Will Gay Marriage Pit Church Against Church?

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Deanne Fitzmaurice / Corbis

The Frank and Joe Capley-Alfano wedding.

The fight over gay marriage may be far from over, but already some conservative Christian leaders are looking beyond the courtroom dramas and the legislative infighting. The trouble they see is not just an America where general support for gay marriage will have driven a wedge between churches and the world, but between churches themselves.

"More than anything else, these developments may signal the fact that those who, on biblical grounds, are led by conscience to reject same-sex marriage, really will be exposed as a moral minority," the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a staunch defender of traditional definition of marriage, told TIME recently. "If so, it will expose a great divide over the authority of the Bible among many Christian churches and denominations — perhaps in a way exceeding any other issue." (Check out the story "What If You're on the Gay 'Enemies List.'")

Ever since Jesus told followers to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's," preachers have been warning about a clash between "the world" and "the church." But now Mohler is predicting something more, a clash between churches themselves. (Most recently, the Anglican Communion has been paralyzed by debate over the consecration of gay bishops.) Writing on Thursday morning in his personal blog, Mohler laid out his thoughts more clearly still. "No issue defines our current cultural crisis as clearly as homosexuality. Some churches and denominations have capitulated to the demands of the homosexual rights movement, and now accept homosexuality as a fully valid lifestyle," he wrote. "Other denominations are tottering on the brink, and without a massive conservative resistance, they are almost certain to abandon biblical truth and bless what the Bible condemns. Within a few short years, a major dividing line has become evident — with those churches endorsing homosexuality on one side, and those stubbornly resisting the cultural tide on the other." (Read the story "A Gay Marriage Solution: End Marriage?")

Mohler's view is, to a certain extent, shared by Joseph E. Kurtz, Archbishop of Louisville, who leads an ad hoc panel of U.S. Catholic bishops set up to fight gay marriage. He too sees a potential future when a greater acceptance of homosexuality leads to pressure on churches to conform, and even to change their teachings. "There are grave threats that decisions by the courts, legislative actions or regulations could erode religious freedom," Kurtz tells TIME. "With regard to marriage, this implicates the right of Catholics to practice our beliefs. Here we are talking about the bedrock of society, it's not just a belief, it's written on the hearts of every human person."

Unlike the Baptist's stark outlook, however, Kurtz is more optimistic that the fight to preserve a traditional definition of marriage is not doomed — and is actively forming alliances and organizing to shore up the one-man-and-one-woman concept of matrimony. He sent a letter last fall to Thomas Monson, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, praising Mormon support for Prop 8, the ballot-initiative in California that made gay marriage unconstitutional. That state's Supreme Court is expected to rule on the validity of the amendment soon.

Kurtz concedes there have been wins for supporters of gay marriage lately, but last November's statewide votes against gay marriage in California, Arizona and Florida buoyed him. "It's hard for any of us to have a crystal ball to know our culture society will move," says Kurtz. "The Catholic Church will certainly respond with a commitment to truth and love. ... November is not all that long ago, and I still believe that getting out the message about marriage, with a commitment to both truth and love, will succeed. In upholding the traditional definition of marriage, there is not a desire to punish or hurt anyone. We want to do a better job of communicating our concern for all, for both those who agree, and disagree."

Mohler sees the true church as a body comprised of believers who refuse to give ground on gay marriage. So does the Catholic Church, which has shown no willingness to change its own teachings, rooted as they often are in centuries of tradition. But, except for the November referendums, solidarity among fellow-thinkers has not borne much fruit. And a recent swarm of dire ads warning of a "gathering storm" of gay rights mostly backfired. "Those advocates want to change the way I think," a woman says in one of the most-viewed commercials. Another adds, "I will have no choice." And another warns that she will soon be faced with a choice between "my job and my faith." The ads prompted hundreds of thousands of views on Youtube.com, but they mainly served to show how far removed their creators were from the zeitgeist. The Colbert Report mocked the ads, and countless parodies have sprung up across the Internet at the expense of the ads' grave-faced actors.

So while both men are calling for courage and compassion among their flocks, it's not clear yet whether their message that homosexuals are sinners by definition is resonating beyond their staunchest supporters. Of course, that may be just fine with both men, who see in the future a kind of purifying ordeal that will sort out the true church from the others.