by Jack Jenkins
March 17, 2015
On Monday, Rabbi Denise Eger was installed as the first openly gay president of Reform Judaism’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, which claims around 2,000 rabbis and 862 congregations in the United States.
“It really shows an arc of L.G.B.T. civil rights,” Eger told the New York Times. “I smile a lot — with a smile of incredulousness.”
Eger’s new position is, unquestionably, a historic moment for Reform Judaism. But when placed alongside the greater American religious landscape, her achievement is remarkable in part because of how common such stories have become. It’s hardly the first time a mainstream American faith community has proclaimed spiritual support for LGBT rights — the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association chose a lesbian Rabbi to be their president in 2007, Unitarian Universalists have been passing resolutions affirming everyone regardless of their sexuality since 1970, and several of the largest mainline Christian denominations have moved to embrace various versions of LGBT rights. Since the early 2000s, the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have all voted in favor of supporting gay ordination and same-sex marriage, and the Episcopal Church famously elected Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, to the position of bishop in 2003. And while the United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Christian denomination, officially opposes marriage equality and the ordination of LGBT ministers, Methodist bishops and priests across the country are now refusing to enforce church discipline on clergy who officiate same-sex weddings. Meanwhile, nearly half of religious Americans see no conflict between their faith and LGBT rights.
The issue has become omnipresent at the national gatherings of evangelical Christian institutions such as the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), whose leaders disavowed destructive “ex-gay” therapy in 2014 but continue to enforce a no-tolerance policy toward theologies that promote acceptance of same-sex relationships. When a SBC pastor in California told his congregation last year that he had adopted a conciliatory view of homosexuality, for example, national-level officials promptly responded by kicking the church out of the denomination. The larger evangelical community has also adopted a strategy of silencing or rejecting believers who publicly endorse pro-LGBT views: when World Vision, an evangelical charity, announced last March that it would start hiring gay employees, funders began pulling money from the organization, resulting in the group reversing its decision within 48 hours; Brandan Robertson, a young evangelical and author of the popular blog Revangelical, lost a book deal in January after he refused to sign a pledge asking him not to “condone, encourage or accept the homosexual lifestyle”; and in February, the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination “terminated” its partnership with Christ Church: Portland after the pastor preached passionate support for LGBT acceptance.