A new study from the Public Religion Research Institute confirmed what Millennials with a vested interest in the church have known for some time: homophobia, and the ill-treatment of human beings that it engenders, has a toxic influence on religion. Of course, you need not be a Millennial to know that a stance of intolerance from a religion founded on principles of radical inclusion is a losing strategy but it’s in this generation that the shift is most remarkable: one-third of Millennials who left the religious institutions of their upbringings cite “negative teachings” and “negative treatment” of LGBT communities as primary reasons for their departure.
What’s even more revealing to me is the fact that when homophobic teachings and ill treatment of LGBT people drove Millennials from the church, it drove them for good. When we abandon a political party or an ideology, it’s not uncommon to join another party or be attracted to an alternative ideology. But when the church left a bad taste in the mouths of these Millennials, it doesn’t appear that they sought out more tolerant religious institutions. Considering the fact that the same study revealed that majorities of American Jews, white mainline Protestants, white Catholics, and Hispanic Catholics favor marriage equality, it’s significant that Millennials didn’t migrate to new religious homes rather than abandon faith entirely.
I won’t pretend to know what the precise reasons are for this shift. It’s possible that it was a number of factors about organized religion itself that put off those who left the church and that homophobia was simply among the most egregious, or possibly it’s proof of Millennials’ unfamiliarity with the diversity of teachings in America’s religious institutions such that they aren’t aware of the alternatives that are better aligned with their values. Whatever the reasons, it’s now evident that churches get one chance to get their message on LGBT treatment correct and that they get the message wrong at their own peril.
While some celebrate the decline of religious affiliation in America, I think it would be deeply sad for those who wanted a church that delivered on its promises of inclusion, tolerance, and love and were failed so profoundly by churches in the stranglehold of homophobic rhetoric and abuse. Young people are repulsed by it. And if this atheist had to venture a guess, I bet that Jesus would be too.