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How The Nonreligious 'Nones' Are Driving LGBT Equality in the U.S.

How The Nonreligious 'Nones' Are Driving LGBT Equality in the U.S.


A deep look inside a recent Pew Research survey hints at a link between antigay attitudes and declining religiosity.

Christian-identity-downward-spiral-633x450_0_0This past week it emerged that Josh Duggar, the eldest son of the 19 Kids and Counting family, had molested at least five underage girls as a teenager, allegedly including two of his sisters. The revelation forced Duggar to leave his job with the Family Research Council, officially an antigay "hate group," where he vocally opposed laws protecting LGBT people.

The entire Duggar family has also been deeply enmeshed in antigay, right-wing politics. Notably, they have vocally supported religious conservatives like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, while matriarch Michelle Duggar last year recorded a robocall that accused transgender people of being child molesters.

The Duggars have held themselves up as a model of Christianity in America: wearing their religion on their sleeves, the family is politically active, deeply conservative, anti-LGBT, patriarchal, and anti-science. Some members of the family have adopted a particularly evangelical bent to their faith, telling other Christians: if you aren't as conservative as us, you're not real Christians.

"Real Christians" like the Duggars would like to think they're doing God's work. But if they're judged by the fruits of their tree, as the Bible teaches, they've actually driven Americans away from churches. And new research indicates that their entrenched, anti-LGBT positions are part of why Americans are abandoning the faith in record numbers -- and not coming back.

When Pew Research Center released its latest religion in America survey results, it highlighted a trend that has been ongoing for years: people are leaving organized religion in droves. In response, churches have been attempting to combat this declining attendance, with attempts to "jazz up" services that range from engaging youth pastors, rebranding efforts, and anything else they can think of to get Millennials back -- apparently to no avail. The number of people who identify with any religious denomination keeps shrinking.

There are now approximately 56 million religiously unaffiliated adults (those identifying as agnostic, atheist, or "nothing in particular") in the U.S., according to Pew. In light of this group's "none of the above" attitude toward existing organized religion, the group is sometimes referred to as the "Nones."

The Nones are more numerous than either Catholics or mainline Protestants, according to Pew's latest survey. Indeed, the unaffiliated are now second in size only to evangelical Protestants among major religious groups in the U.S., and growing faster than any other group. The Nones are more likely to be young, white, and educated, although growth is occurring across almost every demographic.

But the Nones also tend to be one of the most solidly Democratic and pro-LGBT demographics as well. This isn't coincidental; prior studies from the Public Religion Research Institute have shown that up to a third of Millennial Nones left traditional faith communities because of religious intolerance toward LGBT people.

Certainly, there are other factors at play. Generational replacement is failing to happen -- for every person who has joined a religion after having been raised unaffiliated, there are more than four people who have become religious "Nones" after having been raised in some religion, revealed Pew.

Many Nones cite organized religion's lack of relevance to their lives as a key reason they have left the flock. In other countries within Europe, there are clear correlations over time between wealth, education, and religiosity; As wealth and education rates grow, religiosity tends to drop. The U.S. has long been something of an outlier as a wealthy and religious nation.

The flip side of that coin finds that as wealth inequality grows, people are more likely to be religious. Judging solely by this often-dire fiscal reality, Millennials should be becoming more religious, not less.

This is a key observation; wealth inequality in the U.S. is growing by leaps and bounds. The top 1 percent of the population controls 36 percent of the wealth in the U.S., and the gap is growing. The U.S. GINI coefficient (a measure of wealth inequality) has been growing for decades, while actual wealth for the bottom 80 percent of wage-earners has been in slow decline for more than a decade. What's more, Millennials -- many of whom are Nones -- are the age demographic most likely to see their slice of the financial pie decreasing.

With Millennials leaving religion faster than any other age demographic, this suggests some powerful non-economic factors are driving them away. And on a broader scale, the factors leading to the rise of the Nones in the U.S. appears strong enough to overcome the social and cultural influence of growing wealth inequality.

Dr. Brittney Cooper, an Assistant Professor of Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, summarizes the problem posed by conservative Christianity to Millennials like herself in a powerful essay alleging that right-wing religious fanatics have concocted a bigoted "white supremacist Jesus."

"I cannot stand in a church and worship on Sunday alongside those who on the very next Monday co-sign every kind of legislation that devalues the lives of Black people, women, and gay people," writes Cooper. "I am a firm believer that our theology implicates our politics. If your politics are rooted in the contemporary anti-Black, misogynist, homophobic conservatism, then we are not serving the same God. Period."

Some religions have attempted to reverse this trend, with varying degrees of success.

Latter-Day Saints

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (also known as the Mormon Church) hired several marketing firms to rehab its image after the Church lobbied hard for Proposition 8, which once banned same-sex marriage in California. While being the most solidly Republican denomination, the LDS has taken several steps to appear less anti-LGBT, including supporting statewide non-discrimination legislation in Utah (with one huge, "religious freedom" shaped caveat), and setting up a web site for "conversations" about "same-sex attractions."

But anyone hoping that the church would also take an affirming view toward LGBT people saw those hopes dashed at a press conference about Utah's nondiscrimination law.

"To those who follow the Church closely and who are familiar with its teachings and positions on various social issues, it will be apparent that we are announcing no change in doctrine or Church teachings today," said Elder D. Todd Christofferson in January. "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that sexual relations other than between a man and a woman who are married are contrary to the laws of God."

The caveat in the Church's support for statewide nondiscrimination protections was an exemption that allows individuals to discriminate on religious grounds. This religious exemption allows for a myriad of abuses. "Doctors would still be allowed to deny medical care," reported the Human Rights Campaign in a January statement about the Utah law. "Pharmacists would still be allowed to refuse to fill valid prescriptions. And landlords, as well as business operators, would still be allowed to reject LGBT people. All in the name of religion."

Further, the church still expects transgender people never to transition. Lesbians and gays are expected to either remain celibate their entire lives, or enter into a mixed-orientation marriage. Mixed orientation marriages are subtly encouraged, despite new research that shows such relationships are likely to fail, and the quality of life for Mormon men in these marriages is worse than people suffering from a chronic auto-immune disease. The Church also quietly supports so-called ex-gay therapy to suppress gay men's identities, by taking no formal position on the scientifically discredited practice, but reminding members it sure is easier to get into heaven if you're not gay.

This may not be working: missionary conversion rates continue to decline, as does retention of new members, average Mormon family size, and retention rates for young people born into the faith. Mormons were excited during recent presidential election cycles to have Mitt Romney as a hugely well-known example. Despite aggressive proselytization, though, and having the largest families of any denomination, Mormon identification rates remain flat.

Southern Baptist Convention

The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest evangelical protestant denomination in the country. Under President Richard Moore over the past two years, the SBC has undertaken a significant attempt at rebranding on lesbian and gay issues.

For example, the Convention has abandoned its longstanding claim that there is no such thing as gay people, and formally disavowed reparative therapy for sexual orientation, though activists criticized a lack of action behind those words. SBC also recognizes the existence of intersex conditions, and has issued a resolution rejecting "gay-bashing." Finally, the Convention advises against kicking LGBT youth out of the home.

Overall, this is effectively window dressing, says Jacob Lupfer, an editor at Religion News Service and doctoral candidate at Georgetown University, who attended the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission Conference in 2014. His report from that conference was tellingly titled "Southern Baptists Change Their Tone But Not Their Substance on Homosexuality."

"Differences of tone and nuance notwithstanding, the message to gay Christians was clear," wrote Lupfer last October. "Either they believe same-sex erotic expression is a sin and commit to a life of celibacy, or they can give in to their impulses, thus living in willful rebellion against God."

The SBC opposes all legal protections for LGBT people, and strongly supports so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. As recently as last year, SBC leaders said they believe gay people are gay because they were molested as children, and continue to maintain that gays should remain celibate for life. Southern Baptist military chaplains are not only prohibited from ministering to lesbian and gay troops, but also from associating with chaplains who do.

The SBC's positions on transgender people are similar to where they were on gay people 20 years ago. According to official SBC doctrine, transgender people do not exist. Therefore, the Convention opposes any access to medical care, as well as any cultural or government validation of transgender identities. The SBC outright endorses reparative therapy for transgender people, and tells parents that accepting the identity of your transgender child will send you to hell. Prominent members still actively promote the false narrative that transgender people are sexual predators and amputation fetishists.

But the organization appears to recognize that its cultural influence and size are waning. Despite SBC's efforts to change its tone on gay (but not transgender) people, the core theology and positions have changed very little. Indeed, some observers see the SBC's hard line on transgender people as a last stand in the culture wars. According to Dianna Anderson at Reproductive Health Reality Check:

"Such a belief is so dependent upon a number of evaporating cultural assumptions -- straight marriage that will always produce children, gender and sexuality as fixed states, the idea that men are leaders and women are followers -- that it's fairly easy to see why representatives of various Christian organizations are panicked at the idea of affirming transgender identities. That affirmation, after all, would be a devastating blow for the house of cards upon which they've built their faith. Accepting the very existence of trans people is an act that threatens their image of God -- because God, in conservative Christians' eyes, only created (and called 'good') male and female in a compulsory heterosexual binary."

Strikingly, the SBC seems to have found a successful strategy for holding back the exodus of the faithful from its pews. Evangelicals have seen the slowest rate of decline in market share -- the total number of people in the U.S. who identify as such actually increased between 2012 and 2015, according to Pew.

Roman Catholic Church

The Catholic Church's shift on LGBT people is less like a pronouncement, and more like reading the tea leaves, guessing at what the words and actions of Pope Francis really mean. Was the Church moving toward acceptance when Pope Francis said, "Who am I to judge?" regarding pious gay clergy? Or when he demoted the vociferously antigay Cardinal Raymond Burke?

Or is the Catholic Church drawing a line in the sand, just last month calling same-sex marriage a "threat to the family?" What about when transgender rights are described as a threat to humanity akin to nuclear weapons?

At the same time, local Catholic leadership is allowed to set the tone for individual parishes. This may be a simply pragmatic approach, given that U.S. Catholics themselves have moderate views on social issues. Their support for marriage equality has consistently been similar to that of the U.S. population as a whole. However, even this flexibility doesn't seem to be enough to stem the tide of Millennials leaving the Church.

The Pew survey shows the American Catholic Church's numbers are in almost as steep a decline as mainline Protestants. Reactions to the trends detailed in the survey vary greatly across church leaders and devout members.

"The religious landscape is reflecting popular culture and the news," said Jeff Cavins, director of evangelization and catechesis for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. "People are becoming bored with mainline religion and looking for alternative ways of satisfying their spiritual needs. Americans are turning to social causes as a way of expressing their inner priorities."

Other observers see the decline of the church's influence in the U.S. as inevitable, and similar to the pattern in Europe, with the organization's structures becoming "little more than tourist attractions," to borrow author and spiritual teacher Steve McSwain's phrasing.

Meanwhile, more conservative Catholic commentators like Anne Hendershott, a professor of sociology and director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, take more of a "good riddance" approach to the exit of LGBT people and their allies from the Church.

"While the LGBT community does not want to be reminded of biblical injunctions or of sin, it appears -- ironically -- that the churches which refuse to acknowledge sin are not deemed worth attending," wrote Hendershott for Catholic World Report last month. "Indeed, that may be the problem: if there is no creed or doctrine beyond 'we are all good,' there is no good reason to attend church; any group activity will suffice."

Hendershott perceives the exodus of the church's socially progressive members as strengthening the institution by making it more homogenous.

Across the ideological spectrum, though, Catholic pundits agree on one thing: None of them see the Nones coming back to the fold any time soon.

Mainline (Non-Evangelical) Protestants

This broad categorization includes Christian denominations such as Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians -- all denominations that were once prevalent in the Northeast, but no longer. Identifications with these churches have fallen faster than for any other group in the Pew survey, by virtually any measure. Interestingly, mainline Protestants also encompass the Christian denominations most likely to have accepted LGBT people to some degree.

Leaders and laymen are keenly aware of these statistics, as are evangelical denominations. Some, particularly those in evangelical denominations, blame the declining attendance on the liberalization of these churches, saying they have watered down Christianity into moral relativism, with no clear delineation of right and wrong. Some sociologists hold that demographics, such as differences in birth rates, are the real reason why the ranks of mainline Protestants are declining faster than evangelicals.

Others point to a groundbreaking 2010 study by Putnam and Campbell, which argues there is a strong link between Millennial disenchantment with Christianity and the rise of evangelical conservatism in the 1980s and '90s. That study hypothesizes that Millennials have come of age in an environment where being Christian means being conservative (and Republican). More socially progressive Millennials -- which is most of them -- view the choice before them as an ultimatum of sorts: identifying with one's political identity, or their religious identity. When it comes down to brass tacks, Millennials are apt to change the latter, given how little effort it takes to drop out of organized religion. In short, when there is a conflict between religious and political identity, the path of least resistance involves giving up the religious one.

The solution, from Putnam and Cambell's perspective, would be to sever the link between religion and politics. But recent polling indicates that 57 percent of Republicans want to see Christianity as the official religion of the United States. Additionally, greater religious involvement in government is a core tenet for many evangelicals. But given the shrinking number of mainline Protestants compared to the sizable and growing membership of the evangelical community, the researchers' solution seems a slim chance of becoming reality.

The LGBT Community

The LGBT community is less likely to be religious than the American population as a whole, according to a recent Gallup poll. Given the dearth of LGBT-affirming faiths, how often LGBT people have been mistreated by the faith communities they were born in to, and the link between anti-LGBT religions and politics, this reality is unsurprising. But that hasn't stopped national organizations like The National LGBTQ Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign from having dedicated religious outreach campaigns. These organizations see such efforts as essential to their missions. Chad Griffin, HRC's president, describes religious outreach as one of the group's top priorities in fighting for LGBT equality:

"There's sort of two pieces of this work. Number one, and first and foremost, is changing hearts and minds. You change hearts and minds by building bridges and by having a conversation with business leaders, with faith and religious leaders, with community leaders, and also with elected officials at the community level and at the state level."

These religious outreach efforts have several purposes. According to a National LGBTQ Task Force Report on inclusive religious organizing, "Pro-LGBTQQIA faith-based leaders and leadership structures bring significant resources to the fight -- the ability to speak with moral authority to large numbers and through a variety of communication vehicles."

The ability to have religious leaders testify in favor of pro-LGBT legislation significantly alters the perception that LGBT issues are purely religious or moral, according to the report. It also allows for greater reach into communities where people of color suffer the most from the confluence of multiple forms of discrimination and oppression.

Unfortunately, the influence of LGBT-affirming churches is waning as their membership declines. Relatedly, research shows that increased Internet access -- especially when used to access progressive media sources like Right Wing Watch and ThinkProgress -- helps tighten the spiral of religious de-identification by consistently pointing out the link between conservative religions and politics.

"For people living in homogeneous communities, the Internet provides opportunities to find information about people of other religions (and none), and to interact with them personally," wrote Allen Downey, a computer science professor at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering who studied the impact of web access on religious identification.

Atheists and agnostics within the LGBT community often see this tightening as a necessary step toward isolating the radical right from the general population, building what Salon recently labeled a "New American Secularism." Some believe that traditional Christian faith needs to be torn down before it can be built back up.

No matter how the demographics are sliced, the decline in denominational identification is accelerating. So is the decline in church attendance. It seems likely that this trend will continue for years, if not decades.

While the end result is uncertain, current shifts in religious messaging imply that a segment of conservative religions will hold on to a core constituency for a long time to come, even without moving toward greater acceptance. A contrarian social outlook (no matter how unpopular) will always have adherents: just look at interracial marriage, which has been legal across the U.S. for more than 50 years. But approximately one in six Americans is still opposed to interracial marriage, according to the Pew survey.

Right-wing pundits who support the church maintaining its anti-LGBT stance have seized onto the fact that evangelical groups are holding on to members better than denominations that affirm LGBT people.

In an August op-ed for the Federalist, Daily Caller reporter Alex Griswold sardonically concluded that the fastest way to "Shrink Your Church in One Easy Step" is to become LGBT-affirming.

"A number of Christian denominations have already taken significant steps towards liberalizing their stances on homosexuality and marriage, and the evidence so far seems to indicate that affirming homosexuality is hardly a cure for membership woes," wrote Griswold. "On the contrary, every major American church that has taken steps towards liberalization of sexual issues has seen a steep decline in membership."

This observation is factually correct, but it misses the bigger picture. Conservative faiths are holding steady while moderate progressive ones are shrinking, but Pew's research indicates that it's actually conservative faiths that are making all of Christianity toxic to moderate and progressive Millennials.

LGBT rights aren't the only social issue where conservative theology drives younger moderates and progressives away. As prominent atheist blogger Hemant Mehta noted at CNN, those conservative faiths are "antigay, anti-women, anti-science, anti-sex-education and anti-doubt, to name a few of the most common criticisms."

Churches that dig in their heels on anti-LGBT positions might hear more about how that issue is driving away new members, but that's because public opinion on LGBT people has shifted faster than any of the other issues the church is refusing to evolve upon.

As proof, look no further than a 2007 study by the Barna Group, which found that the most common word used by Millennials to describe Christianity was "antihomosexual." For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about key Christian qualities. The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers. The next most common negative descriptors were "judgmental," "hypocritical," and "too involved in politics," according to David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons' book UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity... And Why It Matters.

Whether the rise of the Nones -- and the concurrent decline of moderate religions -- ultimately speeds up or slows down efforts to secure legal protections for LGBT people as a whole remains to be seen. What we do know is that is that the rise of the Nones and the increasing acceptance of LGBT people are strongly linked.

And neither is likely to be undone.

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Brynn Tannehill