NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Mainline Protestant clergy are generally more supportive of homosexual behavior than the broader population, according to a study released May 20 by Public Religion Research.
But a spokesman for the Institute on Religion & Democracy told Baptist Press the study is slanted and actually shows a significant divide among mainline clergy on the topic of “gay rights.”
If the survey had been of mainline members or if it had been of clergy from all Christian denominations, Alan Wisdom, IRD vice president for research and programs at the Institute on Religion & Democracy, said the responses would have been much more favorable to traditional Christian teachings on marriage and sexuality.
Robert P. Jones, president of Public Religion Research, said in a news release, “Clergy in these denominations have wrestled with theological questions around sexuality and report that they’ve been moving toward more supportive positions on equal rights in society and full inclusion in the church.”
Mainline Protestants make up 18 percent of all Americans and nearly a fourth of all voters, PRR said. The survey included the seven largest mainline denominations: United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, American Baptist Churches USA, Presbyterian Church USA, Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
PRR found that 67 percent of mainline clergy support hate crimes legislation, 66 percent support workplace protections for homosexuals and 55 percent support adoption rights for couples of the same gender. One-third support “gay marriage” and a similar number support civil unions.
Approval of “gay marriage” increases significantly when clergy are given assurance that churches won’t be required to perform same-sex ceremonies, PRR said. Also, 45 percent of those surveyed said they support the ordination of homosexuals.
Mainline clergy, the study reported, have become significantly more accepting of homosexual issues in recent years. Nearly half described their views as more liberal today than a decade ago.
Mark Coppenger, pastor of the Chicago-area Evanston Baptist Church, said what he has seen in his community tracks with the study’s findings.
“Evanston is a case in point. It was once a Methodist Zion, reflected in such street names as Wesley and Asbury, and on the Northwestern University seal, with portions of John 1:14 in Greek. But now the First Methodist Church sign proclaims their utter indifference to ‘sexual orientation,’ the Methodist Garrett-Evangelical Seminary and its near-dead, across-the-street sister, the Episcopal Seabury-Western Seminary, make ethical room for homosexuality.
“And the Methodists are not alone; other churches have displayed pink triangles, rainbows and words of assurance that homosexuality is fine with them,” Coppenger, a professor of Christian apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told BP.
“The last U.S. census showed Evanston to lead other Chicago suburbs in self-avowed gay households, and the Evanston United Way recently tossed out the Boy Scouts since they wouldn’t allow gay scoutmasters,” Coppenger added. “Not surprisingly, devotion to biblical inerrancy and responsible hermeneutics departed Evanston’s mainline churches years ago.”
Peter LaBarbera, president of Americans For Truth About Homosexuality, said the survey is another tragic marker in the spiritual decline of America.
“When ‘Christian’ pastors adopt pro-homosexuality policies, they become complicit in society’s abandonment of God’s Word as a standard for Christian living,” LaBarbera told BP. “In fact, as supposed men of God, they especially will have to answer to the Lord as to why they chose worldly values over godly values.”
LaBarbera said the Bible calls homosexual acts an abomination, so the entire homosexual agenda is antithetical to God’s Word.
“The great tragedy of homosexuality being mainstreamed by pastors is that they have abandoned their role as God’s truth agents on earth,” LaBarbera said. “By celebrating people as homosexuals, they in effect celebrate sexual sin and deny Jesus Christ’s proven ability to rescue sinners from that sin.
“The only hope for America is that we return to a biblical standard of right and wrong and that the liberal mainline churches would continue to shrink, and Bible-believing churches would grow,” LaBarbera said.
Wisdom, of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, noted that the source of the study is far from neutral on the subject. Jones, PRR’s president and coauthor of the report, recently wrote a book titled “Progressive and Religious.”
“Jones held previous positions with the Center for American Progress (the unofficial think tank of the Obama administration) and People for the American Way (dedicated to attacking the ‘Religious Right’),” Wisdom said in a statement to BP.
“This survey was financed with a grant from the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, a major supporter of gay and lesbian causes. The survey targeted an audience — mainline clergy — that would be likely to give the most pro-homosexuality responses,” Wisdom said.
A closer look at the survey results, he noted, reveals that only 29 percent of mainline clergy could be characterized as a supportive base committed to normalizing homosexuality and treating same-sex relations as morally equivalent to marriage.
An equal bloc of 30 percent of clergy surveyed are opposed to the homosexual agenda, Wisdom noted, and the balance lies within an “uncertain middle” of 41 percent who have conflicting views on the topic. PRR referenced the uncertain middle but emphasized the supportive base in its report.
“It seems as if there may be a parting of ways in the mainline,” Wisdom said, “with some going over to a thoroughgoing theological and sexual revisionism and others remaining more attached to historic Christian orthodoxy. There is good reason to believe that the largest number will end up in the latter camp, and the mainline will not become the base for gay liberation that PRR imagines it to be.”
Also, Wisdom said the attitudes of mainline clergy are far from identical to the views of the people in the pews who tend to be more conservative on a range of issues. He cited a PCUSA study as an example.
“The ministers, educated in mostly liberal seminaries and under the influence of the denomination’s mostly liberal leadership, are not at all in step with a membership that holds more traditional Christian views,” Wisdom said.
Even so, Wisdom said it’s not surprising that the mainline should be so divided on the issue of homosexuality because they are the part of the American church that is most open to influences from the wider culture.
“Those demands have found sympathetic responses from many leading mainline circles, which were already inclined toward ‘progressive’ and revisionist views on many other topics,” Wisdom said.
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press. With reporting by BP editor Art Toalston.