Religion plays an important role in the lives of gay Americans

serious prayingGiven the number of mainstream Christian leaders who have publicly decried homosexuality in recent decades (think Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and Pat Robertson, to name just a few), you might expect that gay Americans are about as likely to be Christian as they are to, say, speak fluent Urdu. But a new survey suggests that you'd be wrong. The Barna Group, a research organization based in California, recently released a report indicating that a strong majority of homosexuals self-identify as Christian and consider their faith to be central in their lives.

Sixty percent of homosexual respondents claimed that faith was “very important” to them, while 70 percent identified with the label “Christian.” While these numbers are slightly lower than those reported by heterosexual respondents (72 percent and 85 percent, respectively), they still represent majorities within the gay community. Somewhat counterintuitively, then, gay men and women—who have stood uncomfortably at the center of a raging cultural and religious debate for much of the past generation—are remaining conceptually loyal to an institution that often vilifies and rejects them.

In fact, another study, conducted by Darren E. Sherkat of Southern Illinois University, revealed earlier this decade that gay men are more likely to take an active role in church than straight men. Heterosexual men are known among researchers for being particularly reluctant to attend religious services, but it still may come as a surprise to learn that gay men, an often-persecuted group in religious settings, are more enthusiastic about church than their straight male counterparts.

Jesuit writer Rev. James Martin (quoted in this article) hypothesizes that the draw towards Christianity for many gays comes, paradoxically, from their own experience with prejudice and scorn. Since so many homosexuals are forced into difficult existential crises during the course of growing up, the popular Christian message of tolerance and forgiveness may have special significance for them—especially as they embark on church service careers, in which they may be among the best-suited for dealing empathetically with others' fears and difficulties.

Other explanations for the relatively high percentage of gays who identify as Christian include a desire to help churches live up to their stated principles; cultural inertia; and a postulated, uniquely poignant understanding of “the theology of human dignity,” or the concept that God creates people as they are and that people should therefore be accepted unconditionally (see article linked above).

Regardless of the reasons, the fact remains that gays, while not hewing as fast to Christianity as straights, are still more likely than not to claim a relationship with Jesus Christ and to believe that this relationship is of central importance in their lives. Paradoxical as it might seem, this research serves as a reminder of the powerful role religion plays in human life, and of the need for continued work to challenge assumptions about religion and culture.

For the full report on the Barna Group findings, see here.

For more information on Professor Darren Sherkat's report, see here.