04 The Church & the LGBT Community

The Church & the LGBT Community


The Church & the LGBT Community

In chapter 2 we noted how loneliness and tribalism actually reinforce one another. When sources of the life-giving community fail us, as many Americans feel has happened to them, we quite naturally become more deeply attached to whatever community does provide a sense of home and meaning in our lives. This is the backdrop for the conversation. Many in the LGBT community found friendship, love and support with one another when they felt rejected or alienated by broader society—and, often, by Christians and churches.

Thus when clergy want to address questions of gender, sexuality and ethics, they are not simply talking about dos and don’ts as found in their faith’s religious texts. They are talking about something deeply personal that concerns a consenting relationship between two adults. Society overall assents to the idea that consent is the only word that matters when it comes to sex, so for many people the moral stakes of the issue mostly do not exist—the relationship is simply something to be enjoyed. So when people of faith approach these questions, they are approaching a particularly fraught, complex issue in which potential is high for misunderstanding or angry disagreement. No current issue so completely pits modern ideas about human identity against traditional Christian teaching. And it is over this issue that many of the religious freedom debates center. It has become, in many ways, the proxy issue for conflicts over religious liberty.

LGBT Influence & Relationships

It is clear in Barna’s research among clergy that LGBT issues are primary in their concerns as ministers. What is the source of this concern? Are clergy in close relationship with members of the LGBT community? Do they minister in neighborhoods where gay and lesbian Americans have significant influence? Are members of the LGBT community attending their churches? All of these factors can influence how clergy think about issues concerning LGBT people.

According to pastors in the 2014 study, most Christian churches (67%) are not located in communities where gay and lesbian Americans have significant influence. Catholic churches (21%) are the least likely to be located in areas of significant LGBT influence, while non-Christian clergy (51%), by contrast, are the most likely to report LGBT influence in the community where their fellowship is located. More than half of mainline Protestant ministers (55%) report openly gay or lesbian attendees to their church, the largest proportion among the Christian segments. As the Protestant mainline has a history of being more welcoming or accepting of LGBT people than non-mainline churches, this is not surprising. Two in five Catholic clergy (40%) say they have openly LGBT attendees at mass. Far fewer pastors in the other Christian segments report openly gay attendees: 22 percent of non-mainline Protestants and 15 percent of Southern Baptists. More than half of non-Christian clergy members (52%), on the other hand, say they have LGBT attendees in their fellowship.

Compared to the number who report LGBT church attendees, far more pastors in both Christian and non-Christian traditions say they have friends or family members who are LGBT. Eight out of 10 non-Christians (84%), mainline Protestants (86%) and Catholics (79%), and about two-thirds of African American (68%) and non-mainline Protestants (69%) report kinship or friendship with a person who is a sexual minority.

Other Barna data has shown that friendships are a vitally important way to bridge divides and change perceptions of those who are different. For instance, those who spend time with Muslim friends are less likely to have prejudicial views toward them. Similarly, strong friendships between LGBT individuals and conservative religious people can help repair some of the mistrust between their tribes. This could also inform the way issues of religious liberty are debated publicly, as in the case of the friendship between LGBT activist Shane Windmeyer and Chick-fil-A CEO and noted evangelical Dan Cathy.7

What impact do these relationships have on pastors’ understanding of religious liberty? Large majorities of non-Christian leaders (77%), mainline Protestants (68%) and Catholics (63%) say their relationships have had a positive impact on their views. Non-mainline Protestants (50%) are more likely to say their personal relationships with gay friends or family have had no impact on their understanding of religious liberty.

The Impact of Obergefell
on the Religious Liberty Debate

In 2014 clergy were asked about their position on same-sex marriage. A large majority of most Christian clergy, with a small majority of mainline Protestants (56%), agreed with the statement, “The Church / your faith tradition should hold to its historic position on marriage between one man and one woman.” One half of non-Christian clergy (50%) agreed; they were just as likely to prefer the statement, “The Church / your faith tradition should affirm fully monogamous marriage commitments between two people of the same sex” (50%). Forty-four percent of mainline and one in six Catholic faith leaders (16%) also preferred this statement.

One year after this data was collected, the US Supreme Court handed down its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, a landmark ruling requiring all 50 states to perform and recognize same-sex marriage. This case will be remembered as a major moment in the ongoing debates about religious freedom in the United States.

When the decision was made in 2015, what did people think would be the impact? Based on a poll taken days after the ruling, there was a mixed reception among the American public. Adults were split on whether it would have a more negative (40%) or a more positive impact (37%); one-fifth (19%) said it would have no impact at all.

There was a similar split when it came to people’s personal opinions of the decision. Almost half were in favor of the Supreme Court’s ruling (48%), while fewer said they were not in favor (43%). Significantly, the survey found almost identical percentages of those strongly in favor and those strongly not in favor, with both answers accounting for one-third (34%) of responses, leaving the remaining one-third of Americans (32%) somewhere in between the two poles.

Among clergy, the response in the 2015 / 16 poll was telling. Nearly half of all Christian clergy claim that “Christians should resist the same-sex marriage decision and try to find ways of reversing it” (48%).

This is compared to 28 percent who had a more moderate response, claiming, “It is the law of the land and Christians should support it, but explore ways to work around it or diminish its impact within the Christian community.” Only 16 percent said, “It is the law of the land and Christians should fully support it.” Protestant non-mainline clergy (62%), particularly Southern Baptists (78%), and Catholic priests (53%) were most likely to advocate resistance, whereas almost half of mainline Protestants (46%) said the decision should have Christians’ full support.

What’s Next?

The biggest question on many minds, particularly for clergy, is What happens now? Will they be required to perform same-sex marriages? If so, what will happen to those who refuse to do so? The general public, when asked in 2015, were unequivocal in their view that now that same-sex marriage is legal in the United States, religious institutions should not be legally required to perform weddings for same-sex couples. Eight in 10 said no (79%). This was also the case when asked whether actual clergy members such as priests, pastors and rabbis should be legally required to perform weddings for same-sex couples. The response was the same: Eight in 10 said no (79%).

But what about business owners like bakeries and florists? In the summer of 2018, the Supreme Court heard Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and ultimately ruled in favor of the bakery. This high-profile case focused on a business owner whose religious convictions kept him from baking a cake for a same-sex wedding. The ruling was quite narrow, concerned more with the conduct of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission in this particular case than with broader principles about religious liberty and equal protection under the law. Consequently, it is still very hard to know what the eventual resolution of this particular debate will be.

Public opinion on these sorts of cases is less sympathetic to religious business owners. For instance, almost six in 10 US adults (57%), when asked if they believe business owners who object to same-sex marriage based on their personal religious beliefs should be legally required to offer their services to same-sex weddings, said no. That’s 22 points fewer than clergy members who said so. Four in 10 US adults (38%) said that businesses should be required to serve same-sex couples, regardless of the owners’ beliefs, nearly double the proportion of faith leaders who said the same.

This tendency to strongly favor the rights of religious groups, but not of business owners, to teach and practice their beliefs is continually reinforced in the data. Nine in 10 Christian clergy (92%) either strongly or somewhat agree that religious groups must remain free to teach and practice the traditional definition of marriage. Catholics (95%) and non-mainline Protestants (95%) are on the same page. Fewer mainline Protestants (81%) agree that churches ought to remain free to teach and practice the traditional definition of marriage. Given that the largest part of the polling differences comes in the group that somewhat agrees, it is possible that there is some uncertainty in the Protestant mainline about how to handle the objections of conservative members of denominations who still oppose same-sex marriage.

In fact, mainline Protestants (81%) are just as willing to defend the freedom of religious groups as the general public (81%), a large majority of which believes religious groups should be free to teach and practice the traditional definition of marriage.

Addressing LGBT Issues

Moving forward, how well equipped are clergy to deal with the challenges being raised here? Christian ministers were offered a chance to describe in their own words the issues they feel least prepared to address when it comes to LGBT people and policies. The five most common issues pastors feel least prepared to address are welcoming without condoning behavior; marriage (traditional covenant vs. civil union); using scripture to teach about sin; how to disciple LGBT people; and the genetic vs. volitional aspects of same-sex attraction. (For a full list of the open-ended responses, please see page 97.)

What makes each of these issues particularly complex is that they incorporate multiple aspects of the five ways to be faithful. For example, the question about marriage is theological—What does the Bible say?—but it is also deeply pastoral and concerned with the public square, since marriages are the fundamental social unit of society. Marriage also has political ramifications, so that lens is implicated as well. And, of course, there is a relational component: Do you attend your co-worker’s same-sex wedding? How should a religious conse vative who affirms the traditional view of marriage but has a child who is married to a same-sex partner reconcile belief with parental love? This is one of the most significant challenges with many questions related to LGBT individuals; good responses must account for the ways in which each of the five lenses are connected to the question at hand.

Evaluating their preparedness against a list of areas related to LGBT issues, a large majority of Christian ministers feels at least somewhat prepared to address the issues theologically, in ministry, relationally, politically and commercially. In the realms of theology and politics, mainline Protestants feel less prepared than other segments, but in the relational area they report feeling significantly more prepared. Catholics are less confident than Protestants about their preparedness to address the ministry ramifications of these issues. Non-mainline Protestants feel most prepared theologically, but least prepared commercially.


Most Christian clergy (66%) are skeptical that it is possible for Christians to both support civil same-sex marriage and affirm the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage. This is particularly true among non-mainline Protestants—more than eight in 10 of whom disagree that one can support both (82%). On the other end of the spectrum, the majority of mainline Church Protestants agree (63%). The general public, based on the 2015 data, tends to side with mainline Protestants, with half (50%) believing that Christians can support legal marriage for same-sex couples and also affirm the Church’s traditional definition of marriage. Only one-third (35%) disagree that holding such positions in tension is possible. The view from the outside is simpler, with many believing the Church ought to be motivated by acceptance and belonging, often citing the adage “God is love” to challenge the notion that these two aims cannot be reconciled. This tension is complex, and clergy are immersed within its nuances, so it is unsurprising that they are more skeptical of resolving this tension.

Moving beyond same-sex marriage, Christian clergy were asked in 2015 / 16 whether it is possible to advance LGBT rights and protect religious freedom. The good news is that half (51%) believe it’s possible. The only group more skeptical than not are non-mainline Protestants (54% view these as incompatible), with mainline Protestants being the most optimistic about the possibility (77%). Whatever their view, in a follow-up question, each group felt very certain of those possibilities.

A Permanent Truce

Given the tension between the LGBT community and the Church, is some kind of permanent truce possible? In the most recent poll conducted in 2017, Protestant clergy were fairly evenly split on whether they would favor or oppose federal legislation that ensures protection of both LGBT rights and religious freedom. Most favor this truce (53%), but only slightly more than those who do not (47%). Much work remains to be done in reconciling what appear to many to be the conflicting aims of the LGBT community and the Church.

Previous Section

How Important Is Religious Liberty?

Read Section
Next Section

How Should Clergy Respond?

Read Section