A record number of Americans identify as LGBTQ. What does this mean for Christianity?
(RNS) – Gallup recently discovered that a record percentage of Americans (7.1%) identify as LGBTQ. Young people are particularly responsible for this increase, as more than 20% of Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2003) and 10% of Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) identify as LGBTQ. (In contrast, less than 1% of Americans over 75 identify as LGBTQ.)
What might the growing willingness of young Americans to identify as LGBTQ mean for the future of Christianity in the United States?
Contrary to popular belief, about half of all LGBTQ people in the United States identify with some religious tradition, although they do not attend religious services as frequently as members of the general public. Several mainstream Protestant denominations accept LGBTQ people as members and clergy, and more assertive congregations are founded by LGBTQ people.
But the latest Gallup poll does not bode well for Christian groups in the United States, which have already seen their numbers dwindle in recent decades. Why? First, LGBTQ people are more likely than heterosexual people to identify with a minority religion rather than Christianity, in part because they view religions such as Buddhism and Judaism as more welcoming to LGBTQ people. Members of Generation Z are particularly more likely to identify with minority faiths.
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Additionally, many young LGBTQ Americans are opting out of organized religion altogether, in part because evangelical Christian denominations and the Roman Catholic Church oppose LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage. Indeed, a recent study found that younger LGBTQ Americans are less likely than older LGBTQ Americans to identify as Christian, and many LGBTQ people view the largest organized religious traditions in the United States as hostile. Recent state laws censoring LGBTQ subjects in public schools because they offend Christian sensibilities only reinforce LGBTQ people’s distrust of many Christian denominations.
Finally, data from the Public Religion Research Institute shows that younger generations of all sexual and gender identities are paying attention to how Christian groups treat LGBTQ people. Because most Americans have friends or family members who identify as LGBTQ, even many non-LGBTQ Americans are willing to change their religious affiliation when they believe a tradition mistreats LGBTQ people. Up to a third of millennials, for example, no longer identify with their childhood religion, and they often cite the mistreatment of LGBTQ people by their childhood religion as a significant factor in their decision to leave.
It is therefore entirely possible that the rise of LGBTQ identifiers is accelerating the rise of non-Christian identification in the United States. Yet this outcome is not inevitable, and the recent Gallup poll presents an opportunity for some Christian traditions to reconsider their treatment of LGBTQ people.
Churches in neighborhoods with many LGBTQ residents, even those affiliated with socially conservative denominations, have begun to practice inclusivity, although some have been punished for the practices. Christian denominations continue to find creative ways to reorganize so they can fully embrace their LGBTQ members. Even many religious colleges and universities open their doors to LGBTQ young adults. A recent study showed that nearly half of all Christian colleges and universities in the United States are home to LGBTQ student groups.
The latest Gallup poll is not a death knell for Christianity in the United States. Although many Christian groups’ stances on LGBTQ issues have drawn a backlash among young Americans, Christian groups that take proactive steps to affirm LGBTQ people may stand a chance of winning them back.
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(Jonathan S. Coley is assistant professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University; RG Cravens is assistant professor of political science at California Polytechnic State University. Both are public fellows at the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington, D.C. The opinions expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)