Saturday, September 16, 2017

In the News: Bay Area Reporter

Online Extra: Political Notes: Poll finds many LGBT people eschew religion


Christ the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in San Jose recently marked its 30th anniversary as a Reconciled in Christ (welcoming and affirming to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities) congregation. Photo: Jo-Lynn Otto
New polling results have confirmed what faith leaders have long known, that many LGBT people eschew religion.

According to Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, nearly half of LGBT Americans, at 46 percent, are religiously unaffiliated. The finding is roughly twice the number of Americans overall (24 percent) who are religiously unaffiliated.

The findings are from the firm's "America's Changing Religious Identity" report, which was released last week. It is the largest survey of American religious and denominational identity ever conducted, according to PRRI.

"I thought it was very accurate based on what I see among LGBTQ folks. I think it is harder in the Bay Area to come out as a Christian than as a queer person," said the Reverend Megan Rohrer, Ph.D., who is transgender and the pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in San Francisco.

Michael Chertok, a gay man who is president of San Francisco's LGBT Jewish synagogue Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, was also unsurprised by the findings. "In general, Americans are less religiously affiliated today. This is even more so in urban areas where many LGBT people live," Chertok, who was out of town attending a conference for LGBT Jews, wrote in an emailed reply. "And it is further exacerbated in the LGBT community, where some have not been accepted as who they are by their faith – and even worse, sometimes persecuted."

The report is based on findings from PRRI's American Values Atlas and interviews with more than 101,000 Americans from all 50 states. It found that only 43 percent of Americans identify as white and Christian, and only 30 percent as white and Protestant. In 1976, roughly eight in 10 (81 percent) Americans identified as white and identified with a Christian denomination, and a majority (55 percent) were white Protestants.

"For a long time a lot of this was anecdotal. Now, we can more clearly see this decline in religions and can see it with greater accuracy," said the Reverend Jim Mitulski, a gay man who is the interim senior minister at the Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ in Needham, Massachusetts.

Mitulski said the largely white congregation is emblematic of the churches in decline. "And we are liberal," he said. "In a sense, while I hate to see the decline, I am seeing it firsthand."

Thus, the PRRI poll "does confirm what I have been seeing," added Mitulski. It also should be a wake-up call for political leaders, he said.

"The political message is they need to stop making alliances with conservative religious leaders who are trying to use religion to control people," said Mitulski. "They need to stop seeing their alliances with religious leaders and religious organizations as something they can translate into votes."

As for the findings about LGBT Americans, the report found few identify as Christian. Only six percent of LGBT Americans are white evangelical Protestant, according to PRRI, while similar numbers identify as white mainline Protestant (8 percent) and white Catholic (6 percent).

Fewer than one in 10 identify as black Protestant (6 percent), Hispanic Catholic (5 percent), or Hispanic Protestant (3 percent), reported PRRI.

The report found stark generational differences among LGBT Americans in their religious identity. A majority (56 percent) of LGBT young adults (age 18 to 29) are religiously unaffiliated, compared to one-quarter (25 percent) of LGBT seniors (age 65 or older).

Notably, Buddhists and Unitarian-Universalists have a much higher proportion of LGBT members than other religious traditions, reported PRRI. One in seven Buddhists (14 percent) and Unitarian-Universalists (14 percent) identify as LGBT.

As for LGBT Jews, the survey found that LGBT Americans are somewhat overrepresented among non-Christian religions with 6 percent identifying as Jewish, compared to 2 percent of the general public.

"Particularly over the past year, we've seen a sharp upswing in the number of people attending our prayer services and programs – and some of the highest numbers of new members joining our community in our history, including many young people," wrote Chertok.

The Reform Jewish movement (URJ) has embraced LGBT Jews, noted Chertok, ordaining gay, lesbian, and transgender rabbis, permitting rabbis to marry same-sex couples for many years, and encouraging congregations to reach out to LGBT Jews. The Conservative Jewish movement has followed this trend, he added, noting that even some of the most fundamentalist Orthodox Jews "are starting to show openness" toward LGBT Jews.

"In general, the American Jewish community has been relatively accepting of LGBT people, compared to some other faiths," wrote Chertok. "Jewish synagogues in most major American cities, like Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco, have had an outreach to the LGBT community for more than 40 years."

While certain Christian denominations continue to preach against LGBT people, there are those that are LGBT-affirming, pointed out Rohrer, and welcome LGBT individuals looking for a religious home.

"I think in the same way people would understand if you go to one Chinese restaurant that serves terrible food it is not emblematic of all Chinese restaurants. Research churches like where you want to go to the movies or eat food," said Rohrer. "It is work to figure out what is a safe or supportive space. We can't just assume every faith community is going to be terrible because we had abusive experiences with one faith." Despite the poll findings, Mitulski said he doesn't believe that Americans' "religious impulse" is on the decline. Prior to his moving to Boston last year, he worked in Denver and in Dallas "where church-going – even among LGBT people – is very strong," he noted.

And many LGBT people "are still gravitating," added Mitulski, to more liberal religions. "All of this is to say church leaders need to take notice that LGBT people are spiritual people but not interested in homophobic, oppressive religions," he said. "In the end I don't think anybody is."

The full report can be found online at

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Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail

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