A good friend of mine is an elder at his evangelical church. He asked me recently for data regarding Christians and same-sex relations. From the way he asked it, it sounds like there’s starting to be conflict at his church on this issue, with some people wanting a change in their traditionally conservative approach.
As a starting point, here are some data regarding attitudes toward same-sex relationships and how they vary by religion. There are some substantial differences, both across time and religion.
The data come from the General Social Survey, and the question that I’ll focus on is “What about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex–do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all? The majority of respondents pick one of the two end categories—“always wrong” or “not wrong,” so I’ll focus my analyses on them.
In this first figure, you can see that attitudes nationwide have changed considerably over the past several decades. In the 1970s and 1980s, about three-fourths of Americans adults thought that same-sex relations are always wrong, and less than one-fifth thought they are not wrong. This started changing in the 1990s, and by now, it’s about 50-50, and the percentage of Americans who view same-sex relations as “not wrong” continues to trend upward.
As you would guess, attitudes on this topic vary quite a bit by religious worldview. Jews and the religiously unaffiliated are the most likely to view same-sex relations as “not wrong,” with about three-fourths holding that attitude. Evangelicals and black Protestants are the least likely, with about 20%-30% holding that attitude. Catholics and mainline Protestants are in the middle.
Among evangelicals, attitudes differ markedly by age. Only about 12% of older evangelicals—aged 50 and above—view same-sex relations as not wrong. In contrast, three-times as many young evangelicals—aged 18-29—view them as not wrong. The GSS data doesn’t include teenagers, but I would speculate that rates of this “not wrong” attitude are even higher among teenagers.
Assuming that these age trends continue, these numbers point to continued and even increased conflict on this issue in evangelical churches. As young evangelicals move into positions of leadership and influence in their churches, they will naturally want to change policies to fit their beliefs. Old evangelicals, just as naturally, will want to keep the policies that they have created and supported for all these years. But, over time, they will age out of leadership positions.
This is one of those issues where there isn’t a lot of middle ground. Most people think that same-sex relations are either always wrong or never wrong. So, evangelical churches, like the one my friend attends, are probably going to be engaging this issue for the foreseeable future.