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Religion and Gay Rights

An interesting survey was published last week about the changing status of religion in this country.

According to the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), nearly every major organized religion has seen dwindling membership since 1990. This is despite population growth that has seen the number of adults in the United States increase by 50 million since 1990.  Most surprising to me was the discovery that the number of people who claim no religion is larger than every denomination except Catholics and Baptists.

Although some would like to dispute the findings, the ARIS stands as the primary barometer of people’s religious affiliations because the U.S. Census does not ask about religion.

While the vast majority of Americans still claim a religion, I believe the survey results can provide a partial explanation as to why support for gay rights has been increasing over the last twenty years.

For years, I have watched documentaries, read books, and had conversations with others looking for the reasons why LGBT discrimination continues to be so widespread.  In most cases, religion has been cited as the number one explanation.  I have even heard people state the gay rights struggle cannot be won unless religion is destroyed.  I do not know if I would go that far, yet there are numerous examples of religion being used as a tool against LGBT people:

•             Many “ex-gay” programs, which claim to be able to change one’s orientation to heterosexual, are affiliated with religious institutions.

•             Some of the country’s most notorious homophobes, like Fred Phelps, are preachers.

•             President Obama explained his lack of support for same-sex marriage by declaring “God’s in the mix.”

•             Faith-based social service organizations such as homeless shelters often prevent LGBTs from accessing their resources, contributing to a disproportionately high number of LGBT people living on the streets, particularly teenagers.

•             Polling data showed that religion was the determining factor in how people voted for Proposition 8.   The ongoing protests against the Mormon church are a result of their extensive efforts in supporting Prop 8.

Given these facts, it is not surprising that many LGBTs have had struggles with religion. Speaking for myself, I know that hearing other people’s interpretation of the Bible as a child left me with a sense of shame and feeling that being gay was incompatible with any form of religion.  Every week, there are millions of LGBT people who suffer in silence in their places of worship, as sermons with homophobic rhetoric are delivered to many congregations.

Although homophobes who use religion may garner the bulk of attention, there are plenty of instances of progressive religiosity.  There are organizations within denominations, such as Dignity (Catholic) and Integrity (Episcopal), that advocate for LGBT equality.  Eugene Robinson’s presence as an openly gay bishop offers tremendous hope for integrating LGBTs into mainstream churches.   The Metropolitan Community Church was formed specifically for the LGBT community.  The group Soulforce has “Equality Rides” to church-based colleges where they engage in productive conversations with  people about sexuality and oppression.  A glance at the Community Resources page of this paper shows the number of affirming spiritual places in Nashville. Organizations like the Alliance of Affirming Faith Based Organizations and National Black Justice Coalition have done much-needed work in reaching out to the black church.

One revealing item about the ARIS study was that many people seem to be developing a sense of personal spirituality that is not necessarily related to a specific religion.  Perhaps they are picking up on the fundamental beliefs espoused by most religions and choosing to follow them instead of a religious figure.  Therefore, they may not be as likely to accept a preacher’s statement that homosexuality is a sin.

In the past, religion has been used to justify the subjugation of people on the basis of gender, ethnicity, and even religion. Thankfully, most religions have progressed with time to become more inclusive in their views of difference.  Let’s hope the same is happening with regard to sexuality.

From “Blackout” for 3/16/09 by Anthony Rucker


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