Is Homophobia Driving Young People Away From Conservative Churches?

10.18.2010, 11:32 AM

Robert Putnam and David Campbell argue that an sharp increase in young people not identifying with any organized religion is caused, to a significant degree, by young people being repulsed by conservative politics, and in particular by homophobia.

We were initially skeptical about that proposition, because it seemed implausible that people would make choices that might affect their eternal fate based on how they felt about George W. Bush. But the evidence convinced us that many Americans now are sorting themselves out on Sunday morning on the basis of their political views. For example, in our Faith Matters national survey of 3,000 Americans, we observed this sorting process in real time, when we interviewed the same people twice about one year apart.[...]

This backlash was especially forceful among youth coming of age in the 1990s and just forming their views about religion. Some of that generation, to be sure, held deeply conservative moral and political views, and they felt very comfortable in the ranks of increasingly conservative churchgoers. But a majority of the Millennial generation was liberal on most social issues, and above all, on homosexuality. The fraction of twentysomethings who said that homosexual relations were “always” or “almost always” wrong plummeted from about 75% in 1990 to about 40% in 2008. (Ironically, in polling, Millennials are actually more uneasy about abortion than their parents.)

Just as this generation moved to the left on most social issues — above all, homosexuality — many prominent religious leaders moved to the right, using the issue of same-sex marriage to mobilize electoral support for conservative Republicans. In the short run, this tactic worked to increase GOP turnout, but the subsequent backlash undermined sympathy for religion among many young moderates and progressives. Increasingly, young people saw religion as intolerant, hypocritical, judgmental and homophobic. If being religious entailed political conservatism, they concluded, religion was not for them.

Sociologists Michael Hout and Claude Fischer of UC Berkeley were among the first to call attention to the ensuing rise in young “nones,” and in our recent book, “American Grace,” we have extended their analysis, showing that the association between religion and politics (and especially religion’s intolerance of homosexuality) was the single strongest factor in this portentous shift.

I don’t know if their analysis is correct, but I certainly hope it is.

12 Responses to “Is Homophobia Driving Young People Away From Conservative Churches?”

  1. Phil says:

    I think there might be something to the data, although it has also been suggested that people are more likely to stick with a religion that demands a lot from them, as opposed to a religion that is simple and relatively cost-free. So the issue here may not be the conservatism of the churches, but their political involvement.

    Speaking from my own experience, I was raised to find religious devotion admirable, even if I disagreed with the faith. This wasn’t necessarily a lesson we were taught in CCD, but my mother was one of those Catholic women who just had tremendous respect for Catholic nuns and priests, but also Buddhist monks, the Amish, Orthodox Jews, and anyone who really seemed to care about their faith, so we kids grew up encouraged to feel that kind of respect. You can see this attitude in old movies: you don’t have to be Jewish to feel like the characters in “Fiddler on the Roof” belong to something special.

    Through the 90s and the 00s, that attitude really shifted for me, and I think it had a lot to do with the involvement of churches in politics (especially the Catholic Church). Now, when I look at a group of nuns, I don’t see something quaint or sweet; I see a group of unfortunate women who belong to an organization which promotes bigotry. Ten to twenty years of the religious right has made me feel defensive at the slightest mention of religion, and I don’t think I’m alone in this. My response might not be rational, but then, rationality is not what most religions invoke in _anyone_.

    The KKK was a religious organization, and a “fraternal order” that was an acceptable option for a lot of family men for a long time in this country. Perception of the KKK became inexorably linked with their promotion of bigotry, and while that didn’t cause the group’s demise, it certainly affected where they fit in the space of American society.

  2. Darel says:

    Look at the data — among persons of the same age range, the childless are more liberal on sexual morality than parents and those with few children more liberal than those with many. I think the “young” (i.e. people in their 20s) are liberal on all matters of sexuality (not simply homosexuality) today because they do not marry and start families today until they are around 30.

    In America, church is tied closely to having a family. Young single childless people for the most part aren’t members of churches. The longer they stay away due to longer periods of singleness/childlessness, the less affected they will likely be by the teachings of any church they may happen to affiliate with later in life.

    The “backlash” interpretation is too self-serving. Of course someone will tell an interviewer that the reason they hold a particular moral view is due to their status as a righteous person, and the reason they stay away from church is not because they are lazy or shallow but because they are outraged by the “intolerant, hypocritical, judgmental and homophobic” people in the church. And by the way, did you know that the reason I am not rich is because I disdain wealth as a moral principle?

  3. La Lubu says:

    tell an interviewer…….the reason they stay away from church is not because they are lazy or shallow but because they are outraged by the “intolerant, hypocritical, judgmental and homophobic” people in the church.

    By the same token, parents seem more sexually straight-laced than the childfree because many parents aren’t willing to tell an interviewer about their practice of polyamory, BDSM, pegging, the affair they’re having on the side, what-have-you….because of the repercussions. No one cares what the (straight) childfree are or aren’t doing in private. You could call that “self-serving”, but it stems from self-protection.

    I think people get in the habit of referring to organized religion as being intolerant, hypocritical, judgemental, homophobic, etc…..because it’s an effective tactic for deflecting evangelism. A verbal putting-up-one’s-dukes. It’s a lot harder to articulate why one doesn’t feel a connection to organized religion if one doesn’t have a dramatic breaking point or line in the sand—excepting atheists, of course. There’s a reason why the phrase “spiritual, but not religious” came into vogue.

    You also have to remember, there’s a lot of people (like me) who grew up unchurched. Those numbers are growing, not shrinking—even though most people are still having children. Parenthood doesn’t necessarily mean answering to church bells. That does have a lot to do with the growing conservatism in Christianity in general. Most of the folks I know who were raised Catholic are not raising their children with any formal religious training.

  4. Phil says:

    There is something self-serving about the “backlash” interpretation, Darel. But there is also something self-serving about churches and members of congregations attributing the rift to people who are “lazy and shallow.”

    I’m not sure what to make of your final sentence. “Disdaining wealth as a moral principle” is a major feature of many religions in this country. Are you saying that people of faith are in fact lazy or otherwise unable to become wealthy, and they hide behind their sense of moral righteousness? That may be so, but I would wager that (with the exception of adherents to the Gospel of Affluence) many religious Americans genuinely believe that spiritual matters are more important to them than wealth.

  5. R.K. says:

    “I don’t know if their analysis is correct, but I certainly hope it is.”

    Their analysis may well be correct. But if so, looked at from your standpoint, Barry, that may not turn out to be such a good thing. For if true, it could be seen as bolstering the argument that the gay movement, or perhaps more specifically the SSM movement, is effectively destroying or at least dangerously weakening the nation’s religious infrastructure, a claim which many SSM advocates are trying desperately to assure the public is not true. While I imagine you would prefer to interpret this as a call to conservative religious groups to modify their stands on gay issues, it is as likely, if not more likely, that it will only reinforce those stands.

    A question I’d ask about this is whether young people who have turned from religion are more likely to come from families that were in socially conservative religious groups, or in more socially liberal ones. Or whether the parents themselves were doctrinally conservative or liberal. Any data on this?

  6. Tom says:

    Conservative churches in the US are so abhorrent that it’s unsurprising that anyone with decent principles (including those who reject homophobia) would want to stay away.

  7. Maggie Gallagher says:

    I believe the problem with this argument is that the decline in religious affiliation is concentrated in the most liberal denominations.

    Mainline protestantism appears to be a dead end at this point.

  8. Maggie Gallagher says:


    “The study’s authors summarize:

    “Ninety percent of the decline comes from the non-Catholic segment of the Christian population, largely from the mainline denominations, including Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians/Anglicans and the United Church of Christ. These groups, whose proportion of the American population shrank from 18.7 percent in 1990 to 17.2 percent in 2001, all experienced sharp numerical declines this decade and now constitute just 12.9 percent.”

    Overall Christianity has been holding its own in recent years. But since 2001, the liberal mainline Protestants have lost a third of their adherents.”

  9. Darel, according to the research Maggie linked to, once you adjust for age married people are only slightly less likely to be “nones” than single people. (See page 2 of this report.)

    Maggie, I have to admit, that’s a pretty convincing argument against the proposition that young people are being driven away from religion by anti-gay politics in Churches. I’d be curious to see a copy of Putnam and Campbell’s book, to see if they address that data or not.

  10. On the other hand, it does appear that young evangelicals are significantly more liberal in their attitudes towards homosexuality than older evangelicals — although even among young evangelicals, liberal attitudes are a minority.

    The PBS poll surveyed 1,400 adults, including an oversample of 400 evangelical Christians ages 18 to 29 from Sept. 4 to Sept. 21.

    …a majority of young, white evangelical Christians (58 percent) support legal recognition of civil unions. Twenty-six percent support marriage for same-sex couples versus 9 percent of older, white evangelicals.

    Is this less true among evangelicals of color, I wonder, or did the poll just not have enough evangelicals of color in their sample to say?

  11. Jeffrey says:

    “Mainline protestantism appears to be a dead end at this point.”

    That’s only part of the story, though. There have been declines among the Southern Baptists (who are not liberal or mainline) and other conservative denominations in the U.S. (Lutheran-Missouri Synod, Orthodox, Church of Christ). Catholicism would have seen a decline were it not for the Latinoization of the Catholic Church. Among non-Latino Catholics, there has been a significant decline. The research shows that non-white Catholics tend to be more liberal than the culture warrior white counterparts. The only area seeing any serious grown is non-denominational churches who are attracting members away from everyone mentioned above. They have avoided the culture wars, pretty effectively.

  12. Phil says:

    Maggie Gallagher quotes the study:

    Ninety percent of the decline comes from the non-Catholic segment of the Christian population, largely from the mainline denominations

    Maggie, you write about Catholicism as if it is not one of the “more liberal” denominations, and that may be true from a liturgical standpoint, but I’m not sure that’s how Catholicism is experienced by most U.S. Catholics, especially the population of Catholics who were raised Catholic in the U.S. (as opposed to late-in-life converts and Catholics who immigrate into this country.)

    The data are all over the place, so I tried to find information from conservative sources that would be sympathetic to the Catholic Church, and here’s what I find:

    Approximately 47% of U.S. Catholics are pro-life:

    Only about 8% of U.S. Catholics believe the Church teaching on abortion, that it should only be legal in rare circumstances where it is necessary to save the mother’s life:

    And a majority of U.S. Catholics support gay unions:

    I’m aware of no world religion that is more specific about what its members ought to believe than the Catholic Church, so I find this phenomenon interesting. There are lots of possible interpretations of this data in the context of this discussion, but here are a few possibilities:
    1. Within the Catholic faith, it’s a big, big deal to stop being Catholic. Catholics are raised to believe that there’s Catholicism and then there’s everything else–which is not necessarily true for, say, nondenominational Christians. So it’s possible that liberal Catholics are simply more likely to retain their faith even as their beliefs change.
    2. The complexity of the Catholic faith may mean that followers just don’t have the time to figure out what they’re supposed to believe. Catholic scholarly writing is much more nuanced than the writings of biblical literalists, and there is a lot more of it.
    3. If there is an existing tradition of calling yourself Catholic but disagreeing with the church on key political issues (and I think the data show that there is), then it’s possible Catholics are less likely to schism with their church when the Church starts professing political viewpoints with which they disagree. Protestants, on the other hand, may be more likely to find a new church or just stop going when their pastor or religious leadership contradicts their politics.