The big news is that America is less Christian than it used to be.
We’re still the most Christian country on the planet with about 70 percent of us laying claim to some Christian denomination or other. But across the board—white, black, Latino, college graduates, high school graduates, men, women, all ages—more of us are “unaffiliated” or “nones.”
Every which way but Sunday, the Pew Research Center analyzed comparative data from 2007 and 2014 in America’s Changing Religious Landscape. Trends identified are generational shifts, interdenominational switches, interfaith marriages, and changing social attitudes of the endlessly-studied millenials.
The last trend is the most interesting.
Against the backdrop of decreasing Christians is a tsunami of increasing pressure for Christians to adopt pro-gay language, behavior, and, if truth be told, thinking as well. A negative correlation between Christian identification and acceptance of gay marriage is the obvious interpretation of the data. In millenial-speak, the more accepted gay marriage becomes in society, the less likely young people want to identify with social institutions that oppose it.
That would make sense.
A closer look at the data, however, paints a different picture.
Five religious groups find themselves on the cultural battlefield of gay marriage and ordination of gay clergy: Mainline Protestants, Historically Black Protestants, Evangelical Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons.
Although Mormons generate more press than any other group, they drop out of the analysis because there has been no appreciable change in the “Christians decline/’nones’ grow” category between 2007 and 2014.
Catholics as well drop out for entirely different reasons. Almost one-third of us were raised Catholic, but less than 60 percent of us stayed Catholic into adulthood. The experts who study such things can’t agree on exact numbers, details, or explanations, so the results are not useful in this context.
We’re left with the three branches of Protestantism.
A quick check of each denomination’s status on gay marriage and gay clergy reveals a counter-intuitive pattern given the aforementioned tsunami.
Mainline Protestants—United Methodist Church, American Baptist Churches USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the Episcopal Church—take the most progressive positions on homosexuality. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has ordained gay clergy for some time, made headlines in March when it jubilantly redefined marriage as a “commitment between two people.” The Episcopal Church provides a blessing for gay commitment ceremonies and ordains gay clergy as well, as does Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Mainline Protestants showed the only decline in membership among all Protestant groups.
Historically Black Protestants—National Baptist Convention, Church of God in Christ, African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Progressive Baptist Convention—take a middle of the road position on average with most holding traditionally conservative positions on gay marriage and/or clergy. The others take officially undecided positions, leaving decisions up to individual ministers on a case-by-case basis; ministers may refuse to perform any wedding for any couple be they gay, straight, or otherwise.
This group’s membership stayed essentially constant.
Evangelical Protestants—Southern Baptist Convention, Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, and Presbyterian Church in America—actually increased membership. Between 2007 and 2014, this group is estimated to have grown by two million adherents.
In an era where a pro-traditional marriage stance can close your business, drain your life savings, and bury you in social media hate, every single one of these churches in this last group takes an absolutist stance against gay marriage and the ordination of gay clergy.
The currents of social change are flowing downstream and with them, a number of Christian churches, which perhaps coincidentally are also shrinking in size. The Christian churches swimming upstream in no uncertain terms, again perhaps coincidentally, are growing stronger.
A variety of interpretations may apply, but I’ll suggest one that suggests itself to me.
Religion is demanding. Diligent religious practice requires consistent sacrifice of selfish aims for the good of others, disciplined commitment to prayer and scripture study, and virtually constant humbling by one’s weaknesses.
The rewards afforded true discipleship are immeasurable, but so is the cost. It’s wildly unpopular to buck the gay tide; interpersonally unpleasant at best, economically and materially threatening at worst.
Many Christians, about two million of them since 2007, have opted for churches with the greatest cost. Perhaps because the fruit of the spirit they find in those churches is a pearl of great price, greater than any transitory cost they may pay in mortality.
Just a theory.
Donna Carol Voss is an author, blogger, speaker, and mom. A Berkeley grad, a former pagan, a Mormon on purpose, and an original thinker on 21st century living, she is the author of “One of Everything,” the story of how she got from where she was to where she is. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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