret of the past that they try to pretend never happened.
This is what Douthat clearly and openly fears will happen on the question of homophobia. He knows that churches will never be forced to marry gay couples. They aren’t forced to marry interracial couples now. But the cultural tides shifted in the wake of anti-discrimination legislation, and most churches that would have balked at marrying interracial couples 40 years ago wouldn’t bat an eye at doing it now. That’s why his hand-waving over how these situations are so different is so utterly dishonest. He knows the reason that the reason “remaining adherents” to a homophobic worldview “can be marginalized, set against one other, and encouraged to conform” is because that’s exactly what happened to the people who tried to hold fast to the notion that racism was also biblically mandated.
As historical patterns go, this could hardly be more plain. Until the last half century, American Christianity was largely (though not entirely) convinced that racism and segregation were demanded by their religion. Until a century ago, it was largely convinced that the Christian position on women’s suffrage was to oppose it. Until a century and a half ago, it was largely of the view that slavery was a divinely-commanded institution. There were liberal Christian churches on the right side of all those battles, of course, but the weight of institutional Christianity was squarely on the wrong side.
But today those religious beliefs are consigned to the dustbin of history and now exist only on the extreme fringes of society. Christianity has evolved, like every institution does. It has been humanized by contact with Enlightenment ideals of liberty, justice and equality and that evolution continues today. They will evolve again, finding fanciful theological means of reinterpreting those anti-gay verses in the Bible just as they’ve reinterpreted, and largely done away with, the curse of Ham and other justifications for bigotry. And then they’ll start pointing to Gene Robinson and other pro-equality Christians and claiming it was their idea from the start, quickly erasing all the relevant facts of history in the process.