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Do religious teachings on LGBT issues drive young people away from faith?

POSTED: March 10, 2017 11:41 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

Half of Americans believe faith groups need to change their approach to gays and lesbians and LGBT issues if they want to keep young people engaged.

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The departure of teens and 20-somethings from organized religion has become a major storyline in recent years, causing concern among parents, pastors and other community leaders.

Researchers and religious communities continue to search for what's causing young people's declining participation and make efforts to keep young adults engaged, but many Americans appear confident that faith leaders' treatment of gays and lesbians is one source of tension.

Half of U.S. adults believe religious responses to LGBT issues alienate young people, who may be turned off by a "judgmental" stance toward gays and lesbians, according to a new Public Religion Research Institute report.

This view is most common among young adults, 18 to 29 years old. Sixty percent of this group say churches may lose young people as a result of their LGBT-related statements and policies, compared with 53 percent of adults between the ages of 30 and 49 and 42 percent of Americans over 50 years old, the Washington, D.C.-based research firm reported.

Debates over same-sex marriage and other LGBT issues are certainly difficult for faith leaders to navigate, but those factors are far from the whole story when it comes to understanding the relationship between young religious "nones" and organized religion, said Daniel Cox, PRRI's research director.

"Only a minority of Americans who disaffiliate report that treatment of gay and lesbian people was an important catalyst," he said, referring to previous research by PRRI.

The religiously unaffiliated are more likely to cite no longer believing in their childhood faith's teachings or sensing little encouragement from their family to stay active as important reasons for their departure from organized religion than negative religious teachings about or treatment of the LGBT community, according to a PRRI report on the nones from last September.

However, faith groups still benefit from communicating clearly and openly about sensitive topics like same-sex marriage, as the Deseret News reported in November.

Young people respond well when they're allowed to ask tough questions, noted Dave Brunetti, director of campus life at Juan Diego Catholic High School in Draper, Utah.

"Our focus is to make sure that students have an understanding of and a basis for discussing complicated different viewpoints," he said. "We're going to back it up with a foundation of what the Catholic Church teaches and why the church teaches it, but we shy away from the sense that you're only a good person if you believe this."

PRRI's new study shows that religious communities, in general, appear to be successfully adopting a more nuanced approach to LGBT issues. Fewer Americans see the potential for alienation of young people today than they did four years ago.

For example, 72 percent of young adults in 2013 said religious groups are alienating young people by being "too judgmental" about gay and lesbian issues, compared with 60 percent today — a drop of 12 percentage points, PRRI reported.

While this trend may be cause for celebration for some, it may do little to stem the flow of teens and 20-somethings away from faith, as Cox noted.

"The interesting thing about this shift is how little impact it appears to be having on rates of religious disaffiliation," he said.

There are no easy solutions to the rise of the nones, so it's important for parents and pastors alike to stay committed to building connections with young people that can withstand moments of doubt or tense debates, said Nancy Ammerman, a professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University, to the Deseret News in November.

"The research I've seen that is most convincing says that relationships matter," she said. "It's both about families being committed to participating together and about youth having other adults in a congregation who are trusted figures."
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