Millennials have continued to grow as one of the strongest supporters of same-sex marriage, according to a national survey released Feb. 26 by the Public Religion Research Institute.
The nonpartisan organization, which is a member of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, reported that nearly seven in 10 Americans ages 18 to 33 favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally wed, compared to just over one-third of those who are ages 68 and older.
Significant generational gaps exist even among religious groups that oppose same-sex marriage.
White evangelical Protestant Millennials are more than twice as likely to support same-sex marriage, with 43 percent favoring its legalization, when compared to the oldest generation of white evangelical Protestants, 19 percent of whom are supportive.
Overall support among Americans jumped 21 percentage points, from 32 percent in 2003 to 53 percent in 2013.
“As public opinion goes, we really rarely see this movement on any issue over a decade’s time,” said Robert Jones, CEO of the PRRI, while discussing the survey findings at a news conference.
During this period, 17 states and the District of Columbia authorized same-sex marriage.
The Supreme Court also struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, and the U.S. Department of Justice extended recognition to same-sex couples in federal legal matters.
While the religious landscape has shifted toward a more tolerant position on issues related to sexual orientation and identify, religious groups have seen a notable decline over the last decade, and Millennials are citing the way churches have handled Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender issues as one of the main reasons they left.
“Nearly one-third of Millennials who left their childhood religion say unfavorable church teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people played a significant role in their decision to head for the exit,” Jones said.
“This new research provides further evidence that negative teachings on this issue have hurt churches’ ability to attract and retain young people,” he said.
For church leaders working with members of young generations, the tension between opposing perspectives within the church has become especially challenging, said Max Kuecker, national field organizer for The Reformation Project.
“Often, youth pastors are the closest to the evangelicals who have same-sex interests who suffer from feelings of ostracization to the point of contemplating and actually committing suicide,” he said. “For the pastors who are experiencing that firsthand, they are just torn up about it.”
Kuecker said that Christian leaders who decide to speak against the majority-held views in the church related to LGBT issues are essentially excommunicated from the evangelical world.
“Evangelical leaders are very reluctant to speak about it,” Kuecker said. “Pastors are afraid of losing their jobs and seeing their denominations take away their credentials.”
With few prominent people vocalizing support, Kuecker and others involved with The Reformation Project have focused on a grassroots approach in supporting Christians who are committed to changing attitudes toward same-sex relationships.
The staff of the non-profit organization has been dedicated to training and equipping Christians to reform church teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity though teaching of the Bible, according to its mission statement.
Last year, the organization brought together 50 Christians at an intensive four-day conference in Prairie Village, Kan. Before arriving, participants studied several hundred pages of academic reading materials and read two full-length books on the topic of homosexuality and the Bible.
“Having done extensive research into the historical and cultural contexts surrounding Scripture and the progression of society’s understanding of same-sex acts and relationships,” Kuecker said, “we are convinced that neither the concept of monogamous same-sex relationships nor ideas on sexual orientation were a part of society’s understanding until the 19th century.”
This then prompts the question as to what biblical authors were referring to when writing about same-sex relationships, Kuecker said.
Kuecker said that same-sex acts were seen in biblical times as a manifestation of out-of-control lust.
It was a culturally understood progression that those who had found their spouses uninteresting sexually and had decided to have sex with multiple partners would eventually begin to seek members of their own sex to satisfy their desire for new sexual experiences, Kuecker said.
“The Bible is speaking redemptively into that [situation] to say that sex is intended for marriage as a portion of a partnership that God has created.”
Kuecker believes that same-sex relationships can be pleasing to God.
That viewpoint received national attention in September 2012 when the New York Times published an article about Matthew Vines, who founded The Reformation Project last year.
Vines became a part of the public Christian debate when he posted a video on YouTube that has received more than half a million views.
In the hour-long video, he articulates his viewpoint on what the Bible says about homosexuality and argues why he believes God does not inherently condemn same-sex relationships.
That video was shown inside a Union classroom this past January.
“Students usually watch that video twice,” said Nina Heckler, department chairwoman and assistant professor of sociology. “Once, they’re just in shock; they are just trying to comprehend it. By the end of the semester, they want to watch it again and critically analyze it.”
Heckler showed the video in her Gender and Sexuality class as a way for her students to become familiar with arguments surrounding same-sex relationships.
“It’s going to be hard for them if they are not aware of the issues going forward,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons we talk about it.”
Heckler said she teaches from a biblical perspective, citing multiple passages from the Old and New Testaments that she uses to frame her class’s discussion of gender and sexuality.
While Heckler disagrees that same-sex relationships can be pleasing to God, she said that does not mean that Christians should be judgmental of others, especially of those who are not Christian.
“It’s very easy for us as Christians to get wrapped up in what we believe and how we see things and not be open enough to listen to someone else,” she said. “Listening gives us a better footing to have those discussions and help spread the Gospel.”
As a part of her curriculum for the course, Heckler said she paired a secular academic textbook with a book on human sexuality from a Christian perspective.
“One of the issues that we see with marriages is that not only does our secular society view it more as a contract than a covenant, but there are specific things in the Bible that talk about what marriage is,” Heckler said. “I think that we get so wrapped up in what it is not that we forget the key pieces of what it really is.”
Prior to teaching at Union, Heckler taught at the University of Alabama, which pushed for its faculty to go through LGBT-awareness training so that faculty could best discuss issues with students, she said.
Because of strict rules involving the discussion of Scripture, Heckler said she encountered a completely different dynamic while teaching a similar course at Alabama.
Last May, Kirby Lewis walked across the Great Lawn with the largest graduating class in the history of the university.
Four months earlier, he had come out as gay.
Lewis said he had chosen to wait before coming out until his responsibilities with campus organizations had ended.
“Because I was in several positions of leadership, it became a little contentious,” he said.
Lewis said that his experience coming out wasn’t entirely negative.
“I don’t want to put a bad light on Union,” Lewis said. “I had an incredible undergraduate experience. It just so happened that my identity and policies of the school didn’t line up.”
The Union campus life handbook states that the promotion, advocacy, defense or ongoing practice of a homosexual lifestyle, including same-sex dating behaviors, is contrary to Union’s community values.
This year’s handbook specified that homosexual behaviors in a marriage still remain outside community values.
While some of his personal relationships at Union were negatively affected, Lewis found that several of his friends and mentors at Union were still supportive of him after he came out.
“If you are a student at Union that has same-sex attraction, don’t be afraid to talk to people about it, because in most ways it’s not a harmful environment,” he said. “There are people there who are there to support you and help you and not just there to change you.”
Lewis now works as a receptionist in the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex Life at Vanderbilt University, where he is working toward a master’s degree in economics.
“Obviously at Union, there is not really support for LGBTQI students,” Lewis said. “I never knew what that was really about or what that included.”
Lewis said that the job position piqued his interest while he was looking for employment on campus.
“Since I never had that as an undergraduate student, it made me want to be more involved and be a mentor, especially being with undergraduate students who I knew were probably going through a similar process that I had gone through,” Lewis said.
The office was established after a hate crime on Vanderbilt’s campus prompted the university to make a former dean’s house a place for its LGBT students and their allies.
The house gives students a safe space to have conversation, host meetings and spend free time, Lewis said. A head staff of six coordinates programs and events for students across campus.
In his interaction with students at Vanderbilt, Lewis said he has met several students who identify as both gay and Christian.
Lewis said he did not know many Christians at Union who supported same-sex relationships, although he has seen change since he graduated.
“I think what I am seeing most is that people are OK with the idea of same-sex marriage being legal but not with the idea of celebrating it,” Lewis said.
At Western Theological Seminary, James Brownson has seen an entire range of viewpoints inside the classroom on same-sex relationships.
The James and Jean Cook professor of New Testament had students taking his gender and sexuality class write a final paper conveying their perspectives on the subject.
“Students expressed a variety of views, but they were far more nuanced, precise, qualified, thoughtful and able to acknowledge things that they were still working on,” he said. “People were able to deepen their thinking and engage each other more constructively because of the class.”
After assessing questions and issues students had about same-sex relationships, Brownson took a sabbatical to write his book, “Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships,” which was published in February 2013.
In the book, Brownson examines what he refers to as the “traditionalist” and “revisionist” perspectives within Christianity – the affirming and non-affirming sides of the debate – to explore the key concepts that inform the understanding of the biblical texts addressing sexuality.
A member of the Reformed Church in America, Brownson began researching and writing about same-sex relationships in the early 1990s. This perspective was challenged when his son came out to him in 2005.
What had previously been a purely academic and theological issue suddenly became a personal one for Brownson.
“I am not of the theological conviction that personal experience defines morality, but personal experience is sometimes a more powerful motive to go back and make sure you are reading the text in the right way,” he said.
Brownson said that knowing someone with a different sexual orientation can help identify the cultural influences that have shaped understandings of gender and sexuality.
“We are taught the meaning of our gender and sexuality from before we can even speak; these things are deeply embedded in the social fabric, and we take them as self-evident,” he said. “Unless you know someone who is gay or lesbian and know something about their experience, it just seems weird and shocking in and of itself.”
If Christians seek to live their lives fundamentally and in accordance with Scripture, then they have to learn to take Scripture seriously, Brownson said.
He also said the way people approach topics related to gender and sexuality often “becomes a way of assuming that God blesses whatever I think gender is all about, without actually pushing further to see if it is the right way to read the text.”
Brownson also said people who grew up in church often have a rule-based approach to ethical questions.
This approach, which he refers to as a “bounded set,” is best balanced alongside a “centered set,” which focuses on the core values that boundaries preserve.
The core value Brownson articulates in his book is the close connection between sexuality and bonding.
“People aren’t to say with their bodies’ sexuality what they’re not able or willing to say with the rest of their lives by living in long-term relationships that are characterized by kinship obligations,” Brownson said. “The issue then is an essential one about consistency and coherency within our lives.”