August 25, 2009
Contrary to the popular stereotypes about gays, a recent study from The Barna Group reveals some surprising insights about gay spirituality. The study shows that there are both similarities and differences when comparing the spiritual beliefs of homosexuals and heterosexuals.
"People who portray gay adults as godless, hedonistic, Christian bashers are not working with the facts," said George Barna, Barna Group founder and a best-selling author of numerous books about faith and culture on the Barna Group Web site. "A substantial majority of gays cite their faith as a central facet of their life, consider themselves to be Christian, and claim to have some type of meaningful personal commitment to Jesus Christ active in their life today."
The Barna Group study indicates that out of the 9,232 American adults who were surveyed, 70 percent of gay individuals self-identified themselves as Christian. In the same survey, 85 percent of heterosexuals self-identified themselves as being a Christian, showing a 15 percent gap between the two groups.
About six out of ten heterosexuals say they are absolutely committed to the Christian faith, compared to about four out of ten homosexuals who place that same value on their faith.
Although many of the adults affirmed the importance of faith in their life, regardless of their sexual orientation, straight adults (72 percent) were more likely than gay adults (60 percent) to describe their faith as being "very important" in their lives.
Dr. Warren Throckmorton, associate professor of psychology at Grove City College who has been a clinical expert in the field since 1998, said that if individuals aren't flexible, they can miss a lot of research on this topic.
"I have changed my views over the years, in part, because of research and in part because of getting to know gay people better. I take the traditional view of sexual ethics as far as sexuality being reserved for marriage, but I've come to believe that a lot of what evangelicals say about homosexuals paints a misleading picture," he said. Throckmorton recently detailed his approach with the Wall Street Journal.
"The Barna study is a pretty good indicator of the sorts of stereotypes that exist about homosexuals," he told Crosswalk.com. "Homosexuals do have a spiritual component and a practice. There are also a lot of other things we hear about gays that are distorted and that can paint an inaccurate picture, which can often lead evangelicals to take unhelpful positions."
Other conservative evangelicals agreed that Christians are quick to stereotype the gay population.
"[E]vangelical Christians who don't know gay and lesbian people can operate simply with a stereotype of those people as being completely, self-consciously atheistic or self-consciously hedonistic, and that isn't helpful in our mission because it doesn't help us to engage people as where they see themselves as being," said Dr. Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology and senior vice-president for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
"I think the study demonstrates something that is true about self-deception, generally. All of us think ourselves to be doing spiritually righteous things. The Scripture tells us that," he continued. "We always find a way to justify that and to think that our particular area of rebellion doesn't affect my sense of relationship to the divine, when in course, it does…. I think Christians should have a great sense of compassion upon their homosexual neighbors in their lostness, because it is not a different kind of lostness than all of the rest of us previously experienced before we came to know the Lord Jesus."
The study underscores the need most people feel for faith and religion in their lives, regardless of their sexual orientation. Although the gay population isn't highly visible in evangelical circles, some say that's the fault of Christians who pushed seekers away.
For Andrew Marin, president and founder of the bridge-building The Marin Foundation, this common search could be an opportunity.
"One thing has been very clear to me over the last nine years being immersed in the GLBT community—they are searching for the exact same things we are in regards to trying to figure out life and faith, and how those things relate to our existence here on earth. There is a lot of self-inflicted (and church-inflicted) spiritual/religious repression within GLBT people; and as with everyone else, the more something is repressed the more it longs to feel freedom."
Ultimately, however, many conservative Christians maintain that the gay lifestyle and true faith are incompatible. Just as many heterosexuals may claim Christianity nominally, so the gay population can as well.
Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International and author of "Leaving Homosexuality,"said that individuals will eventually come a point of conflict depending on their view of Scripture.
"When it comes to your understanding relating to Scripture and sexuality, if you adopt a gay worldview or a gay identity, you're going to have to throw out the Scriptural mandates in regard to sexuality or the Scriptural context with regards to sexuality. Whereas, those who aren't dealing with those complex issues won't, they will tend to stand by the traditional sexual and biblical ethics," he said.
Dr. James Tonkowich, past president and scholar with the Institute on Religion & Democracy, said he sees several things happening in today's churches in regard to homosexuality, but believes placing a focus on promoting a biblical approach to sexuality is key.
"There are several wrong approaches to the issue. One is what is going on in the mainline churches, mainly. You change your church and you change your doctrine in order to incorporate gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals within their lifestyles… Another wrong approach is to get angry and condemn people who are homosexuals as some kind of special class of particularly awful class of sinners. A third wrong approach is that it is only three percent of the population and there are plenty of other people to evangelize from the other 97 percent.
"I think the right approach is to affirm and articulate Scriptural standards of orthodoxy and Scriptural standards of morality. We need to articulate a biblical understanding of what it means to be human, what it means to have a body. What marriage means and how that fits not only into life in the 21st Century, but how marriage goes all the way back to the beginning - to creation. And, marriage looks forward to the return of Christ and the re-making of all things."