The religious landscape in America is changing dramatically. I’ve written on this before, but the results remain surprising: over the past decade, the number of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated has doubled- rising from 8% in 2003 to 21% today. Something is happening in the tides of public opinion on religion… but what is happening remains open for debate. Why are these numbers rising so quickly?
A recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, a non-profit doing research on religion in American public life, has been tracking how opinions on same-sex marriage have impacted people’s religious affiliation. From this survey it’d seem that same-sex marriage was a deciding factor for many people’s choice to leave their childhood religion. But, as always, the relationship isn’t so cut and dry.
First it’s worth surveying the landscape- in 2003 only 31% of Americans supported same-sex marriage, but this number has leapt up in the past decade. Now 53% of Americans support the right for gay and lesbian couples to legally marry. That’s a huge shift in public opinion over ten years! Opinions still seem to break along political lines, 64% of Democrats support same-sex marriage, compared to 34% of Republicans. But it’s worth noting that the support from Republicans has nearly doubled since 2003, when only 18% supported same-sex marriage. In other words, the shift on this issue seems to be happening across the political board. But how does this all relate to religion?
Despite officially stated doctrines (many of which still oppose same-sex marriage) 62% of white mainline Protestants, 58% of white Catholics, and 56% of Hispanic Catholics support same-sex marriage. That’s a pretty big contrast from the other side where 69% of white evangelical Protestants and 59% of black Protestants are against same-sex marriages. These categories are covering a lot of complexity- for a good summary of the official stance for specific denominations check out this site. As you’re reading it though, remember that there are a variety of different issues at play: ordination, membership, and what we’re talking about here- the permissibility of same-sex marriage. Take the Presbyterian Church (USA) for example: in 2010 they approved the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals, but they still don’t officially permit same-sex marriage, though they will sometimes bless a homosexual union. I know, it’s a little confusing.
While it remains rare to find full-inclusion churches (where sexual orientation doesn’t effect membership, ordination, or marriage), these stats show that there’s a wide ideological diversity beneath the “official” doctrine of any denomination. In other words, just because the official stance of the Methodist church is against homosexuality, that doesn’t mean any given Methodist is against homosexuality.
Recognizing this complexity is especially important because nearly 60% of mainline Protestants think their fellow congregants are opposed to same-sex marriage. The oddity of this statistic needs repeating: only 32% of mainline Protestants are actually against same-sex marriage, but 60% of the same group think everyone else in their congregation is against same-sex marriage. In other words, you may not even know you’re surrounded by people who support same-sex marriage- there’s a lot of misperception among these members and a lot of conversations that need to happen!
Which gets us back to the question I began with: does the church’s stance on same-sex marriage have anything to do with the rising numbers of religiously unaffiliated?
The survey would seem to suggest so– of the religiously unaffiliated, about one-in-four say that negative teachings about, or treatment of, homosexuals was an important reason for leaving the religion of their childhood. This number rises to almost one-in-three among Millennials. So yes, negative stances on homosexuality have something to do with people leaving the church.
But this story of causality ignores the fact that many of the denominations in decline are actually those with lenient stances on homosexuality. You could object that this is just the disjunct between the official doctrine of these churches and the actual beliefs of their practitioners- especially given the misperceptions above.
But it really seems like something else is in play when you consider that the evangelical churches, with particularly negative views on homosexuality, are the very churches that buck the trend of secularization. If the rise of the unaffiliated has to do with the church’s stance on homosexuality, it’s hard to explain these two opposing trends. It would seem that something else is really driving this change.
My hunch is that it has something to do with affluence, thought-styles, and a wariness of institutions and authority… but that’ll all have to wait for another post.
What stands out the most clearly from all the statistics on public opinions about same-sex marriage? While it’s related to politics and religion, it seems to be mainly about differences in age. But it’s worth exploring some of these stats for yourself.