What Mainline Clergy Believe

Timothy Kincaid

May 22nd, 2009

National City Christian Church, Washington D.C. - Disciples of Christ

National City Christian Church, Washington D.C. - Disciples of Christ

“Mainline Christianity” has deep roots and wide branches. With about 18% of Americans (and 24% of all voters), the denominations that makeup this more-liberal end of the Protestant Christian world trace to the founding of our nation. When Americans think of church – the steeple, the stained glass windows, the minister in a clerical collar – these are probably the Christians that come to mind.

However, in today’s sound-bite driven media and take-no-prisoners politics, moderate Christians with nuanced positions and non-combatant values don’t make for good television. Instead the fire-breathing “Bible believing” family values culture warrior gets to speak for all of Christianity. So to non-believers, the impression is that Christianity is at war with the rest of the world, and gays are enemy number one.

But a recent survey of Mainline ministers finds quite another Christian response to gay and lesbian Americans. On most issues, these denominations are quite supportive.

The six denominations included, in order of support are:

  • United Church of Christ
  • Episcopal Church
  • Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
  • Evanglical Lutheran Church in America
  • Presbyterian Church (USA)
  • United Methodist Church
  • American Baptist Churches (USA)

(for those unfamiliar, American Baptist Churches is a smaller Baptist organization that is not affiliated with the very conservative Southern Baptist Convention)

Mainline Protestant Clergy Views on Theology and Gay and Lesbian Issues: Findings from the 2008 Clergy Voices Survey was released this month. And it provides us with better understanding of the beliefs of clergy in Mainline Denominations.

In general, these ministers are supportive of gay civil rights. Additionally, they are fairly supporting of the inclusion of gay persons into the body of the church – though that differs by denomination.

Some of the more interesting public policy issue findings are:

  • 79% agree with the statement “Homosexuals should have all the same rights and priveleges as other American citizens”
  • 67% support passing gay-inclusive hate crime laws
  • 66% support employment non-discrimination laws
  • 55% support adoption by gay persons

The one area where there is not majority support is for marriage equality. Only 33% support gay marriage with another 32% supporting civil unions. However, as I discuss in another commentary, support for marriage goes up to 46% when religious assurances are given.

There is also a large variance between denominations on this issue.

  • 67% – United Church of Christ
  • 49% – Episcopal
  • 42% – Disciples of Christ
  • 38% – Presbyterian
  • 37% – Lutheran
  • 25% – Methodist
  • 20% – American Baptist

After clergy were reassured that churches and ministers would not be forced to conduct such marriages, support for civil marriage laws were over 50% for all denominations other than United Methodist and American Baptist.

The report goes on to break Mainline Christianity into three camps in relation to gay and lesbian issues; 29% are a supportive base, 30% are an opposing base, and 41% are in an uncertain middle. They find that on most issues the middle tends to side with the supporting base.

They also found that 45% of mainline clergy report that they are more supportive than 10 years ago. Only 14% are more conservative. The following is how those who became more supportive explain the change.

Among clergy who reported becoming more liberal on gay and lesbian issues, the top factors they cited as being very or extremely important to this change were discernment through prayer and reflection (66%), having a friend, congregant or colleague who is gay or lesbian (58%), and additional Bible study (55%).

We have long known that coming out is a valuable way to influence public opinion. Those who have real life examples from which to draw – rather than lies and stereotypes from anti-gay activists – are more likely to find that gay men and women are a valuable part of the social fabric.

But those within the Christian fold will also find it interesting that prayer, reflection, and Bible study can yield greater support for gay persons. Religion, when applied by devout and sincere people seeking to find meaning from sacred Scriptures for real life situations, need not be the enemy of freedom and equality.

As for the inclusion of gays and lesbians into religious life, the study found

  • 94% – welcome gay persons in their church
  • 63% – believe that the gospel requires their full inclusion in the church
  • 51% – believe the church should not work towards making homosexuality unacceptable
  • 45% – support ordination of gay and lesbian ministers without special requirements
  • 13% – lead congregations that have formally become “open and affirming congregations”

These denominations have the potential to become strong allies in our question for civil equalities. Already many ministers from these denominations are active in showing legislators and voting citizens People of Faith who do not agree with the political agenda of “Christian” and “Family” groups that seek the exclusion of gay persons from civil equalities.

As time goes on, it is increasingly likely that Mainline Christianity is going to move in the direction of fuller acceptance, inclusion, and support. We should, as a community, be appreciative of their help and proactive in efforts to build bridges to these churches.

WestCanuck

May 22nd, 2009

Great post.

The official support of the United Church of Canada (the largest Protestant faith community in the country) was important and very helpful for the passage of equal marriage legislation in this country. As was the support of the various liberal Jewish faith communities (i.e., Reform and Reconstructionist) and the Canadian Muslim Congress.

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