U.S. congregations report major gains in accepting gays and lesbians, racial, ethnic diversity

America’s pews are becoming dramatically more welcoming to gays and lesbians and increasingly reflective of the nation’s racial and ethnic diversity, according to the latest results from a major study of U.S. congregations.

Nearly three in ten U.S. congregations permit gays and lesbians in committed relationships to hold volunteer leadership positions, a major increase from the 19 percent of congregations in 2006-2007 that allowed such opportunities, the National Congregations Study found.

At the same time, it has become much less likely, even rare, to find a religious community where worshipers can expect to be surrounded by a sea of white faces. The percentage of U.S. congregations with only non-Hispanic whites declined from 20 percent in 1998 to 11 percent in 2012, the study found.

The National Congregations Study, which also was conducted in 1998 and 2006-2007 among a total of 2,740 congregations, gathered information from a nationally representative sample of 1,331 congregations for the 2012 study. Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves, the study director, presented some initial findings last weekend at the joint meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Religious Research Association in Boston. Additional findings are expected to be released later this year.

Religious communities are undergoing significant changes in many areas, the 2012 study shows. These range from the embrace of new technology – 40 percent of congregations in the latest study reported having Facebook pages, for example – to the growing acceptance of informal worship, with drums, applause and people jumping, shouting or dancing becoming more common in services. There is also an increasingly independent streak, with a quarter of congregations in the latest study not affiliated with a national denomination.

But some of the most significant differences showed up in the rising diversity in religious communities, where conversations about subjects from immigration reform to racial and sexual equality may be tempered and informed by less homogenous memberships.

“Diversity is increasing even in our everyday lives,” Chaves said. “I think it’s good news.”

Challenging stereotypes

The massive cultural changes in attitudes toward gays and lesbians in American society are also being reflected in religious sanctuaries, the study indicates.

Consider these findings:

Out front: Twenty-seven percent of congregations in the 2012 study allowed gays and lesbians in committed relationships to hold volunteer leadership positions, up from 19 percent in the 2006-2007 study.
Membership barriers falling: Nearly half, or 48 percent, of congregations in 2012 reported that gays and lesbians in committed relationships may be full-fledged members; in the 2006-2007 study, 38 percent of congregations allowed such membership privileges.
Increased visibility: Seventeen percent of congregations reported having openly gay and lesbian worshipers. But those congregations were also relatively larger, so 31 percent of people in congregations are part of communities with gays and lesbians who are open about their orientation.

There may be a perception that religion and gay rights are on opposite sides, but the evidence increasingly suggests a more complex and evolving relationship.

Chaves notes that an analysis of the 2006-2007 study found that religious communities who were politically active on the issue were about evenly split on both sides.

And the latest study shows an increasing acceptance that is consistent with cultural changes in the nation.

“It’s not right to think of religion in an organized way … as being only on the conservative side of the gay-rights issue,” Chaves said.

Changing faces

Religious communities also appear to be becoming more reflective of a nation where non-Hispanic whites are expected to lose their majority status by the end of the decade, the congregations study found.

In 1998, nearly three quarters of congregations had memberships where more than 80 percent of participants were non-Hispanic whites. That percentage dropped to 66 percent in 2006-2007 and fell again to 57 percent in 2012.

Forty-four percent of U.S. congregations have at least some black families, the latest study found.

Some research has indicated that more diverse memberships increase sensitivity to different perspectives, increase civility and reduce the tendency to be judgmental of racial and ethnic groups outside the social boundaries of their communities.

Chaves said he suspects that even a pastor would think twice from the pulpit about what he or she says about race or ethnicity if someone from a different group is in the congregation.

“I think it changes a lot of things if you have one black family in a congregation,” he said.

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