Distortions Aside, Clergy Support Gay Rights in Surprising Numbers

In a recent ad by the National Organization for Marriage, a scary storm of homosexuality threatens to rain gays into people’s lives and churches. That campaign, widely mocked by Stephen Colbert and numerous others, was just the most recent example of the religious right’s ongoing effort to portray the gay rights movement as an enemy of religious liberty and faith itself. 

Progressive religious leaders have been working hard to make it clear that religion and religious people are not exclusively on the “anti” side of the gay rights movement. Now there’s new evidence that widespread support exists among Christian leaders for public policies that protect the rights and lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and for their full inclusion in the life of the church.

An in-depth analysis of mainline Protestant clergy shows large majorities of support for anti-discrimination laws, hate crimes legislation, and the right of gay couples to adopt children. Even same-sex marriage, so often portrayed by religious right leaders as an attack on the church, draws support from nearly half of mainline Protestant clergy when it is clarified that no church would be forced to bless same-sex couples.

Those conclusions are drawn from recently-released findings from the Clergy Voices Survey conducted last year by Public Religion Research [Editor’s note: In addition to working as an adviser on the survey the author has been hired by PRR to do outreach and PR for it].* Researchers identified 1,000 senior clergy from each of the seven largest mainline Protestant denominations and sent them in-depth questionnaires by mail (the response rate was over 40 percent). The survey’s 60-plus questions covering LGBT issues provide the most extensive look ever at clergy beliefs about homosexuality, interpretations of scripture, and the inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church—including ordination.

The PRR analysis holds mostly good news for equality advocates, providing yet another tool for challenging assertions by anti-gay activists and public officials that, for example, hate crimes laws are a designed as a prelude to dragging preachers from their pulpits.

Among the most dramatic findings is the striking diversity of opinion within mainline clergy who, in general, hold much more diverse political views than white evangelicals; mainline Protestants are one of the only major religious groupings who are truly swing voters (white Catholics being the other).

Some of the divisions break down pretty dramatically across denominational lines, with clergy from the United Church of Christ and Episcopal Church at the equality-affirming end of the spectrum, and clergy from the American Baptist Churches and the United Methodist Church at the more conservative end, both theologically and politically.

With Facts, Support Doubles

But it’s also interesting to look at factors that cut across the denominations. The authors of the analysis, Public Religion Research’s Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox, also looked at a set of questions, including things such as the inerrancy of scripture and the sinfulness of homosexuality, to evaluate mainline clergy along traditionalist/orthodox and modernist theological orientations. And, based on questions about sexuality, public policy, and the role of LGBT people in the church, they divide mainline clergy into three major groupings.

Roughly equal proportions fall into a strongly gay-supportive base (who generally do not see homosexuality as a sin and are very supportive of pro-equality policies and full inclusion of gays in church leadership—29 percent) and a base holding the opposite view (30 percent). A plurality of respondents (41 percent) fall into what they call the “Uncertain Middle.”

That large middle group is ambivalent or uncertain about the nature of homosexuality, but is also generally supportive of equality-affirming public policies; much closer on policy issues to the supportive base than to the opposition. In some ways, clergy in the “Uncertain Middle” model an approach to public policy issues that gay-rights advocates need to bring more fully into the policy arena: the majority of these clergy believe that having religious questions or concerns about the nature or sinfulness of homosexuality does not require one to oppose equality in the legal realm. This is the separation of church and state in action; with churches deciding questions about leadership and ordination, and policy decisions being made on Constitutional principles like equality under the law.

This kind of clergy voice could be especially compelling to those people of faith who find themselves in an uncertain middle, perhaps struggling with what they have been taught about scripture, and wondering how much credence to give the arguments that religious liberty and legal equality are somehow irreconcilable.

This potential is evidenced by one of the most striking findings in the survey, which deals with support for same-sex marriage among clergy in the “Uncertain Middle” (which, remember, is a 41 percent plurality of the overall group). When asked whether they support marriage for same-sex couples, civil unions but not marriage, or no legal recognition at all, only 26 percent of clergy in the uncertain middle initially choose marriage equality. But when asked a follow-up question about whether they would support allowing gays to legally marry if the law guarantees that no church would be forced to marry any couple, that support jumps a remarkable 23 percentage points, to 49 percent. That is a powerful and potentially very useful fact.

But perhaps the most hopeful results for gay-rights advocates is the fact that almost half of the mainline clergy report that their own views on gay and lesbian issues have become more liberal over the past ten years, with only 14 percent saying they have become more conservative.

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*This editor’s note initially noted that the author had “worked with PRR,” a small but meaningful difference. RD deeply regrets the error and always strives for complete transparency with regard to conflicts of interest and personal relationships.