Rebecca Barrett-Fox is Professor of Sociology at Arkansas State University. The author of God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right (University Press of Kansas 2016), she researches and writes about religion, hate, and sexuality and gender. Her work has appeared in Contention, Youth & Society, The Journal of Hate Studies, Thought & Action, Radical Teacher, and elsewhere. You can follow her research at her blog, Any Good Thing, or read her commentary on politics, culture, and family from a (mostly) Mennonite perspective at Sixoh6.
“Is this how it is now?” my student asked me, gesturing to her field notes from a recent visit to a Sunday worship service in our area. She was technically still a member of the denomination that the multi-campus evangelical megachurch, one of the town’s largest and most prestigious, was part of, though she had not been to a church service in over a year. Even before that, though, her attendance had grown spotty. She used the excuse of her college workload when her parents asked, but there was more keeping her away: growing unease with conservative Christianity’s views on LGBTQ+ people.
But the day prior, after a long absence from church, she found that, even if she had been a member of this particular congregation, which, like the church of her childhood, practiced closed communion, she would have been disinvited from participation in the ordinance. Before the pastor broke the bread and shared the story of the Last Supper, he informed the congregation that the bread and juice being served was not to be consumed by those “engaged in any sexual practices contradictory to Scripture,” including sexual conduct outside of heterosexual marriage and political support for the rights of gay people to marry. Those people could seek counseling from church elders, he said, gesturing toward the rear of the sanctuary, where heterosexually-married men and women stood ready to listen to the stories of worshippers trapped in sin.
My student was bothered by this. Yes, she admitted, the pastor stressed that this exclusion wasn’t just for gay people but for everyone engaged in what the church called “sexual sin.” But she strongly suspected that the policy came as a response to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision. It was one thing for the church to object to gay rights, but it was another for it to withhold communion from gay people, regardless of whether they were sexually active. And to say that one’s political support for gay marriage should determine one’s eligibility for communion politicized the sacred.
She was disgusted with the church, as are many of her peers. They are leaving conservative Protestant churches in droves, some for the richness and tradition of Orthodoxy, some for Pope Francis’ particularly warm expressions of Catholicism, and some for mainline Protestantism, but many for nothing. They don’t end up anti-religious as much as areligious—or as might better capture their attitude “eh? religious? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.” According to research from PRRI, 39% of young adults are religiously unaffiliated, and 29% of them cite their conservative religion’s views on sexuality as an important reason for going.
While such churches may lament what they see as a turning away from faith and toward “the world,” some of the young people I know who are saying goodbye to church frame their departure as acting out their faith, not rejecting it. They are keeping the best parts of their religion and rejecting what they see as beliefs and behaviors that mock those best parts. Here is what I mean:
They know that God loves their LGBTQ+ selves and friends. As they learned from their pro-life picketing and volunteer hours at the crisis pregnancy clinic, each person is lovingly created by God and thus has dignity and worth and bears God’s image, including queer people. They believe that excluding them from church and denying them communion is an act of hostility. Moves like refusing to baptize infants or children if their parents are gay or denying people communion are seen as a way that the church tries to limit who and how God loves people.
They want their gay and same-sex loving friends to be able to be blessed in their relationships. As long as same-sex marriages were not legally valid, conservative churches could sidestep their bigotry by saying that only married people could engage in blessed sex, so gay people had to practice celibacy in order to avoid sexual sin. After Obergefell, in order to deny legitimacy to same-sex marriages, they had to argue that the church alone defined marriage. But churches preach that marriage is about two people called together by God toward God. Love makes that call audible, and sex is one of the kinds of glue that holds people together. Marriage takes work, too, of course—as every Christian marriage retreat stresses, it’s not just romance and sex all the time. So when same-sex couples want to work together to be married, young people figure, their love and even their sexual desires should be blessed by a congregation that supports marriage. If marriage is to be “held honorable by all,” then churches should bless same-sex marriages. If Christians care about people, they should not force celibacy upon them—for celibacy is a calling for the few, and it cannot be a gift if it is required to be accepted. By making “the marriage bed” available to same-sex couples, churches provide an alternative to more potentially exploitative relationships. Young people have seen the consequences of marriages falling apart, and they want the marriages of same-sex couples to be supported so that they don’t. Despite what critics claim, they support same-sex marriage not because they love casual sex and no-fault divorce but because they value marriage.
They do not trust the marriage advice of their parents and grandparents. And for good reason. While the overall divorce rate continues to fall, it is rising among those over 50. They also cheat less on their partners. On average, they delay the onset of sex longer and have fewer sexual partners. Their smart choices are one reason both our unplanned pregnancy and our abortion rates are declining (though we are seeing worrisome increases in some STDs; are showing share increases in rates of such diseases, too). They understand sex—both the pleasure and the pain it can cause—pretty well.
They recognize hypocrisy. This was my student’s chief complaint: that of all the sins committed by people in the congregation, sexual sins—not greed or racism or violence—were the pastor’s concerns. And, on top of that, he listed sexual sins that, if they hurt anyone, hurt the people committing them and their families. In contrast, the region where I teach has seen arrests of many Protestant pastors (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here) on charges of sexual assault and the possession of child pornography. These young people have witnessed #churchtoo—congregations as a place where sexual violence happens. The harm that has happened because of sex isn’t because their queer friends love each other; it’s because their churches have been sites of, and sometimes covered up, sexual violence. They know a world in which many gay-friendly spaces are safer than churches, where anti-gay theologies kill people and where queer-affirming friendships save lives.
When churches double down on exclusion, they lose young people. Churches may face a practical conundrum: welcome and affirm LGBTQ+ people and their relationships and anger older congregants who do so much of the work and funding of the church or risk losing the young people who could repopulate the pews. That may feel, in the moment, like a hard decision, but when churches waver in making it, young people see no reason to forebear. By and large, the young people I know who left their churches feel that their congregation made them a good person, but they had to leave before it made them a bad one.