« Current Trends and Future Prospects »

I’ll start with a simple observation that, though perhaps unrepresentative, is nonetheless striking: without exception, every previous sub-topic of conversation in this series has (ahem) a “more senior” author presenting the more “progressive” line of reasoning and a younger author articulating the more traditionally “conservative” position.[1]  The conservative/traditional-liberal/progressive binary—and the requisite oppositional side choosing that goes along with it—generally, in my opinion, does more harm than good. This project, as I understand it, represents one kind of attempt to subtly subvert this very problem and to hopefully make space for some more nuanced reflections on what is and will undoubtedly continue to be the most divisive religious debate of our time. The contributors were, however, clearly chosen with the intention of having a discussion between people with opposing perspectives and the fact that they have consistently diverged along the lines of seniority is, at the very least, intriguing if not ironic.[2]

I make the preceding point by way of an entrée into the conversation at hand, specifically in response to the leading question’s suggestion that, “Due to a perceived ‘generation gap,’ some Christians wonder whether present controversies relating to faith and LGBT issues will ‘fade away’ as a younger generation moves into positions of influence in both faith-based and secular institutions.”

In the interest of sticking as closely as possible to the proposed topic I intend, then, to approach the leading question in two distinct ways: descriptively—detailing some current trends in Christianity which are relevant to the relationship between LGBT persons and faith traditions—and prescriptively/prospectively—articulating what I personally think should and might in actuality happen in the future.

The Zeitgeist

The “generation gap”

Our esteemed contributors aside, various polling measures seem to increasingly suggest that there is, in fact, a divergence in the views of younger American Christians from their older counterparts when it comes to the question of whether, “homosexuality should be accepted by society.”[3]  Pew Research’s most recent polling notes, for instance, that, “a majority of U.S. Christians (54%) now say that homosexuality should be accepted,” and goes on to say that:

While this is still considerably lower than the shares of religiously unaffiliated people (83%) and members of non-Christian faiths (76%) who say the same, the Christian figure has increased by 10 percentage points since we conducted a similar study in 2007. It reflects a growing acceptance of homosexuality among all Americans – from 50% to 62% – during the same period.[4]

The upward trend in the “acceptance of homosexuality” by American Christians is attributable, according to Pew’s analysis, partially to “younger church members.” Their influence is demonstrated by the fact that:

Roughly half (51%) of evangelical Protestants in the Millennial generation (born between 1981 and 1996) say homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared with a third of evangelical Baby Boomers and a fifth of evangelicals in the Silent generation. Generational differences with similar patterns also are evident among Catholics, mainline Protestants and members of the historically black Protestant tradition.[5]

According to Pew’s data, the trend of younger Christians expressing more acceptance of homosexuality than previous generations falls in line with trends in the broader American public.

What, then, ought we make of this particular data set? I would argue that there is obviously something to the idea of a “generation gap” between younger American Christians and older American Christians when it comes to the “acceptance of homosexuality.” But that this particular trend does not, by any means, tell the whole story.

Before moving to the prospects for the future of “LGBT issues in American society in general and in Christian churches in particular,” I want to first point to what I believe are two other important current trends in Christianity and in the broader culture as they relate to the “present controversies.”  

            The rise of the nones

While younger American Christians are polling at higher levels of  “acceptance of homosexuality” than their older counterparts, their peers are polling at lower levels of “religious affiliation” than ever before.[6] Pew’s research into the “rise of the nones,” is documented in an article titled, “U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious.”[7] The article suggests, for instance, that:

Millennials – especially the youngest Millennials, who have entered adulthood since the first Landscape Study was conducted – are far less religious than their elders. For example, only 27% of Millennials say they attend religious services on a weekly basis, compared with 51% of adults in the Silent generation. Four-in-ten of the youngest Millennials say they pray every day, compared with six-in-ten Baby Boomers and two-thirds of members of the Silent generation. Only about half of Millennials say they believe in God with absolute certainty, compared with seven-in-ten Americans in the Silent and Baby Boom cohorts. And only about four-in-ten Millennials say religion is very important in their lives, compared with more than half in the older generational cohorts.

The subtitle of the article—“Modest Drop in Overall Rates of Belief and Practice, but Religiously Affiliated Americans Are as Observant as Before”—is, however, particularly telling.[8] Americans, it seems, are only sort of “becoming less religious,” as, “the vast majority of Americans (77% of all adults) continue to identify with some religious faith.”[9] The study, furthermore, highlights that:

Indeed, by some measures, religiously affiliated people appear to have grown more religiously observant in recent years. The portion of religiously affiliated adults who say they regularly read scripture, share their faith with others and participate in small prayer groups or scripture study groups all have increased modestly since 2007. And roughly four-in-ten religiously affiliated adults (41%) now say they rely mainly on their religious beliefs for guidance on questions about right and wrong, up 7 percentage points in seven years.[10]

It seems, then, that what is actually happening is that the phrase, “the rise of the nones,” is a description of the phenomenon of the increasing number of predominantly younger Americans who have become less religious, when defined by institutional affiliation and “traditional” measures of religiosity. Or, put more succinctly:

As older cohorts of adults (comprised mainly of self-identified Christians) pass away, they are being replaced by a new cohort of young adults who display far lower levels of attachment to organized religion than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations did when they were the same age.[11]

Again, I’ll reserve my projections of the implications of these trends for the second half of the essay. But for now, suffice it to say that: just as there is something to the idea of a “generation gap” within American Christianity on LGBT discussions, there is also something to the fact that younger Americans are increasingly disassociating themselves from Christianity altogether. There are, it would seem, more American Christians who favor the “acceptance of homosexuality” than ever before, and younger Christians tend toward this position in higher numbers than older Christians. But…there are fewer and fewer younger Americans who identify as Christian.

            Christianity going south

Though these conversations are all primarily focused on the U.S. context, any discussion of the “future of Christianity” must, I would argue, first reckon with the broader global realities within the capital-C Church.

In that light, when zoomed out further beyond simply the U.S.A., the lens shows a decidedly different picture. Again, I’ll turn to Pew’s comprehensive data to paint a brief picture.

In a 2010 report, they suggest, for instance, that, “there are 2.18 billion Christians of all ages around the world, representing nearly a third of the estimated 2010 global population of 6.9 billion,” and note that, “the number of Christians around the world has nearly quadrupled in the last 100 years, from about 600 million in 1910 to more than 2 billion in 2010.”[12] In light of massive population growth, however, the estimated number of Christians in 2010 represents nearly the same percentage of the total world population (32%) as in 1910 (35%).[13]

It is, rather, the change of the geographic distribution of Christians throughout the world that proves most interesting. Pew’s data suggest that:

Although Europe and the Americas still are home to a majority of the world’s Christians (63%), that share is much lower than it was in 1910 (93%). And the proportion of Europeans and Americans who are Christian has dropped from 95% in 1910 to 76% in 2010 in Europe as a whole, and from 96% to 86% in the Americas as a whole.[14]

It should also be noted that the U.S., as of 2010, still has the highest percentage of the world’s total Christian population living in any one country (11%). And the percentage of Christians relative to the total overall population (69%) is significantly higher in the “Global North” than in the “Global South” (24 %). Pew highlights, however, that, due in part to the massive growth of Christianity in places like sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, Christianity has, quite literally, gone south:

A century ago, the Global North (commonly defined as North America, Europe, Australia, Japan and New Zealand) contained more than four times as many Christians as the Global South (the rest of the world). Today, the Pew Forum study finds, more than 1.3 billion Christians live in the Global South (61%), compared with about 860 million in the Global North (39%)[15]

I include the 2010 data about world Christianity and its distribution merely as a word of caution: our discussions of present and future social-ethical debates specifically within the U.S. Christian cultural milieu are warranted as we do, after all, live and move in that context. But we ought not assume that trends in U.S. Christianity are necessarily representative of Christianity as a global whole.  

Christian Futures

What do these domestic and global trends mean, then, for, “the future relative to LGBT issues in American society in general and in Christian churches in particular”?

Honestly?

I have no idea.

That’s the thing about summative interpretations of cultural and religious trends: there are too many factors in play at any given moment to get a complete picture of the current state of affairs, much less of what will happen next. Tracking the prospective path of an individual human actor is hard enough, but precisely mapping the larger future course of groups of individuals—like religious traditions—is nigh impossible. Our constant epistemological situation involves the absolute limit of never being able to say with certainty what will happen next or, as some might call it, the “human condition.”

But I’ve been invited to speculate.

And so, I’ll wager a couple of guesses about what might happen with future generational shifts in “American Christianity,” before closing with my take on what I think should happen with respect to Christianity and its relationship to LGBT persons.

            Some Projections

For our purposes, the most pressing question is whether or not the “present controversies relating to faith and LGBT issues will “fade away” as a younger generation moves into positions of influence.”

In light of current trends and in combination with personal, admittedly anecdotal, interactions with members of “my generation,” I foresee any of a number of possible outcomes with respect to the “present controversies.”

1. The more “conservative” Christian institutions in the U.S.—be they congregations, denominations, Christian colleges or other religious organizations—will continue to be the last major sites of this particular battle in the on-again-off-again culture war and, partially in response, a younger generation of LGBT persons and their friends will continue to disassociate themselves with Christianity bit by bit over time leaving leadership in the hands of those who take a more “traditional” line.[16]

This situation would, I think, be most probable if the “rise of the Millennial nones” becomes the most dominant trend in the U.S. religious landscape.

The continued disassociation of younger generations from U.S. Christianity would also, for instance, appear consistent with the findings of another well publicized though less recent study. In 2007, David Kinnaman, president of the research organization The Barna Group, published the book unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity and Why It Matters, detailing the polled perceptions of Christianity among 16 to 29 year olds. A Barna press release at the time of the book’s publication summarizes one of the most consistent results of the study:

Today, the most common perception is that present-day Christianity is ‘anti-homosexual.’ Overall, 91% of young non-Christians and 80% of young churchgoers say this phrase describes Christianity. As the research probed this perception, non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians. One of the most frequent criticisms of young Christians was that they believe the church has made homosexuality a ‘bigger sin’ than anything else. Moreover, they claim that the church has not helped them apply the biblical teaching on homosexuality to their friendships with gays and lesbians.[17] 

The “present controversies” would, in this hypothetical situation, continue but would proceed largely at the borders of U.S. Christianity rather than internally. In this case, we would have increasingly smaller and older Christian institutions that have clarified that they will continue to uphold the “traditional” teachings on sexuality and will, then, continue the debate as a minority position in a broader culture that disagrees.

2. As a younger generation of Christians becomes more and more accepting of LGBT persons—or are indeed themselves LGBT—the nature of the “present controversies” will become increasingly localized and, at times, more intense. Particularly when it comes to diverging from institutional leadership that supports a “traditional” sexual ethic.

This scenario would, I think, be most possible if the upward trend in the “acceptance of homosexuality” by younger Christians outweighs the rise of continued institutional religious disassociation. The “present controversies” may, in this case, slowly move from the center stage position they now hold to more particular sites of contestation, but they show little sign of waning.

Take, by way of example, the fact that my undergraduate alma mater Carson Newman University, a small Christian liberal arts college in Tennessee, recently made national news due to their institutional positioning on some of these very questions.[18]

 

A local news channel ran a story highlighting the fact that Carson Newman, along with several other Christian colleges and universities, applied for an exemption[19] from title IX regulations—allowing for, among other things, the possibility of discrimination in enrollment decisions based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Outside sources as diverse as Cosmopolitan Magazine[20] and George Takei[21], of Star Trek fame, went predictably ballistic. I was most struck, however, by the deluge of social media reactions from those inside the institutional orbit, from current and former students to professors and donors. The torrent of posts and comments included both dismay over the fact that the Carson Newman that they remembered would discriminate against any student who sought enrollment and shock and anger at the fact that they applied for the exemption in the first place—sometimes in the same post. Other alumni circulated an open letter asking for Carson Newman to revoke its waiver request.[22]

If Carson Newman is any indication, the “present controversies” have the possibility of continuing generally apace and, indeed, intensifying in particular circumstances, especially in instances where there are large numbers of self-identified Christians who both hold increasingly more LGBT-affirming positions and continue to associate with Christian institutions that, for whatever reason, gesture toward discriminatory practices.

            Some hopes

I’m running out of space and will, therefore, keep my prescriptive suggestions brief.

It isn’t my job herein to articulate the full rationale behind the following suggestion, but I’ll “show my hand,” nonetheless: I hope that all iterations of Christianity, both in the U.S. and abroad, will eventually be able to come to a place where they can articulate an LGBT-affirming sexual ethic. And to personally identify with institutions that cannot would, at this point, be a profound violation of my own conscience. 

Despite the real “generational gap” in the U.S., I don’t, however, think the total “conversion” of world Christianity to a pro-LGBT position is particularly likely in the near future…if ever. I think it is in fact possible that institutional Christianity will, on the whole, become less LGBT friendly as time moves on, especially if LGBT persons and their supporters wash their hands of Christianity altogether.

That being said, I do hope that Christians can delicately navigate the “present controversies” by avoiding the extremities of attempts to effectively excommunicate those viewed as heretical on the one hand, and an irreconcilable schism on the other.


[1] If the high school and undergraduate graduation dates listed on online C.V.s are reliable, then Justin Lee, James Brownson, David Myers, Kathy Lee, Julia Stronks, and Kathryn Brightbill are older than their corresponding partners Eve Tushnet, Mark Strauss, Christopher Grace, Micah Watson, Adam MaCleod, and Chelsea Langston—if only by a few a years. The one outlier is the fact that Mikael Pelz is younger than Adam MaCleod. But both Adam and Mikael are younger than Julia Stronks, so the observation still stands. 

[2] Well, that is, until now. If I am accurately gauging the purpose of my invitation, then Matthew Lee Anderson and I will buck the trend, as I am his junior by a few years.

[3] I want to note the complex implications, and indeed limitations, of polling and surveys for the construction of both individual and collective religious identity. This isn’t, however, the place for a full discussion of the relationship of polling to American religious identity. For a fascinating analysis of this very topic, though, see Robert Wuthnow’s recent book, Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation's Faith. http://www.amazon.com/Inventing-American-Religion-Surveys-Tenuous/dp/019025890X

[4] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/12/18/most-u-s-christian-groups-grow-more-accepting-of-homosexuality/

[5] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/12/18/most-u-s-christian-groups-grow-more-accepting-of-homosexuality/

[6] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/12/18/most-u-s-christian-groups-grow-more-accepting-of-homosexuality/

[7] http://www.pewforum.org/2015/11/03/u-s-public-becoming-less-religious/

[8] http://www.pewforum.org/2015/11/03/u-s-public-becoming-less-religious/

[9] http://www.pewforum.org/2015/11/03/u-s-public-becoming-less-religious/

[10] http://www.pewforum.org/2015/11/03/u-s-public-becoming-less-religious/

[11] http://www.pewforum.org/2015/11/03/u-s-public-becoming-less-religious/

[12] http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-exec/

[13] http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-exec/

[14] http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-exec/

[15] http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-exec/

[16] These projections focus largely on “more conservative” iterations of Christianity in the U.S. as these are, I think, the sites of the most intense contemporary controversy around these questions. That being said, the evangelical/conservative-mainline/liberal dichotomy is, in my opinion, an increasingly unhelpful construction. And I would, furthermore, argue that, to the vast majority of the “younger generation” of Christians, the words “evangelical” and “mainline” mean very little if anything at all.

[17] https://www.barna.org/barna-update/millennials/94-a-new-generation-expresses-its-skepticism-and-frustration-with-christianity#.VocaLJMrKHo

[18] http://www.local8now.com/home/headlines/Carson-Newman-University-granted-exemption-from-discrimination-laws-360521761.html

[19] http://thecolu.mn/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/CarsonNewmanUniversity.pdf

[20] http://www.cosmopolitan.com/college/news/a50616/carson-newman-university-exempt-from-title-ix/

[21] https://www.facebook.com/georgehtakei/posts/1431828530179929

[22] https://baptistnews.com/perspectives/an-open-letter-to-carson-newman-university/

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Reader Comments (1)

This is a bit of a rabbit trail, but one I think necessary. This is not the first time I have heard scholars of religion talk about the consequences of the rise of the "nones." My problem with this is that it appears to turn on the definition of religion. If there is not a functioning definition of religion, how can we treat nones like a solid category? Are the charismatic Christians that have an aversion to the word "religious" nones? Are the indigenous people that may not separate religion from culture nones?

January 5, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Cremins

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