Protest, Pride, Pew, and Presidential Pen

Remembering that quiet revolutionaries matter greatly


On Tuesday, December 13, President Joe Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act at a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House. The new law creates federal protections for both same-sex and interracial marriages, effectively guarding these rights against the possibility of the Supreme Court overturning the rulings that previously granted them.

President Biden addressed the thousands of ceremony guests saying, “The road to this moment has been long, but those who believe in equality and justice, you never gave up. So many of you put your relationships on the line, your jobs on the line, your lives on the line, to fight for the law I’m about to sign. For me and the entire nation: thank you, thank you, thank you.”

One reporter covering the event remarked that “everyone” who had made this bill happen — activists, lobbyists, celebrities, authors, politicians, and leaders of the LGBTQ community — was there. Each one of those guests rightly deserves credit and grateful praise for bringing the nation to this moment.

Although not highlighted in any interview, I’m confident that there were many Christian clergy and faith leaders in that audience. Those Christians would be primarily (but not exclusively) from mainline Protestant denominations — UCC, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Methodist. For the last several decades, these churches have been on a long theological, biblical, and spiritual journey to understand human sexuality and the callings of gay and lesbian people to Christian ministry and faithful marriage.

Old South Church, Boston, MA

American Protestants began wrestling with these concerns in the 1960s. Although not technically a mainline communion, Quakers arrived early to the questions. In 1972, the United Church of Christ (UCC) became the first mainline denomination to ordain gay and lesbian clergy. In 1976, the Episcopal Church issued its first resolution on LGBTQ equality: “it is the sense of this General Convention that homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church.” Fights over ordination would follow in the all the mainline churches — as well as arguments over marriage.

Through the last decades of the twentieth century, local congregations increasingly welcomed gay and lesbian members, often offering ceremonies to bless their unions or marry them — in the eyes of God even when the state would not. Denominational prohibitions against this remained in the books, but some churches radically broke with policy, making congregations part of the vanguard of social change regarding marriage.

In 1996, I was a member of Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara, California. I was also engaged. Richard, my fiancé, and I envisioned a simple wedding. We wanted to get married in church on a Sunday morning during the worship service and host the coffee hour as our reception. Trinity was the kind of church that would appreciate this sort of unconventional ceremony. It was a rule-bending sort of place. Indeed, our priest, Mark, was the first out-gay clergyman in the Diocese of Los Angeles.

Mark listened to our request. But then he surprised us. He didn’t want to marry a straight couple in Sunday worship unless the congregation would be willing to do the same for a gay or lesbian couple. Despite the fact that Trinity’s priest was gay, the church had no guidelines on gay blessings or marriage. He wondered if we’d be willing to wait for the community to work through the issues and come to a consensus about how to move ahead on same-sex unions and marriage.

Patience wasn’t really our strong suit, and we were anxious for the altar. So, Richard and I opted for a Saturday wedding instead. But our request initiated a months-long, church-wide process studying the theology and history of Christian marriage. Some members were opposed to same-sex blessings; some approved of blessing gay couples but not marrying them; and others insisted on full marriage equality. After many difficult discussions, Trinity’s leadership opted to break both California law and Episcopal Church policy to offer gay and lesbian couples the sacrament of marriage. Three or four congregants were so angry that they left the church. But scores joyfully celebrated shortly thereafter when a gay couple became the first men married at Trinity’s altar.

I’ve often wondered how many times and in how many places stories like Trinity’s unfolded in mainline congregations across the country.

A few years later, in 2003, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. At that time, only 36% of white mainline Protestants approved of the practice — making Trinity a bit of an outlier. By 2015, that number had risen to 62% among white mainline Protestants. In 2021, that support registered at 76%. This twenty year shift on marriage equality among mainline Protestants is one of the fastest — and largest — social changes ever registered in religion opinion surveys. Both the numbers and speed astonished even the most experienced and cynical researchers.

As I watched the bill signing, I thought of Trinity — and the myriad of churchgoers and clergy who helped change attitude to make marriage equality possible. Many Americans think of Christians as the bad guys in the story for LGBTQ rights. And, of course, they’d be right. In far too many cases, the church has been one of the worst actors in the tale.

But the story isn’t just of churches resisting change, of narrow-minded religious people hating gays. All along this road to greater justice, there have been many Trinitys. There were Christians who struggled with ancient texts, preached controversial sermons, argued with their fellow parishioners, came out to their church friends, battled during congregational meetings, broke denominational policies, protested state laws, and fought to change their larger church bodies. There were clergy who got fired, seminary professors who didn’t get tenure, artists and authors and preachers who stood up, and Christian activists who risked their own jobs and friendships on behalf of justice and equality. Regular church people and not-famous pastors acted heroically because they wanted a better, fairer, safer world for their friends and family members — and for all people.


The Washington National Cathedral (Episcopal), Washington, DC

I want to recognize them around this historical event. The shift in American Protestant pews didn’t happen by magic, by some passive evolution of opinion, or through some thoughtless acceptance of cultural trends. Those poll numbers represent the hard work of many people wrestling with their traditions, folks who went to great lengths and experienced great losses on behalf of love and justice. Social movements have great days that seem almost easy when they finally arrive — but, in reality, they come at a cost to a great many people.

During the same two decades in which mainline Protestants did this hard work, they suffered public ridicule and insult about how their churches were declining and how irrelevant they’d become. There are few American religious groups so ignored and so easily dismissed. Certainly, these churches aren’t perfect. They’ve got to figure out how to thrive in an age of religious dissatisfaction and generational change. And Lord knows they have a mountain of work to do on racism.

Whatever their shortcomings, however, they were the spiritual backbone of this social transformation for millions of white middle class people regarding marriage equality. What a generation of mostly-unnamed mainline churchgoers did really mattered to LGBTQ rights. Every Bible study, every church quarrel, every angry adult forum, every dull denominational task force, every slow conversion to a different point of view, every congregation that hired a gay or lesbian clergy person, every altar guild that decorated a sanctuary honoring a gay couple’s wedding, every baby with two moms or two dads baptized, every LGBTQ Christian who fearlessly joined and faithfully served a congregation — it all mattered. You questioned, you argued, you welcomed, and you changed. It has been a revolution of and for love.


Foundry United Methodist Church, Washington, DC

Future historians will note that these mainline Protestants contributed, perhaps more significantly than even they knew, to a transfiguration of American attitudes toward marriage.

Protest, pride, pew, and presidential pen all played a part in the signing of this new law.

As the famous and invited guests continue to celebrate, please remember the countless churchgoers who made a difference. They weren’t typically loud, and weren’t activists as we generally think of activism. They did their work mostly in old buildings, hidden from the media gaze. Indeed, they didn’t actually like it when their fights made the news.

But history isn’t always made with noise. History is the stuff of good people risking to do what is right, willing to be changed and to change things, inspired to love their neighbors by a God of love — because love is love is love.

Quiet revolutionaries aren’t often thanked on the White House lawn. But I can do it here: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Visit Diana’s website here.

Review & Commentary