Fact Check: Are Gay-Friendly Churches in Decline?

US News & World Report’s Dan Gilgoff considers Episcopalians’ move to ordain gays and lesbians in light of the membership woes afflicting mainline denominations:

One big question these changes raise is whether they’ll affect the dramatic decline of membership in mainline churches. The U.S. churches experiencing growth right now—those in the evangelical, nondenominational, and Mormon traditions—condemn homosexuality.

But the churches most open to homosexuality are shrinking fastest.

That’s true only if you aggregate mainliners vs. Evangelicals and others. Within the mainline, there’s not nearly so much of a straight (erm) line correlation.

The big losers among mainline denominations are United Methodists, who shed nearly 20% of their members between 1990 and 2008, according to the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). The Methodists do not ordain gays and lesbians. Presbyterians and Lutherans each lost about 5-6% of their members. Episcopalians went down 20% as well, but on a much lower scale than Methodists: in 1990, there were about 3 million Episcopalians in the US. In 2008, there were around 2.4 million. Not chump change, to be sure, but nothing like the staggering 3 million Methodists who disappeared in the same period.

And as Gilgoff himself points out, Catholics—hardly the most gay-friendly of traditions—have been hit hard, a trend that has been masked by Catholic immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, my own United Church of Christ actually grew between 1990 and 2008. True, we’re still miniscule according to ARIS, but it’s a trend nonetheless. Also growing: “New Religious Movements and Other Religions,” a category that includes Unitarian Universalists among other gay-friendly groups, and those claiming no religion, which we know from other research to be the most sympathetic to gays and lesbians. NRMs and the “Nones,” as they’re called, more than double their population, outpacing every other sector of the religious economy.

A better way to put it, then, might be: some churches open to homosexuality are shrinking. Others are not. And the people who really are growing are the ones who don’t hate teh gay at all.

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