Tony Campolo, the Christian evangelical leader known nationwide for his role in advising former President Bill Clinton, surprised followers Monday by doing an emphatic 180-degree turn in his public opinion of gay couples.
According to the 80-year-old Baptist preacher and sociological professor, it took meeting with numerous real-life same-sex couples for years and studying scripture to come to the conclusion that gay people — or, at least those in monogamous, long-term partnerships — represent no threat to the faith.
“It has taken countless hours of prayer, study, conversation and emotional turmoil to bring me to the place where I am finally ready to call for the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the Church,” he announced in a statement.
Campolo's change of heart comes as a surprise to many, and arrives at a time when peers like prominent evangelist Franklin Graham — who just announced the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's boycott of LGBT-friendly bank Wells Fargo — are making headlines for doubling down on their anti-LGBT stances as marriage equality pushes forward.
Last year, however, a ray of light emerged when evangelical Baptist ehticist David Gushee preceded Campolo in breaking from the pack, announcing his "solidarity with the LGBT community" and apologizing for the "suffering" his anti-LGBT writing has contributed to. Also on Monday, the New York Times reported the small "victory" of gay Christian activist Matthew Vines, who was able to get several evangelical leaders in one room to debate the Bible's stance towards homosexuality.
Campolo, who is well-known as a "progressive" evangelist who has influenced thousands of followers over the past few decades, has now thrown his weight behind the issue. Prior to Monday's announcement, Campolo had consistently stated that Christian scripture does not support same-sex marriage or gay couples — even going so far as to publicly debate his wife Peggy several times on the issue, in a disagreement that has now become "famous" in evangelical cirlces, acccording to Baptist News.
In explaining why he has suddenly sided with his wife on the matter, Campolo explained that the Church has a history of prejudice towards certain groups, making the institution's issue with gay couples one about social norms, rather than about an accurate interpretation of the Bible. He wrote:
"I am old enough to remember when we in the Church made strong biblical cases for keeping women out of teaching roles in the Church, and when divorced and remarried people often were excluded from fellowship altogether on the basis of scripture. Not long before that, some Christians even made biblical cases supporting slavery. Many of those people were sincere believers, but most of us now agree that they were wrong. I am afraid we are making the same kind of mistake again, which is why I am speaking out."
Some far-right conservative Christians may not be shocked at his change of heart. One blogger dubbed Campolo a "homosexual advocate" in 2008 for opposing California Proposition 8 and for supporting gays in their "struggle for dignity."
While Campolo's remarks are being hailed by many LGBT Christians as signs of progress, there are still concerns. Campolo's statement only expressed acceptance of gay Christians in "relationships [that] work in much the same way" as his marriage to wife Peggy, while not acknowledging bisexual or transgender Christians at all, notes RNS.
Further, Campolo's statement did not explicitly support marriage equality, though he explains that his conclusions came from thinking about the "spiritual" meanings of marriage beyond heterosexual procreation.
"But perhaps the most puzzling question is where's the apology?" concludes bisexual religious commentator and Advocate contributor Eliel Cruz. "Campolo recognizes that he caused damage by preaching traditional stances of scripture but he doesn't... even hint at an apology."
Still, according to religious news site Patheos, Campolo's influence on white evangelical Protestants may prompt a shift in thought — particularly among young adults — in a population that, according to the latest Pew Research study, still sees 70-percent opposing equal marriage.