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No More “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Twenty-one years ago, three Lutheran church bodies merged to create the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. At the very same time, the ELCA had to grapple with the question of whether gays and lesbians could serve as clergy or other lay professionals within the church. As a band-aid on the situation, the ELCA adopted what amounted to a religious version of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: it’s OK for a pastor to be gay, said the policy, but not to act gay. Gays could serve, as long as they promise to remain celibate.

After twenty years of this policy and twenty years of grappling with the broader issues of human sexuality, the ELCA voted yesterday to open the clergy roster and the rosters of other lay professionals in the church to gays and lesbians in "lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships."

Hallelujah! It’s about time.

I could go on for hours — and have done so on many an occasion over the last twenty years —  about the theological rationale for this decision, the biblical basis for it, and various other religious aspects of this decision. Here at FDL, though, I want to look at the implications for secular political discussions. 

For instance . . .

First, note that the ELCA is not a denomination that is dominated by liberal elites on the two coasts. Though its membership does span the US, its membership is more midwestern than coastal and more northern than southern (especially visible when Lutherans are mapped alongside other religious groups). Thus, the Iowa Supreme Court ruling and the subsequent yawn that has followed in its wake likely is not an aberration, but part of a picture of greater acceptance of GLBTs in the midwest. It’s another sign that hope is breaking out not just on the coasts, but in the heartland.

Second, this action by the ELCA will make it harder for people to take the TheoCons seriously when they simply pronounce "The Church" opposes gay marriage. The easy replies of "But what about the ELCA, the Episcopalians, and the UCC?" will help to marginalize the TheoCon claims that "all Christians" believe as they do.

This decision marks yet another sign of the broader openness to supporting same-gender relationships. Earlier in the week, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly voted 2-1 to approve a social statement on human sexuality [pdf]. Within that statement were items like this: (emphasis added)

In this country and in our congregations, families are formed in many ways. There are natural and adoptive families, foster families, blended families, families with a missing generation, and families where the parents are the same gender. Millions of households in the U.S., and many in our church, are headed by single parents—mostly women—whether widowed, divorced, or never married. The critical issue with respect to the family is not whether it has a conventional form, but how it performs indispensable individual and social tasks. All families have responsibility for the tasks of providing safety, shielding intimacy, and developing trustworthy relationships.

The openness also extends to broader social and political questions:

While Lutherans hold various convictions regarding lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships [i.e., marriage and/or civil unions], this church is united on many critical issues. It opposed all forms of verbal or physical harassment and assault based on sexual orientation. It supports legislation and policies to protect civil rights and to prohibit discrimination on in housing, employment and public services. It has called upon congregations and members to welcome, care for, and support same-gender couples and their families and to advocate for their legal protection. . . .

To be clear: not all ELCA members, pastors, or congregations believe this way. But all in all, this week’s ELCA churchwide assembly bears out a lot of what Teddy noted last December. Public views of GLBTs are shifting, including among that portion of the public that calls itself religious. 


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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.