The ‘messy middle’ of the evangelical movement

The evangelical Christian movement, like all large movements, is not monolithic. A new study from Baylor University finds that there is what it calls a ‘messy middle’ that is splitting from orthodoxy while still staying within the evangelical movement. And the issue that is creating this split is the attitude towards gays.

Tolerance toward gays and lesbians is growing within the evangelical community — long a stronghold against homosexuality — with many expressing ambivalent views about the issue, according to a Baylor University study.

The emerging voice of the so-called “Messy Middle” — evangelicals who oppose homosexuality on moral grounds but support equal rights such as civil unions for gays — has strong implications for the gay marriage debate, say Baylor researchers, who will present their paper at the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association.

“As a moral issue, we predict that the opposition to gay civil rights will not have the same staying power as the abortion debate,” said study co-author Brandon Martinez, a sociology researcher in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.

The “Messy Middle” — which researchers refer to as “Ambivalent Evangelicals” — has differing views from evangelical “Gay Right Opponents,” who oppose civil unions, and also from “Cultural Progressives,” who support homosexual behavior and civil unions.

But in terms of religion, “The Ambivalents are similar to Gay Rights Opponents when it comes to level of belief, church attendance, prayer life, Bible reading, and having friends in church,” Bean said. “They’re enmeshed, not peripheral. You have these people in the pews and serving as Sunday School teachers who are supportive of civil unions.”

In an article about the study , Corrie Mitchell writes:

Ross Murray, who monitors religion and media at the gay rights group GLAAD, said the emergence of Ambivalent Evangelicals mirrors an overall shift among religious people who might still be uncomfortable with homosexuality but don’t support laws that enshrine discrimination.

“They don’t want their religion to be known as the religion against people,” Murray said, pointing to a 2007 report from Christian researchers at Barna Group that showed the top words used to describe Christianity were “anti-homosexual” and “judgmental.”

“I think for a long time the understanding was, in order to be a good Christian, you have to be anti-gay,” Murray said.

This is a very hopeful development, even though there are still evangelical groups that are severely anti-gay such as Focus on the Family. They blame popular culture with its depiction of anti-gay people as ‘bigoted bumpkins’ for creating the ‘Messy Middle’.


  1. raven says

    This study IMO, vastly overstates an imaginary split in “Evangelicals”.

    The anti-gay kick IIRC, is relatively recent. It started in not much more than a decade ago.
    And it didn’t have much to do with the gays.

    The fundies have to hate some groups. It’s mandatory, not an option. Their whole cults are build on hate.

    No hate = No fundie xianity.

    They use hate as an in group identifier and motivator. It’s just tribalism. And it is very old. The bible is full of it. Hate the Canaanite, Egyptian, Assyrian, Philistine, Babylonian, Samaritan, Persian, Greek, Roman. And in the New Testament, hate the Jew. What goes around, comes around.

  2. raven says

    Now that the hate the gay fad is winding down, the fundies have to find some other groups to hate.

    But don’t worry, they are very good at hating. When they get bored with hating other groups, they hate each other.

    What they are doing is just picking up their own hates again. They never forget the old ones, just keep finding new groups to hate.

    It’s back to hating women, nonwhites, Democrats, scientists, atheists, nonxians, Darwin, college students and universities, Fake xians, and in general, most of the human species.

    The only question is which hate gets to be the predominate one. The betting is that this will be atheists and Moslems.

  3. left0ver1under says

    History is repeating itself. Many of those who opposed integration and civil rights for blacks in southern US states changed their tune over time. Some changed because they realized the tide was turning, while others actually started meeting and seeing black people and realized they weren’t different from themselves. The same is happening now, decades of seeing and meeting gay people has caused once-bigots to stop believing stereotypes, while others realize they’re fighting a losing battle.

    How many were in each group will vary. Overt racism is on the rise among teabaggers and their ilk. It’s not all people, but there certainly are a number going back to that side. And in time, some may do the same about gay people.

  4. Francisco Bacopa says

    I’d love to see Baylor stop forcing its gay athletes to sign gag orders from saying they are gay even as it tolerates their same sex relationships. I’d love to see Baylor take their ban on same sex relationships out of their honor code because they let their athletes violate that code. Win Baylor and you have won Texas Baptists. Our Babtists will completely break from the Southern Baptist Convention and the pro-gay Covenant Church will join the TBC.

    Of course lots of fundie parents won’t let their kids go to Baylor, but Baylor will once again get lots of of serious applicants just like it did in the 50’s-70″s when it was pro civil rights.

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