Pew Confirms LGBT Rejection of Religion: Why That’s a Good Thing

Abandoned chapel by flickr user Luca Rossato via Creative Commons

When a book such as Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian becomes a smash hit it might lead you to think that there is a large contingent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians out there clamoring for acceptance.

But a new report from the Pew Research Center suggests that this is not the case.

As it turns out Vines’ book (and others that seek to reconcile LGBT lives with fundamentalist Christian teaching) is only a big deal to insiders—or to a voyeuristic public that doesn’t have any real skin in the game.

As for the LGBT community, Pew researchers found that at least 41% could give a rip if the evangelical church welcomes them in their pews, because they’ve given up on religion anyway—at least that type of religion.

Given the media’s attention to LGBT people and religion, it might come as a shock that such a large bloc of the LGBT community does not identify as religious. But within the community it’s simply confirmation that Christianity has already fouled its nest when it comes to trying attract LGBT people back to church.

The reason so many LGBT people have fled the church tracks closely with why millennials in general have abandoned sanctuaries across the country—a perception that churches are filled with judgmental and hypocritical people.

A survey last year by Pew found that 73% of LGBT people perceived evangelical churches to be unfriendly and 79% said they felt unwelcome in Catholic churches.  As for non-evangelical mainstream churches, the survey found that only 10% of LGBT folk viewed such churches as friendly while 44% perceived them as unfriendly.

However, according to last year’s data, one-third of LGBT people who are religious said there was a conflict between their religious beliefs and their sexual orientation or gender identity. This, I believe, shows that many LGBT people continue to go to unwelcoming churches simply because they do find religion important—or they remain conflicted about their own sexuality or gender identity because of the mixed signals coming from the pulpit every Sunday.

This year’s survey found that among the 24% who say they believe nothing in particular, 10% say religion is still somewhat or very important to them. This opens a huge opportunity for LGBT religious communities to offer alternative forms of spirituality to this community in particular. Those whose beliefs have slipped, as well as those who are still searching for something—anything—are in desperate need of communities of faith to serve them.

It’s not the churches that LGBT people are leaving, it’s Christianity in its current form that repels them.

Sadly, what they find too often in the LGBT religious landscape is what I call “evangelical lite” churches that offer the same theology, liturgy and worship styles as most non-welcoming evangelical churches, minus the judgment. Having been involved in many of these evangelical lite churches over the years, though, I can affirm that there are still many who remain conflicted about their faith and sexuality or gender identity even in a more welcoming environment.

I believe that’s so because while evangelical lite churches may be missing the judgment they still perpetuate the overall sexual shame that is inherent in much of traditional Christian theology. Even though it may not be overt, that shame is still being taught even in predominantly LGBT churches—so it’s not really the churches that LGBT people are leaving, it’s Christianity in its current form that repels them.

Much of this style of worship and theology continues even in the predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Churches—which makes sense, I would argue, because founder Troy Perry was raised in a fundamentalist tradition. His influence remains strong in the MCC and other gay-friendly evangelical churches that still exist (and continue to thrive in some places such as the south) today.

This, however, is where I see a ray of hope for LGBT people of faith. There is a opportunity here, for any faith community up to the task, to truly reform the Christian church into what it was meant to be in the first place—a community that accepts people where they are and offers them genuine love and support.

There are many independent churches that are already doing this. And even some mainline churches are flying under the denominational radar to give LGBT people of faith the connection and community they crave.  My own small congregation, Jubilee! Circle, in Columbia, S.C., is offering an alternative theology centered in the Creation Spirituality of Matthew Fox, that attracts both LGBT and straight people who may otherwise describe themselves as “nones.”

I think the key is to begin our theology in a different place—not in the dark place of original sin (a doctrine cooked up by Augustine to rid himself of the guilt of his own sexual dysfunctions)—but with what Matthew Fox calls original blessing, in which our bodies are “dwelling places of the Divine.”

How revolutionary it would be for the LGBT community, which has already led massive social reforms around marriage, to become the new reformers of Christianity—turning it from a religion of shame and guilt into the living embodiment of God’s beauty and unconditional love.

As Mark D. Jordan has powerfully offered, in these pages: “There is no gay church, there is only church—which is never reformed, only reforming.”

Much respect to Vines and his supporters, but why must we in the LGBT faith community beg for acceptance in an already theologically bankrupt institution when the time for reformation is ripe?

  • DeWayne Davis

    You obviously haven’t visited an MCC in a long time. I can attest that the variety, experimentation, and imagination beyond the doctrinal rigidity and theological conservatism are alive in well in MCC. Visit Sunshine Cathedral in Ft. Lauderdale, MCC of Northern Viriginia, and All God’s Children MCC in Minneapolis to name a few, and I assure you that “original sin” or any other creedal or doctrinal straightjacket will not be found in the room.

    Rev. DeWayne Davis
    All God’s Children MCC

  • revtheodyke

    It has, indeed, been awhile since I’ve visited an MCC. I am grateful to hear that things are changing. Thank you!

  • Hal Watts

    My now-husband and I have been together for over 30 years. As young men, we were devoted to the church. For example, we built our own home, with much of our own labor during the week; on Sunday nights, we would drop everything, exhausted, to attend a late Mass at a local Newman Center. We loved being part of the Church, and we took comfort in the connection with God.

    Then, our much-beloved Dignity chapter, an organization of gay Catholics, was kicked out of the Church by John Paul II. A year or two later, Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict) enshrined the statement that gay people are “intrinsically disordered” into the Catechism. Then followed years of more negative statements and culture wars waged by the popes and the bishops. We loved the church, but felt that staying in it was like staying in an abusive relationship.

    We left, as did many of our gay and straight friends and family members.

    And now the church sees these shocking statistics. They need not wonder why….

  • fiona64

    Indeed, that was the case at MCC San Jose (which has now closed). All were welcome (even this straight chick) and there was none of the rigidity that I saw described in the article. I haven’t yet found a church home to match it after three years. 🙁

  • DKeane123

    We welcome you to the dark side, lots more fun (and sleeping in) over here.

  • EyeTee

    You don’t have to fly under the denominational radar to be fully welcoming and inclusive. Our Episcopal church is out and proud about it, took to the streets for Prop8, now gladly marries LGBT as well as straight couples. The first message we got when we started attending was “God loves you beyond your wildest imaginings”. No theological watering-down either. And the incense smells great.

  • NancyP

    One of the issues facing individual MCC congregations is that it still is the most recognizably open denomination and thus attracts LGBT people coming from a very wide spectrum of religious backgrounds, often having experienced pronounced religion-induced trauma, and these people may collectively expect a wide range of doctrines and worship styles. There is one MCC in most cities – it has a hard time being everything to everyone. The ex-Catholics and ex-mainline-denominations expect liturgy, the ex-evangelicals expect evangelical-style preaching, the ex-historically-black-denominations expect the music and testifying – so a unified service ends up being a hybrid. One would expect that the varied educational backgrounds of the clergy, in part due to clergy transferring from other denominations and in part due to a lack of a denominational seminary, would result in different theological emphases for different MCC congregations. The one MCC congregation that I have been part of has not been judgmental and has steered a middle course (“Broad Church”) in theology.

  • Frank

    Yes one would have to give up on their Christian Faith to call two people of the same sex uniting a marriage and not sinful. Wheat from the chaff. As expected.

  • Frank

    The decline is due to the acceptance of these sins not calling that sin, sin, as it is.

  • cranefly

    The church needs a social justice gospel that isn’t satisfied with comfortable, hypocritical liberalism. Right now it seems like there are two churches; one is hateful and sex-worshiping, and the other is like living in a self-help book. The latter may be useful in recovering from the former, but it doesn’t inspire the next generation and it doesn’t go far enough into discipleship. We live in a time of almost unprecedented exploitation and challenges to human rights and sustainability. There is a sea of nonprofits to give to, but it’s hard to find communities to live in where people really believe in taking responsibility for each person as God’s image.

  • cmbennett01

    “truly reform the Christian church into what it was meant to be in the first place—a community that accepts people where they are and offers them genuine love and support.” This is a nice sentiment but I don’t see any reason to believe that it will happen. With very few exceptions, the church has never been accepting of people as they are. Church doctrine specifically excludes and degrades certain classes of people. There are things in the foundational texts of Christianity that can not be explained away as metaphor or allegory. If the church is to reform into an inclusive organization it will have to reject that doctrine and I don’t think that it is likely any time soon. It is more likely that those who oppose that doctrine will reject religion.

  • Jim Reed

    If you want a religion that accepts oppressed minorities, you should probably start it with oppressed minorities. The majority religion doesn’t work that way.

  • cmbennett01

    There are churches where people can find acceptance, there always have been, but they remain a small minority apart from the mainstream church. If Christianity as a whole is to reform it has to be in the mainstream church. Unfortunately, I agree majority religion doesn’t work that way.

  • Craptacular

    “Oh please the histrionic hyperbole is childish.” – Frank6548

  • The Pew Survey of LGBT Americans (2013) only had 5% trans participants, yet it offered some interesting tidbits. However, the study I just completed for my Master’s degree found very few trans persons interested in any kind of church participation, only 17% of those who still claim to be Christian, which turned out to be only 39% of the trans participants may attend a church. What this means is that pastors don’t have to worry about trans people breaking down their doors if they should ever become affirming. The study also found that trans people have not only shed dogmatic religious traditions, they are also more spiritual than the general population. What does this mean? It means that trans inclusion and affirmation as a means to draw them to churches is a futile endeavor. How futile? If your hope was to have ten trans persons in your church, for example, you would need to canvass over 100,000 persons to find them; and you would still have the challenge of offering a style of worship in which these ten persons might feel comfortable in. The fact is trans people are not likely to come anyway, not even if you hang banners outside proclaiming trans people are welcome. The reasons are quite obvious—nobody wants to become the poster child for trans, the elephant in the room, the panache factor, or a special project. But this does not mean that churches should not be preaching trans inclusion; the reality is there may be even one trans person in their midst who is yet to “emerge” ….it could be a child, a teen, a young adult, or even a grandparent. (According to the Williams Institute there is one trans person for every 333 “cisgender” persons in the general population.) Will they have no choice but to shed their faith community, too? But there is another important reason for being a trans inclusive and affirming congregation, it is preparing God’s people to be accepting and affirming of trans persons outside the four walls of the church…the barista, the lawyer, the doctor, the hair-dresser, the gardener, the police officer, the teacher, the neighbor. What trans people are waiting and watching for is how the church stands up for their defense when it comes to trans inclusion In the public square, when it’s not just trans voices that are heard at city council meetings, school boards, legislatures or Congress. Until this happens, for trans persons, the church is Irrelevant, if not the enemy. This is not to deny there are churches with trans persons, but these are the rare exceptions, rather than the rule. In the meantime, trans persons will continue to practice a very deep and personal form of spirituality and the institutional church will simply continue to miss out on their giftedness.

  • Craptacular

    “Oh please the histrionic hyperbole is childish.” – Frank6548

  • Frank

    If only that response was even remotely relevant I would laugh with you.

  • Craptacular

    That’s exactly what I thought about your post.

  • Frank

    Yes it’s clear your thinking isn’t where it should be.

  • I probably agree with virtually all of the author’s social values and politics, but the theology described is just a muddle.

    The idea of Original Sin or the Fall was hardly “cooked up by Augustine.” It is all over the writings of St. Paul (who provides Christianity with its theology). And without it, the entire rationale for Christianity — and more importantly, for Christ — falls apart. People who don’t believe that the Garden of Eden describes a Fall of man; who don’t believe that human beings lost their agency in that Fall; who don’t believe that the human capacity to do God’s will, on their own, has been lost…those people are called Jews. I know, because I am one.

    It is precisely because of the belief that man is Fallen; that he lost his agency, in the Fall; that he is incapable of doing God’s will on his own; that Christ’s sacrifice — and grace — is required. Otherwise, the whole thing is without motivation.

    Fortunately, there is no reason for LGBT Christians to leave the Church, for theologically-woozy, new-agey ersatz “Churches.” There are plenty of mainline, genuinely Christian, Protestant denominations in which they are fully welcome, like the Episcopal Church.

  • Fired, Aren’t I

    “Aww how cute. Trying to play a grown up.” – Frank6548

  • Jon O

    “Sadly, what they find too often in the LGBT religious landscape is what I call “evangelical lite” churches that offer the same theology, liturgy and worship styles as most non-welcoming evangelical churches, minus the judgment.”

    I am wondering how a church can practice their faith “minus the judgment” and yet still be blamed for promoting the sexual shaming of LGBTQ Christians.

  • Frank

    The decline of the church is the abandonment of Gods Will for sexuality and marriage in part. Once you reject Gods created order everything eventually will fall apart.

    The church that takes God seriously is growing leaps and bounds.

  • Well, I’m trans, and there are six other trans people in my church – out of a total of only 100 or so members.

  • joeyj1220

    I agree with your position wholeheartedly, yet your sarcastic, dismissive, judgmental tone (“Fortunately, there is no reason for LGBT Christians to leave the Church, for theologically-woozy, new-agey ersatz “Churches.” There are plenty of mainline, genuinely Christian…”) ironically proves the point of the article… many of us in the community are tired of religious people’s attitudes

  • That’s really wonderful. In Vancouver I sometimes visit a small congregation that also has about that may trans persons and I know of two other churches that also have a few trans members. Clustering like this does happen, but this is more likely to be the case in larger or more cosmopolitan cities. However, I would suggest these clusters are made up of those few 7% of trans persons who a) identify as Christian, and b) include church attendance as one of their intentional spiritual practices. The remaining 34% who also identify as Christian have no desire or interest in church attendance. Is this a good, or a bad thing? I’m not convinced it’s that bad and I would list myself as non-church goer with a deeply intimate, personal spirituality who finds small intimate gatherings with 1 to 3 persons more to my liking, and this can happen anywhere. “But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter.” John 4:23, The Message

  • I’m sorry for the tone, but don’t you think that it actually matters what things really are and what they mean? Otherwise, the whole thing turns into an excerise in make-believe and becomes impossible to take seriously. I would prefer that LGBT people be taken seriously. But what the author does is turn them and their spirituality into something to be lampooned, so divorced it is from reality.

    I have no problem with the author seeking tolerant and progressive forms of life. But what she is describing has nothing to do with Christianity. So, why use the name? Why invoke something that has an ancient, millennia years old history? If she had invented something out of whole-cloth, I wouldn’t have said anything. But instead, what she did was make a mess out of something that is well-established and well-understood.

    Look, I have no stake in this. I am Jewish and belong to a liberal, Reform congregation. We are one of the only religious institutions in the city that will marry gay and lesbian couples, something that I wholeheartedly support. What put me off about this article was not the tolerance, but rather, the ignorance about an ancient religion and the unserious way in which it treated it.

  • sabbath7

    You have set yourself above us. You will have a great fall. You Frank will burn and burn and burn in the place down below for your vicious hate and your attempts to play God. You are not God. You are not our judge. You shall have a great and richly deserved fall. And you will burn forever in the place below because of your arrogance.

  • joeyj1220

    I generally find religion to be a whole lot of make believe anyway. As a Christian atheist myself I am attracted to Roman Catholicism for its history and long tradition of art, music and ritual, certainly not the veracity of its dogma

  • That seems perfectly reasonable to me.

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  • Susan Palet

    Anakinmcfly, May I ask was is the name of the church denomination you attend. I go toa 1st Southern Baptist church here and I am sure I am the only trans there. Where can I go when I am going to be full time?

  • westernwynde

    Maybe most LGBT people have better thing to do than reforming an institution that has oppressed them throughout it’s history. That job of reformation belongs to those in the institutions.

  • revtheodyke

    Fox’s concept of Creation Spirituality is actually older than Augustine’s contrivance of Original Sin. Just because something has become “orthodox” in the Christian church doesn’t make another theological idea “woozy” or any less “Christian” than the “more accepted” or mainstream path. For someone with no dog in the hunt you seem to be very concerned with keeping other people’s religion “orthodox.” What Fox teaches is very much Christianity and I am happy to help spread the word. Not every Jew agrees with each other on Torah … that’s why they write in the margins so much. Talmud, anyone?

  • revtheodyke

    As I tried to say in the article, it’s all about the starting place in the church’s theology. When you start with shame (original sin and the fall) your theology is inherently sinful and judgmental. Original Blessing (as outlined by Fox in his book of the same name) is actually an older and more body positive theology than original sin. I’m saying the starting point matters even if you are an “open and affirming” church. If your theology is based on body shaming and sexuality shaming in general you’re shaming everyone, including the LGBTQ among you.

  • It is hardly older. It is a contemporary creation, out of a mixture of medieval and ancient traditions.

    As for the Jewish rabbinical literature, you must never have heard of Oral Torah, or you would not have made such an elementary mistake in comparing contemporary, new age spirituality with the rabbinical tradition.

  • revtheodyke

    While, indeed, Fox’s systematic idea of Original Blessing is contemporary, the theology it’s based on is older than Augustine’s systematic idea of original sin, which is based on the writings of Paul.

    “The creation-centered tradition traces its roots to the ninth century B.C., with the very first author of the Bible, the Yahwist or J source, to the psalms, to wisdom books of the Bible, to much of the prophets, to Jesus and much of the New Testament, and to the very first Christian theologian in the West, St. Irenaeus (c. 130-200 A.D.).” (Matthew Fox, p. 11, Original Blessing)

    At one point, Augustine’s original sin theory was all modern and new and I’m sure many thought it was all “woozy” too. Now, it’s orthodox so anything else coming down the pike has to be all woozy if it’s in opposition.

    I’m just amazed, I guess, that theologies grounded in shame are defended so vehemently while any idea (even those grounded in older theologies than our “orthodox” view) that we are created with an original blessing, and unstained by Adam’s “sin,” is pooh-poohed as woozy. Did not God say all creation was “very good”?

    We can. of course, agree to disagree and all that since you know you’re right anyway and I’d hate to make you mansplain religion to me all over again.

  • I have no idea what “mansplain” is.

    I also do not “know I’m right anyway.” We simply disagree on this issue.

  • JWinter777

    Candace doesn’t know much about the local church. She ought to become an insider at a caring, gracious evangelical church before she blasts away.

  • gapaul

    This article reports that 48 percent of gay Americans identify as Christian. (As opposed to 72 percent of all Americans.) http://www.thegailygrind.com/2015/05/18/new-survey-finds-48-percent-of-gay-americans-identify-as-christian/

    Not only that, but it represents a 6 point increase over 2013,
    http://www.advocate.com/politics/religion/2015/05/12/report-half-lgb-americans-identify-christian

  • As a complete aside, thanks to you and Jon O for adding the Q. It does mean a lot to those of us who live (proudly) under that letter.

  • I’m curious as to what you’d include in the “foundational texts of Christianity.” If you’re referring to the entire Bible, I’d suggest there are things in those texts that ought to be dismissed wholesale as ideas of God that belong to another time (like divinely ordered genocide). For me, exclusion and degradation fall into that same category. Did you, however, mean the entire Bible, or something else, when you referred to “foundational texts”?

  • cmbennett01

    You are free to reject as much of Christian doctrine as you see fit. I myself reject all of it. My point was that it is not likely the mainstream church will do so. What is more likely is further retrenchment and rejection of rationalism. They see the secularization of society as a threat. They will not conform to the values of society, they will reject them.