Photo via Sarah Pulliam Bailey / RNS.

Some leaders use trending topics or hashtags to build momentum around a certain conversation. The idea is that by pointing followers to a catchy hashtag, activists can spark conversation and rally supporters around a cause. On Nov. 24, for example, Twitter lit up with the hashtag #PrayForFerguson after a grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer who fatally shot a black teenager.

One of the earlier noteworthy mobilizing campaigns included #KONY2012, a movement founded by a Christian, who launched a campaign to try to capture African Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony. First Lady Michelle Obama famously participated in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign after more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram.

But everyone on Twitter is learning that a hashtag cuts both ways — it can be hijacked or lampooned by detractors, and it’s a key way that online activists are pushing back against opposing messages or what some might even call hate speech.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput. Photo courtesy of Archdiocese of Philadelphia/RNS.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput says hot-button socio-sexual issues won’t be the central focus when the World Meeting of Families welcomes Pope Francis to the City of Brotherly Love next year.

Chaput told a Vatican conference on marriage and the family Nov. 19 that next year’s event comes “at a critical moment in global culture” and willaddress a broader scope of concerns.

“It will deal with a wide range of family issues where our religious faith is both needed and tested,” Chaput said.

“These are matters that affect all families, not only in the United States but on a world scale. So we want to focus next year not just on the neuralgic sexual issues that seem to dominate the American media.”

Reflecting the change in emphasis under Pope Francis that was evident at the recent Vatican Synod on the Family, the four-day event in Philadelphia will look at poverty and the family, marital intimacy, raising children, and the impact of divorce, as well as issues affecting the elderly and the disabled.

Matthew Vines speaks at The Reformation Project conference in Washington, D.C. Photo via Rick Wood/The Reformation Project/RNS

It used to be that defining an “evangelical” was pretty straightforward: some version of a “born-again” experience, a deep appreciation for the Bible as the written Word of God and a conviction to spread salvation to the masses.

Opposing homosexuality wasn’t part of that holy trinity, but for most evangelicals, it was more or less a given that all sexuality outside of man-woman marriage is sinful. Not so much anymore.

Growing cultural acceptance of homosexuality is leading many Christians to reconsider their historic opposition. As intractable as the debate itself can be, American evangelicals nonetheless are experiencing lively conflicts over maintaining boundaries. What can you believe about gays and still call yourself an evangelical? And who gets to decide?

In October, the Vatican’s Synod on the Family and a major conference of establishment evangelicals in Nashville both featured softer rhetoric on gays and lesbians while reaffirming the view that homosexuality is morally disordered.

Last week in Washington, however, a gay evangelical activist laid out a biblical argument for an affirming view.

Matthew Vines was raised in a conservative Presbyterian congregation in Wichita, Kan. Realizing and accepting that he was gay, Vines neither abandoned religion nor sought out a more affirming church. Instead, he delved deeply into the Bible and Christian teaching. He came away with the conviction that biblical Christianity could affirm same-sex relationships.

Cardinal Raymond L. Burke. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service/RNS.

American Cardinal Raymond Burke, the feisty former archbishop of St. Louis who has emerged as the face of the opposition to Pope Francis’ reformist agenda, likened the Roman Catholic Church to “a ship without a rudder” in a fresh attack on the pope’s leadership.

In an interview with the Spanish Catholic weekly Vida Nueva, published Oct. 30, Burke insisted he was not speaking out against the pope personally but raising concern about his leadership.

“Many have expressed their concerns to me. At this very critical moment, there is a strong sense that the church is like a ship without a rudder,” Burke said.

“Now, it is more important than ever to examine our faith, have a healthy spiritual leader and give powerful witness to the faith.”

Burke is the current head of the Vatican’s highest court known as the Apostolic Signatura, but he said recently he is about to be demoted. There is speculation he will be made patron of the Order of Malta, a largely ceremonial post.

“I have all the respect for the Petrine ministry and I do not want to seem like I am speaking out against the pope,” he said in the interview. “I would like to be a master of the faith, with all my weaknesses, telling a truth that many currently perceive.”

“They are feeling a bit seasick because they feel the church’s ship has lost its way,” he added.

Al Mohler speaks to conference attendees. Photo courtesy of Rocket Republic, via ERLC National Conference/RNS.

When Southern Baptists convened a national conference in Nashville, Tenn., this week to discuss issues of human sexuality, bringing conservative evangelicals and LGBT Christian activists into the same ballroom was a recipe ripe for potential fireworks.

Perhaps the most shocking thing was how few fireworks there were.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission was clear: Sex is reserved between a man and a woman within the bonds in marriage. And openly gay evangelicals in attendance were equally clear: Homosexuality is not incompatible with Christianity.

No concessions were made, but leaders on both sides expressed surprise at how the two agreed to coexist. Put another way: The old emphasis on “Love the sinner, hate the sin” has become more a version of simply “Love all sinners. Ask questions later.”

“I do want to apologize to the gay and lesbian community on behalf of my community and me for not standing up against abuse and discrimination directed towards you. That was wrong and we need your forgiveness,” said North Carolina megachurch pastor J.D. Greear, drawing applause.

“We have to love our gay neighbor more than our position on sexual morality.”

Houston Mayor Annise Parker. Photo courtesy of Zblume (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons/RNS.

Evangelical leaders are angry after city officials in Houston subpoenaed sermons given by local pastors who oppose an equal rights ordinance that provides protections to the LGBT community.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who drew headlines for becoming the first openly lesbian mayor of a major American city, led support for the ordinance. The measure bans anti-gay discrimination among businesses that serve the public, private employers, in housing and in city employment and city contracting.

Under one of the hotly contested parts of the ordinance, transgender people barred access to a restroom would be able to file a discrimination complaint.

The ordinance, which exempted religious institutions, was passed in June, though its implementation has been delayed due to legal complaints.

The dome of the palace of the Vatican. Photo via dade72/shutterstock.

The world’s Catholic bishops on Oct. 13 signaled a move toward greater tolerance of gays and lesbians, an about-face so unexpected that leaders of the church’s right wing called it a “betrayal.”

Noting that gays and lesbians have “gifts and qualities” to offer the church, the mid-point assessment reflected the impact that Pope Francis seems to be having on the two-week Synod on the Family as he pushes for a more open, less doctrinaire approach.

“Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing them a fraternal space in our communities?” said the communique from the nearly 200 bishops and lay delegates. “Often they wish to encounter a church that offers them a welcoming home.

“Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”

the Web Editors 10-03-2014

 1. The Strange Nostalgia of ‘Left Behind’
The rapture movie (out in theaters today) is—to borrow a phrase—neither hot nor cold. So why the re-make? We take a crack at answering.

2. Lipstick and Seminary
“During seminary, I paid close attention to ways men acted in and outside the classroom. Playing by their rules helped me fit in…I guarded what I considered feminine-seeming parts of my personality — creativity, emotion, and relational ways of perceiving and acting. I got A’s, but my soul was wilting.”

3. WATCH: A Million Ways to Die in the U.S.
Jon Stewart puts concerns over ISIS and Ebola in perspective. “The American government has a sacred obligation to do whatever it takes to save American lives…unless it’s stopping the things that are actually killing Americans.”

4. The Meditations of Europe’s Last Brewmaster Nun
Says Sister Doris: “As Saint Benedict wrote, ‘in all things God may be glorified,’ and that is also true of beer.” Say we: "Amen."

Mitch Mayne, Dr. Caitlin Ryan, Wendy Montgomery, and Diane Oviatt during the screening. Photo via Mitch Mayne/RNS.

It was a gathering that would have been unthinkable just five years ago.

On a cool summer evening, in a borrowed classroom overlooking San Francisco Bay, about 150 men and women gathered to screen a short documentary about a Mormon family whose 13-year-old son came out as gay.

The Montgomerys, who accepted their son and his news, were ostracized by church members, some of whom refused to accept Communion distributed by the young man in church. Like many conservative Christian denominations, the 15 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bans homosexual activity and considers it grounds for exclusion from Mormon rites, rituals and even the afterlife.

A group of student involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Photo courtesy of Sonoma State Star/RNS.

A well-established international Christian student group is being denied recognition at almost two dozen California college campuses because it requires leaders to adhere to Christian beliefs, effectively closing its leadership ranks to non-Christians and gays.

California State University, which has 23 campuses, is “de-recognizing” local chapters of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an evangelical Christian group with 860 chapters in the United States. The university system says InterVarsity’s leadership policy conflicts with its state-mandated nondiscrimination policy requiring membership and leadership in all official student groups be open to all.

“For an organization to be recognized, they must sign a general nondiscrimination policy,” said Mike Uhlencamp, director of public affairs for the California State University system. “We have engaged with (InterVarsity) for the better part of a year and informed them they would have to sign a general nondiscrimination statement. They have not.”

Stephen Mattson 09-08-2014
diuno/ Shutterstock.com

Churches continue to struggle with big questions, diuno/ Shutterstock.com

Christianity is a lifelong journey of learning new things, growing in wisdom, and interacting with a wide array of difficult topics. Boldly asking tough questions is essential to spiritual development.

Today, few questions are as important, impactful, meaningful, or divisive within Christianity as the following six:

1. Is homosexuality a sin?

While much of society continues to accept homosexuality as being a culturally and morally acceptable practice, many Christian institutions, organizations, and communities still consider it sinful.

Increasingly, Christians who publically denounce homosexuality are perceived as homophobic, bigoted, and on the completely wrong side of a major human rights movement. This results in the Christian faith being wholeheartedly rejected by a modern population that sees this type of fundamentalism as incompatible with modern ethics and conventional wisdom.

But other churches, denominations, and spiritual communities are changing — and some have fully embraced and supported gay rights.

Christianity currently finds itself facing four basic responses: 1) support homosexuality, 2) reject it as sinful, 3) accept it but still claim it’s sinful, and, 4) ignore the issue as much as possible.

Believers are deeply divided on the issue, and ultimately your stance on homosexuality defines much of what you think about God, theology, church, sin, and salvation.

This is one of the defining question facing today’s Christians, and many are still processing through what they believe and struggling to come up with an adequate answer.

Image: Alan and Leslie Chambers married in January 1998. Photo courtesy Alan Chambers.

When Julie Rodgers came out as a lesbian at age 17, her mom responded by taking her to an ex-gay ministry in Dallas. Rodgers had grown up in a nondenominational evangelical church where she assumed being gay wasn’t an option.

“With ex-gay ministries, it gave me the space to be honest about my sexuality,” said Rodgers, now 28. Yet that same honesty eventually led her away from ex-gay ministries.

Rodgers spent several years in Exodus, the now-defunct ex-gay ministry, before deciding she couldn’t become straight after trying to date men. Instead, she has chosen celibacy.

When Exodus shut down in 2013, some said it spelled the end of ex-gay ministries that encourage reparative or conversion therapy for gays to become straight. Ex-gay groups such as Restored Hope Network stepped in to the gap, but many religious leaders are now encouraging those with same-sex orientation or attraction to consider a life of celibacy.

For years, those who were gay or struggled with homosexuality felt like they had few good options: leave their faith, ignore their sexuality or try to change. But as groups like Exodus have become increasingly unpopular, Rodgers is among those who embrace a different model: celibate gay Christians, who seek to be true to both their sexuality and their faith.

Straddling one of America’s deepest cultural divides, Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart wrote in a recent piece for Slate that celibate gay Christians present a challenge to the tolerance of both their churches and the secular LGBT community. Those celibate gay Christians often find themselves trying to translate one side for the other.

But frequently, neither side really understands what it’s hearing.

Gay rights activists in Nairobi at a demonstration against Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili.

Uganda’s top Anglican leader criticized the constitutional court for striking down the country’s controversial anti-gay law on a technicality, saying the law is still needed to protect children and families from Western-imported homosexuality.

A five-judge panel on Friday declared the Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2014, null and void since it was passed by parliament without the required quorum. Dismissing the law on a technicality maintains the possibility that it could be revived in a different form.

The law punishes homosexual acts with life imprisonment. President Yoweri Museveni signed the measure in February, drawing harsh criticism from Western nations and cuts in foreign aid.

Anglican Archbishop Stanley Ntagali called the decision a disappointment for the Church of Uganda, religious leaders and many Ugandans.

“The ‘court of public opinion’ has clearly indicated its support for the Act, and we urge Parliament to consider voting again on the Bill with the proper quorum in place,” Ntagali said on Monday.

Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore, right, leads a June 9, 2014 panel. RNS photo courtesy Paul W. Lee

The issues sound like they belong on the therapist’s couch:

The couple that hasn’t had sex eight months into their marriage.

The parents who can’t deal with their son’s homosexuality.

The male teen who wants to be called by a girl’s name.

But they’re also the kinds of topics that frequently crowd the inbox of Russell Moore, who recently marked his first anniversary as the Southern Baptist Convention’s top public policy expert.

Though he often grapples with contentious political issues — the Hobby Lobby case, religious persecution, and, most recently, the immigrant border crisis — Moore has spent much of his first year at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission writing blog posts on Christian sexual ethics.

“Probably day to day I’m dealing with more church issues of how do we deal with these tough ethical issues,” he said recently.

President Obama signing an executive order on July 21 against hiring discrimination by federal contractors. Public domain image

One of the toughest political calculations in Washington is balancing competing claims of gay rights with the traditional prerogatives of religious freedom. After a number of setbacks on that front, President Obama may have finally found a small patch of middle ground with Monday’s move to bar federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

Obama’s executive order shields gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees from discrimination by companies that do work for the federal government by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to long-standing protections from bias based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

Yet Monday’s action also leaves in place a 2002 order signed by President George W. Bush that gives religious groups with federal contracts some leeway by allowing them to use religious beliefs as a criterion in making hiring and firing decisions; as a candidate in 2008 Obama pledged to overturn that exemption.

At the same time, Obama did not expand the exemption to explicitly allow religious groups that receive federal funds to use sexual orientation as grounds for hiring and firing, as some demanded.

Tyler Francke 07-11-2014
MeeKo / Shutterstock.com

MeeKo / Shutterstock.com

Following the release of the popular God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines, and the innumerable responses by conservative pundits and theologians — including the cleverly titled e-book “God and the Gay Christian?” (Note the question mark. It’s very important.) — the church is discussing the morality of same-sex behavior as it never has before.

That’s really not saying that much, since the idea of homosexuality being anything other than a sin hadn’t been discussed within mainstream Christianity at all before this decade or so.

But still. The dialogue is cool to see. It’s much-needed, and has been for a very long time. I want to call the conversation “long overdue,” but that would be an absurd understatement, like saying a baby in the 403rd trimester is “a little late.”

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops. Creative Commons image by Pufui Pc Pifpef I.

Faced with a cultural landscape that’s shifting faster than the church’s ability to keep up, Catholic bishops are looking for new approaches toward unmarried couples, divorced people, and single parents who are disillusioned with the church.

The first-ever survey of 114 bishops’ conferences around the world found that many Christians “have difficulty” accepting church teachings on key issues such as birth control, divorce, homosexuality, and cohabitation.

But one senior church leader cautioned that “the doctrine of the church is not up for discussion.”

The survey’s findings, released in a 75-page document by the Vatican on Thursday, will serve as the blueprint for October’s Synod of Bishops, when bishops from around the world will gather to discuss issues facing the family.

Kirsten Powers 06-04-2014

Kirsten Powers writes weekly for USA Today. Photo by Len Spoden Photography, courtesy of Kirsten Powers.

Could there be a future where most American Christians support same-sex relationships? If so, it will be due to the emergence of conservative Christians who say orthodox believers can support lifelong, monogamous gay relationships without undermining their commitment to biblical authority.

In evangelical gay Christian Matthew Vines’ new book, God and the Gay Christian, he examines the six biblical passages on same-sex behavior and argues that they do not address today’s long-term gay relationships.

New Testament scholar James Brownson, who wrote the 2013 book Bible, Gender, Sexuality, concurs.

Kevin Eckstrom 05-30-2014

Moral Acceptability graphic. Photo courtesy Gallup.

Americans are showing more tolerance for a range of behaviors, with sex between unmarried adults, medical research on stem cells from human embryos, and doctor-assisted suicide all showing record highs and increases in “moral acceptability” from last year .

The Gallup poll’s annual “moral acceptability” scale has been conducted since 2001 and charts shifting cultural attitudes on a number of hot-button social issues. In the 2014 list released Friday, Gallup researchers said 12 of the 19 categories reflected “levels of moral acceptance that are as high or higher than in the past.”

“Americans largely agree about the morality of several issues,” Gallup researchers said. “Most say birth control is acceptable but that extramarital affairs are wrong. However, other issues show clear, substantial divides. These differences are largely explained by party identification, but previous research has shown that age also plays a factor.”

Three issues — sex between an unmarried man and woman, medical research on embryonic stem cells, and doctor-assisted suicide — showed a slight increase in acceptability from 2013. Most of the other issues were mostly unchanged.