Aging Churches and the Enduring Opposition to Same-Sex Marriage
As religious congregations age, are they being left behind?
*** SPECIAL ANNOUCEMENT: Tomorrow (December 2nd at 10:30am EST) I’m hosting a conversation with veteran religion reporter Bob Smietana about his great new book Reorganized Religion. The discussion will also feature prominent writers and researchers on American religion, including Peter Wehner (Trinity Forum), Michelle Boorstein (Washington Post) and Ruth Braunstein (University of Connecticut). It’s not too late to RSVP, just click here! ***
After the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015 I think a lot of people (myself included) thought the issue was settled. Public support has never been higher. More than seven in ten (71 percent) Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry according to Gallup’s most recent polling. And most Americans see this as a sign of progress. Six in ten (61 percent) Americans say the legalization of same-sex marriage has been good for society. Young adults are even more supportive. Three-quarters of young adults say this has been a positive development for American society, including more than half who say it has been “very good.”
Yet, despite its popularity, there remains a strong undercurrent of organized opposition to same-sex marriage in American churches. Only 40 percent of Americans who attend religious services at least once a week favor it. Most of those regular worshippers do not.
At one time, the division over same-sex marriage was largely one between religious and nonreligious Americans, but today the gap is between the most active religious Americans and everyone else. Over the past 20 years, there has been a growing divide between Americans who occasionally attend services and those who are there week in and week out. In 2004, Americans who attended weekly were not much more opposed to same-sex marriage than those with more infrequent attendance. Today, 82 percent of Americans who seldom or never attend and 70 percent of those who attend occasionally support same-sex marriage. There is now a 30-point gap between the most religiously committed Americans and those who attend less frequently.
One reason why the views of weekly church attendees have changed so little on the issue of same-sex marriage has to do with their age. Americans who attend church every week are far older today than they once were. In 1998, nearly six in ten (58 percent) Americans who participated in weekly religious services were under the age of 50. Today, only 40 percent are under the age of 50. The majority of Americans attending services at least once a week are over the age of 50, and one in three are 65 or older. This is a massive shift over the last two decades.
This is not the only change affecting congregations. Churches have become much more politically polarized places in recent years. White Americans who attend religious services weekly or more often skew increasingly Republican. Today, 72 percent of white regular church attendees identify as Republican, up from 56 percent in 1998, a 16-point swing. I don’t think most of us would find it surprising that institutions primarily populated by older Republicans are largely opposed to same-sex marriage.
But the generational divide matters more.
Culture wars are generational conflicts. Most of the lasting shifts in public attitudes are brought about not by people changing their minds, but through a process of generational replacement. New generations come of age with distinctive sets of expectations, values, and priorities that set them apart from, and frequently in opposition to, those who have come before. When it comes to same-sex marriage, age is more important than politics. (More than six in ten young Republicans support same-sex marriage!) The Silent Generation has yet to reach majority support while the majority of Millennials and Generation Z have nearly always been in favor of it. This is how societies change their minds even when people do not.
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As young people continue to change societal and cultural values, their absence from regular worship means that many religious organizations lack the motivation or incentives to adapt. Aging memberships become self-reinforcing as year over year they push the congregation a little further away from the values and priorities of the next generation. In this way, churches become generational echo chambers that mostly affirm and reinforce the views of their current members. It can lead to major miscalculations in how to handle particular issues. I think that what most alienated young people was not an unwillingness of churches to perform same-sex marriages, but their frequent demonization of gay and lesbian people. Research bears this out. One study found that nearly one in three Millennials who left their childhood faith did so over “negative treatment” of gay and lesbian people.
I don’t think becoming an LGBTQ-affirming church is going to suddenly reverse years of declining participation that has a number of different causes. Removing a barrier that kept many young people from participating in organized religion is not the same thing as offering them a compelling reason to join. But addressing these generational rifts over culture is still important.
Breaking from the past presents its own challenges. Organizations are understandably more responsive to their most active members. In the case of many churches, the most dedicated members—the ones who volunteer and donate—are much older and most resistant to change. But adaptation is going to be critical to the survival of many aging congregations. The key will be deciding what practices and priorities are essential and what things are less important. For better or worse, these are the decisions that will determine the fate of many religious congregations.