The LGBT Gap, by religion

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SSMWe all know that when it comes to the acceptance of LGBT folks, religions differ. But what the religions communicate, and how the people in the pews actually feel, are not the same.

In a word, the rank and file tend to be more accepting than the leadership. What’s striking is how much this LGBT Gap varies from religion to religion, and we can get some idea of the variance from Pew’s new survey of LGBT Americans.

As the measure of institutional messaging, we will use the percentages of LGBT people who say a given religion is unfriendly to them. These range from 84, 83, 79, and 73 percent for Islam, Mormonism, Catholicism  and Evangelicalism to 47 and 44 percent for Judaism and Mainline Protestantism. Then there is the proportion of members of each religion who believe that “homosexuality should be discouraged by society.” That’s 45, 65, 20, and 59 percent for the first four groups; 15 and 26 percent for the last two.

Now let’s consider the gaps. At the low end it’s 14 points for the Evangelicals and 18 percent for the Mainliners and the Mormons. In these cases, the membership is pretty much on the same page as the leadership.

In the middle come the Jews at 32 percent and the Muslims at 39 percent. In the case of the Jews, the 44 percent unfriendly number suggests that the Reform and Conservative movements have not done a very good job of getting their gay-friendly messaging out. As for the Muslims, the relatively large gap may be explained by the high number of well-educated professionals in the American Muslim community and the likelihood that the unfriendly number is based on pronouncements coming from Muslim leaders abroad.

By far the largest gap is in Catholicism — fully 59 points separate LGBT perception of Catholic unfriendliness from Catholics’ support for societal discouragement. Simply put, the bishops have gotten the message across very well that the Church looks with disfavor on homosexuality, but the laity isn’t buying it. Or at least, the laity isn’t buying the proposition that society as a whole should follow the lead of the Magisterium.

Those campaigns against same-sex marriage? It looks like the consensus fidelium is to forget about them, bishops.

  • Is this really a gap between the leadership and the laity–in particular as regards mainline churches where, at 18%, there still is a significant discrepancy between perceptions of institutional friendliness and policy?

    The Episcopal Church leadership is if anything more gay-friendly than the rank and file, and messaging as loudly as it can. But the unaffiliated general public, including many LGBT Americans, doesn’t make fine distinctions between Episcopalians and Westboro Baptists.

    Arguably it isn’t a failure of “institutional messaging” but a failure, or refusal, of the media to pick up those messages. Journalists, overwhelmingly secular and often hostile to religion, many of whom have never knowingly met a religious believer socially, assume that conservative Evanglicals represent the norm. If they notice that liberal Christians exist, they assume we are marginal, a tiny minority and hardly worth reporting on.

  • It’s true that an 18-point gap is significant, but bear in mind that I’m comparing different questions asked of different audiences. So it’s the views of LGBT people generally compared to the attitudes of particular faith communities. Journalists are not, in fact, more secular than the population at large (there’s data on this). But LGBT people are, by a considerable margin (as this Pew survey demonstrates) — and unaffiliated (i.e. non-religious) LGBTs are more likely to view religious bodies as unfriendly to religion than affiliated LGBTs. So this is a complicated question. But I’d agree with you that the voices of the “open and affirming” portion of the religious spectrum have not registered as well as those of the, as it were, closed and negating. I would submit that we all, journalists and public at large, prefer to think in terms of a simple, secular/religious culture war; religious liberals tend to fall out of the narrative.

  • Do you have a reference for the data on journalists? I’m just going anecdotally having misspent my youth with fellow youths aspiring to work in journalism, book publishing, the arts and academia. No one I knew then was religiously affiliated–we didn’t even know people who were. And that would be consistent with unaffiliated LGBTs viewing religious organizations a more unfriendly than they are. The picture was that church-going was a custom of those anthropological specimens in fly-over country, who had crazy ideas about sex.

    I agree emphatically about the temptation to put it all in simplistic culture wars terms–where religious liberals drop through the cracks. But I’d be curious for some speculation about how this could be remedied.

  • Take a look at pages 39-43 of my book Unsecular Media: The data are somewhat dated, but I have no reason to think that the situation has changed, and the discussion, I venture to say, is also valid. As to remedying the situation of religious liberals, what the liberals need, I’m afraid, is commanding leadership and boots on the ground. Not so easy to come by these days.

  • One other thought (so far). It may be that the Mainline Protestant rank-and-file are less gay-friendly than the leadership. There the LGBT gap would simply be a function of misperception by the LGBT community. This would help explain why 53 percent of unaffiliated LGBTs consider Mainline Protestant churches unfriendly, but only 36 percent of affiliated LGBTs do.

  • I had a look at your book. Just being obnoxious, there’s very good reason to think this has changed since the 70s/80s. Statistically there are not only more “Nones” now–there’s much more of a correlation between religious affiliation and a whole package of social and political commitments. Think _American Grace_ and _The Big Sort_.

    I get bashed when I go crusading on blogs about the the anti-religious bias of upper middle class urban-coastal professionals. But I speak as a member of that demographic, and I suspect that you as an academic know what I’m talking about.

    As far as journalism, it’s become much more competitive. I suspect that even if in the 70s/80s local people could get jobs at local papers, nowadays you serve your apprenticeship on the coasts where anti-religious bias is taken for granted. So that in journalism you have the same non-regional, cosmopolitan culture that you do in academia.

  • Nowadays, I’m afraid, journalism is in severe crisis, and, I think, is losing its brief moment among the reasonably paid white collar professions. That’s not to say that there aren’t, and won’t continue to be, journalistic members of the secular elite you refer to. In any event, the gatekeeper function of journalism is on the way out, particularly as regards shaping social norms. The transformation of attitude about gay marriage has little to do with what is written in the New York Times or what appears on the Nightly News. Now more than ever, journalism follows the culture more than it leads it.

  • Kate FitzGerald

    Great discussion, Silk and Baber. Thanks.

    A rather simplistic thought… in the end, LGBT recognition and rights are flourishing. Who cares how. It’s good.

  • Of course things will go better for LGBT people and I’m glad about that. The problem is that it will further undermine religion. The issue isn’t one of supporting LGBT rights–it’s one of promoting RELIGION. I care because what matters to me is religion and I hate seeing it die out.

  • I’m betting it won’t.

  • Evidence for this–as we say? According to some survey I just read more people in Western Europe believe in extra-terrestrials than believe in God. You’re counting on “traditional cultures”–Global South, immigrants and, in the US, the working class, to keep religion going. But when they get on track, become educated, assimilate, within a generation or two they ditch religion. I’m betting that religion will die out–unless the Powers somehow manage to keep people poor and insecure indefinitely.

  • As an historian, I always bet that things that have been around forever tend to stay around. As far as the evidence goes, there are many more Christians and Muslims today than there were 100 years ago. Who would have thought that Orthodoxy would be on the march (for better or worse) in Russia? Christianity is gaining strength in China. Israel is more religious now than it was when the state was founded. In the U.S., religious identity has been reconceptualized; it’s now less about ascribed identity and more about chosen practice. The increase in the Nones is at least 50 percent the result of this shift.

  • There are more Christians and Muslims around because there are more people around. But a larger percentage of people around are non-believers. And most local growth in religious belief/practice is among people who are poor and insecure. When conditions improve, people go secular: this is happening in Ireland, and also in Brazil where now you don’t have Catholics defecting to Pentecostal/Evangelical churches but more just dropping religion altogether. Yes you have local revivals and upticks, but the overall trend is down.

    Also the religions that are growing are those that cater for the aspiring poor–the self-improvement and prosperity gospel movements which, like Industrial Revolution period Methodism, are self-limiting. Once adherents bootstrap up by dint of hard work, puritanism and networking with co-religionists, their children, or grandchildren ditch religion. Big picture it almost seems like a recapitulation within Christianity: initially a cult that appealed primarily to the poor in a world where the elite were cynical atheists it’s becoming that again. Yeah, I’m not an historian–just wish I were 😉 But my unprofessionalism gives me the scope to speculate.

    I wish you could give me evidence/arguments to convince me that I’m wrong!

  • Kate FitzGerald

    Mark, is religion on the rise because of religiosity alone, or is it on the rise because it’s being used as a formidable tool intended to realize political agendas, human freedoms, etc.?

  • Nope. The Christian population has remained steady at 17 percent of the world’s population since 1950. Islam has increased its share. Middle-class African-Americans are more likely to go to church than lower-class African-Americans. There are religions and religions, and they tend to stay around for a long time.

  • The answer, I’d say, is that religion is a complex thing, spurred and undermined by different factors at different times. There’s secularization and sacralization, ebb and flow.

  • Hope you’re right. Good discussion–thanks.

  • Rev. Tom Altepeter

    Many LGBT Catholics are simply leaving the Roman church for more compassionate Catholic alternatives. One is the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, which is my affiliation. We are a Catholic community that is open and affirming — in spirit and in truth.

  • Helen Bedd

    @ H.E. Baber
    Almost half the world’s population currently identifies as either Christian or Muslim. I can’t imagine that’s going to somehow disappear in a generation or two.

    There’s only one part of the world that I know of with big population growth and low belief and that’s China.

  • The growth is largely in developing countries it’s growth in evangelical/pentacostal style religion—not the kind of religion that comes in downtown brownstone churches, with fancy ceremonies and good classical music.

    The style of religiousity I enjoy, that downtown, brownstone religion, is clearly disappearing—look at the collapse of “mainline” churches. Just as bad, evangelical/pentacostal religion is booming. But, though it will take more than a generation or two, when developing countries get richer, their people will have fewer children and drop religion altogether. Just as Europeans and Japanese have done, and as Americans are now beginning to do.

  • That poll is absolute crap. it is the same data used by Regnerus. It is not a random sample of anything, and nobody should ever report finding from that marketing panel.

  • Helen Bedd

    @H. E. Baber

    Coming at this from a different angle, I’m not convinced that the global economy is such that we’ll see a massive upward movement out of poverty in the next few generations.

    On the other hand, if that happens and a billion people become members of a consumerist society, I’m not confident that the ecosystem can sustain itself.

    Not all prosperous, educated people reject religion…just look at American Mormons.

  • I don’t think global poverty is going to send soon either. See, e.g. my forthcoming edited book Globalization and International Development at –If I may plug it here.

    However, and you don’t seem to disagree here, it’s clear that the trend is that when people become materially secure, have decent government and secular institutions, they drop religion. So, if you want to preserve and promote religion–just keep people poor and insecure, that government is dysfunctional and there are no social safety nets. Is it any surprise that this is the Religious Right’s agenda?

    And sorry for repeating, I didn’t claim that all prosperous educated people rejected religion–I don’t. I just note that it’s a global trend.

  • Helen Bedd

    @H.E. Baber

    I’m not sure i agree with your basic premise….

    In the U.S., one of the main reasons that whites in the Northeast and on the West coast [plus under 30’s in general] have left religion is because they identify as Democrats…and they associate American Christianity with the GOP. [They’re correct about that, of course, so it’s not an accident that the bluest parts of the country are also the least religious but it does raise the “chicken and egg” question]

    But, I also suspect that the educated and affluent in the South have not rejected religion.

    I can’t think of an analogous situation in other countries, as one example, I don’t see any reason to think that South Americans with their long connection to the Catholic Church would leave it as they become more middle class. [In Europe, of course, the church is losing ground because of its poor response to the sex scandals.]

    I suspect I won’t see a mass abandonment of Islam, either

    And as Mark Silk pointed out, post communism, Russia is more religious. I’m not sure that the same thing might not happen in China as they transition to a different economic structure.

    In short, I think reality is far too complicated to lead me to view the current trends in blue states and Western Europe as a template for the rest of the planet.

  • I wish I could be more optimistic but, just looking at (former) Christendom, when people become materially better off they drop out. Consider the secularization or Ireland: join the EU–drop religion. Or Brazil here: Brazillians haven’t been leaving for evangelical/pentecostal religions: they’ve been becoming secular. And I don’t see any evidence that affluent, educated people in the US South are behaving differently. Yes they’re a little behind the curve, but the trend is the same.

    I agree that in the US especially this is exacerbated by the identification of religion with conservative social and political policies. But I still don’t see any good evidence to think that the secularizing trend in Europe is anomalous. The US is behind the curve, but with the rise of the Nones we’re catching up.

    I’m distressed and depressed about this secularizing trend. But denial doesn’t help. The fact is that religion is increasingly confined to “traditional societies”–socially conservative societies–and the poor. The poor, we hope, will not always be with us so churches need to figure out how to appeal to an affluent, educated, socially liberal clientele. You just can’t count on the Global South. Among other things, this is just making religion a specialty item for social conservatives aimed at promoting sex roles and other conservative arrangements.

  • Helen Bedd

    Again, the Irish situation is fairly unique….the huge drop off in those identifying as Catholic between 2004 and 2011 was due to the wide spread belief that the Vatican was actively advising ways for the local church to cover up the sex scandals from the government. [and, of course, that country went through a boom and bust far more dramatic then ours in that timeframe.]

    Class and/or education level is irrelevant in this case.

    Thanks for the link to the article about Brazil, but again the reality is more nuanced than your argument. I’d note it says that the rich and poor are still religious, while the losses are in the middle class but, more importantly, the losses are driven by women leaving the church over its birth control stance.

    There’s been a battle in the Philippines pitting the government vs the Catholic church over access to birth control that all woman there want…

    Again, it’s issues of practicality rather than levels of educational achievement causing these shifts

    As for the U.S. South, I’ve seen no data [outside of a few places in the coastal South like the research triangle] where more education and affluence means less religious participation. The South [plus Utah] remains far and away the most religious part of the nation across all class lines

    It’s certainly possible that in places like Atlanta and the growing cities of Texas that the influx of northerners with degrees with result in the trends we see in the Northeast, but we’re not there yet by any means.
    “But I still don’t see any good evidence to think that the secularizing trend in Europe is anomalous”

    Can you show me data from any non-white [or non-Christian] country where there is a secularizing trend? Thanks.

  • Japan–highly secular. For a Muslim country, Turkey. The current protest movement is a reaction by middle class, urban cosmopolitans who are largely secular against a progressive but religiously-based government.

    I can’t give many examples of secularization in countries that are “non-white [or non-Christian]” because most haven’t yet achieved the level of wealth, political stability and quality of life that promotes secularization. But where it happens the trend is so consistent that even if there are other factors at work it’s hard to deny that class and education figure importantly. Religion only seems to do well in “traditional societies” where sex roles are operative, families are large and cohesive, and people live culturally “embedded” lives–that is to say in the Global South and in affluent countries, among immigrants and the socially conservative working class.

    Anyway, by “class” I don’t mean wealth as such but a combination of education, occupation, location and tastes. There is a growing “class” of educated, urban professionals and “knowledge workers” who read the NYTimes, worry about global warming and like sampling microbrews. You know who they are. They are resolutely secular and as that “class” grows and becomes culturally dominant, religion dies out. It’s the lack of fit between their–ok, let me confess, MY–way of life, commitments and tastes and “organized religion” as it sits on the ground.

  • tony

    You can bet all you want but the mainline protestant denominations that you are so proud of are already dying out.

  • But not, and you can check the statistics, because members are not dropping out of liberal mainline churches to join more conservative ones: they are going secular. This is a consequence of the growing polarization between an educated, secular elite and a socially conservative, religious working class. The educated classes, the traditional clientele for mainline protestant detonations are abandoning religious practice altogether. And once the lower classes achieve social mobility, once they succeed in bettering themselves, they will drop out and conservative churches will–THANK GOD!–die.

    Of course if you want to keep these conservative evangelical outfits in business it’s easy: work politically to see to it that there’s an underclass who are poor, ignorant and insecure. Excuse for repeating the obvious. This is the program of the Religious Right.

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  • tony

    Yes the democrats have done wonders for the african american community. The democrats declared a war on poverty 50 years ago, spent trillions of dollars and have come close to creating a permanent underclass. they should be really proud of themselves. on the plus side, they did get a chance to feel morally superior because they “care” and are “enlightened”.

    As far as your theory on religion, you are not saying anything i disagree with. liberal christians do whatever they want, rationalize thier choices and eventually admit they are secular humanists. As far as conservative denominations dying out, just wait until the evangelicals get to preach to 11+ Million new immigrants. Thanks!

  • And wait until the second or third generation of those immigrants assimilate, and move out of the “traditional societies” that support your most detestable version of religion. So, once again, evangelicals, make sure to maintain those “traditional societies,” in which people are poor and insecure and women are trashed.

    And oh dear tony give me a break on the “secular humanist” line: I believe the articles of the Nicene Creed (without Filioque). I believe in the existence of an incorporeal, supernatural being with psychological states–omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent, the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That’s religion. That’s what Christianity is–not your conservative social and political agenda.

  • tony

    Gnostism is not Christianity.

  • Indeed. Christianity is for body as well as soul, and as I said, I believe the Creed: “for us men and for our salvation he became INCARNATE.” And that’s why I believe Christians are committed to promoting the material well-being of our fellow people–through the establishment of a social-democratic welfare state, the arrangement most effective in promoting human welfare, and by the annihilation of conservative evangelicals and the destruction of all their works. Cheers, tony.

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  • Helen Bedd

    You wrote “Brazilians haven’t been leaving for evangelical/Pentecostal religions: they’ve been becoming secular”

    RNS wrote 7/18/13: “The Catholic share of Brazil’s population has shrunk from 92 percent in 1970 to 65 percent in 2010.

    This is largely a consequence of the growth of the country’s evangelical and Protestant churches, which have surged from less than 5 million members 40 years ago to 42 million in the latest census.”

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