Change of Heart: Who says American churches can’t change?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Change of Heart
Radio Priest Father Charles Coughlin

At his peak, Father Charles Coughlin reached up to 30 million Americans each week. In the 1930s, he preached in favor of Adolf Hitler as a bulwark against Communism and he railed against Jews who he said were behind the Russian Revolution. Even after Kristallnacht in 1938, Coughlin went on the air still backing the German regime and suggesting that Jews themselves bore some guilt in the violence against them. He was not forced off the airwaves until after Germany invaded Poland in late 1939.

In 5 parts, this special OurValues series examines American churches’ changing attitudes on homosexuality and same-gender marriage. Many readers have asked us to gather in one place the latest findings on these issues by researchers and scholars, including the Pew Research Center, the Barna Group and the Public Religion Research Institute. In response, we are pulling together the latest data from these groups and other scholars. We invite you to read along and especially urge you to share these columns with friends.

We begin by looking at the basic question: Can American churches make major changes in the basic values they preach?

Answer: They can. And, they have many times. Here are a few examples—

SLAVERY—At the eve of the Civil War, about 150 years ago, pastors nationwide preached that slavery was entirely consistent with the Bible. After all, hundreds of Bible verses seem to approve of the practice. Even among the majority of Northern congregations, before the Civil War, abolition was not a popular cause. But today? No legitimate church in America preaches in favor of slavery and evangelical churches are active in popular campaigns to end modern-day slavery in the world.

RACIAL-ETHNIC PURITY—At the start of American involvement in World War I a century ago, some of the most famous preachers in America supported the eugenics movement and called for the forced sterilization of millions of Germans to wipe out their population (as documented in Philip Jenkins new book). Now, after the Holocaust and other genocides, no church in America would stand for such preaching that encourages wiping out entire populations.

ANTI-SEMITISM—On the eve of World War II about 80 years ago, anti-Semitism was common in American churches and leading preachers, especially the infamous Catholic “radio priest” Father Coughlin, whipped up so much anti-Jewish feeling that U.S. policy slowed the flow of Jewish refugees trying to escape the Third Reich. Even a written plea by Anne Frank’s father to escape to America was held up in the prevailing American antipathy toward European Jews. Anti-Semitism remains a problem around the world, but no legitimate American church preaches this hatred—and evangelical churches have become some of the strongest American supporters of the state of Israel.

ANTI-CATHOLICISM—Fifty years ago, anti-Catholicism was so rampant in America’s Protestant churches that a household name like the Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, founder of Guideposts magazine, could feel confident leading a national coalition of pastors opposing John Kennedy’s election because he was Catholic. Peale warned the nation, “Faced with the election of a Catholic, our culture is at stake.” Since then, anti-Catholicism hasn’t entirely vanished, but evangelical leaders now widely embrace Catholic allies nationwide.

What other basic values have changed in American churches?

What has changed in your lifetime?

What has changed in your church?

Care to read more?

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Change of Heart: Which religious groups are welcoming gay marriage?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Change of Heart
Pew chart of change toward gays in American churches

CLICK this chart to visit the Pew website and read the entire report.

PEW research, published in the spring of 2014, concludes that America has flipped on gay marriage.

“In Pew Research polling in 2001, Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a 57% to 35% margin,” Pew reports. “Since then, support for same-sex marriage has steadily grown. Today, a majority of Americans (54%) support same-sex marriage, compared with 39% who oppose it.”

Because the United States is distinctive among the world’s nations for the intensity of religion in our culture, this also means that the vast majority of Americans identify with religious groups. As “Americans” change attitudes on any issue, by definition, it means the members of America’s religious groups are changing their attitudes. That’s different than saying official church policies are changing, but the trend is powerful, Pew concludes.

Within that larger change, Pew finds:

  • AGE MATTERS—A majority of younger Americans, people who are under 30 now, have approved of gay marriage for more than a decade. Clearly, the cultural shift is driven by a dramatic generational change in attitudes.
  • POLITICAL AFFILIATION MATTERS—Not surprisingly, more conservative Americans are drawn to the Republican party. What is striking in Pew’s new report is the growing gap between Republicans and Democrats on this issue. In 2001, the parties were separated by 22 percentage points on this issue (with 21 percent of Republicans approving vs. 43 percent of Democrats). Now, the gap is 35 percentage points! (32 vs. 67 percent).
  • RACE MATTERS—As Americans have read in headlines nationwide, many black church leaders oppose same-sex marriage and black communities are resisting the idea that gay rights is an extension of the civil rights movement. Pew reports that an 11-point gap has emerged between white and black Americans on this issue (54 percent of white Americans now approving vs. 43 percent of black Americans).
  • GENDER MATTERS—Women always have been more sympathetic toward gay marriage. From 2001 to today, women as a group have been 6 to 10 percentage points more approving than men.

What do you see in these trends?

Why do these factors matter so much? For example, why are women more approving?

COMING WEDNESDAY: Dramatic change in the world’s largest church.

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Change of Heart: Dramatic Change in the World’s Largest Church

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Change of Heart
Country by Country comparison of LGBT attitudes

Click this chart to read Pew’s entire report on “The Global Divide on Homosexuality”

The Catholic church often is cited in the debate over religious inclusion of LGBT men and women—even by evangelical leaders who not too many decades ago had no interest in working with Catholic allies. Critics of same-sex marriage often point out: The Catholic church will never allow it. And veteran Vatican watchers agree that an official blessing on gay marriage seems unlikely. Among the key reasons that the Vatican is central to this debate:

  • IT’S OLD AND BIG—The Catholic church is widely viewed as the world’s oldest Christian denomination and it certainly is the world’s largest organized religious group. The Vatican claims that more than a billion of the world’s men, women and children are Catholic, a group that represents half of all Christians on the planet. The Roman Catholic church is about the same size as Islam, which is not a single organized religious group.
  • MORE TRADITIONAL THAN PROTESTANTS—Catholic tradition and Vatican doctrine view marriage as a sacrament, setting the theological bar for change very high, while most mainline Protestants do not call the rite of marriage a sacrament. In fact, Catholic doctrine views marriage in a much more restrictive way than American Protestants. For example, divorced Catholics still are unable to remarry in the church without first going through a lengthy annulment process, discounting the authenticity of their earlier marriage. American Protestant churches have jumped past the biblical debate on remarriage after divorce and no longer regard the practice as controversial.
  • WEIGHT OF AFRICA—The Catholic church is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa, home to some of the world’s most anti-gay ethnic cultures.
  • POLITICAL FUNDING—The Catholic hierarchy has significant funds, at the discretion of regional bishops, that can be poured into anti-gay-rights campaigns.

HOWEVER, there is, indeed, dramatic change in the world’s largest church. Across several continents, the world’s Catholic population already is supporting LGBT inclusion in general—and a large portion of the church’s membership supports gay marriages or unions.

The chart with today’s story clearly shows the majorities in many of the world’s most populous Catholic countries supporting acceptance of gay men and women. This chart does not single out Catholic respondents, but a growing body of research does just that after extensive polling of Catholics.

The most complete to date is a Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) report in 2011, drawing on surveys and other research in 2009 and 2010. If anything, this PRRI report understates the widespread Catholic support for LGBT inclusion. All other nationwide research on this issue shows American attitudes shifting to approve same-gender marriage in the last couple of years. Part 2 in this series shows Pew’s 2014 polling with 59 percent of Catholics approving of allowing such marriages.

The PRRI study found that Catholics have widely accepted their church’s call for compassion toward marginalized groups. The PRRI report concludes: “Catholics strongly believe that society should accept gay and lesbian relationships. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) agree that gay and lesbian relationships should be accepted by society. One in four disagree, but less than 1-in-10 (9 percent) say that they completely disagree. Among the general public, roughly 6 in 10 (62 percent) say that gay and lesbian relationships should be accepted by society, 12 points lower than support among Catholics.”

Are you surprised that Catholics are a leading group in many nations, urging LGBT inclusion?

Do you think the church’s leadership would ever consider changing church doctrine on marriage?

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Change of Heart: Who is teaching Americans about gay marriage?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Change of Heart

Ellen DeGeneres and Portia on magazine covers“She has been out for so long that it is no longer an issue—and older white women feel comfortable with her show. She normalizes LGBT people.” That’s one way a Pew research report summarizes Ellen DeGeneres’s influence across America.

Legalization of same-sex marriage seems inevitable, large majorities of Americans say in recent polls. This interactive map provided by Pew shows how big clusters of states that have legalized gay marriage are pressing across the U.S. from East and West coasts and the Midwest in mid 2014. But, you can re-set the Pew map to show the status in earlier years. Flip the date back to 2002 and you’ll see: Not one state allowed same-sex marriage.

Americans have had to adjust to this change at lightening speed. Research and media reports conclude: America’s most reliable, friendly, funny guide through this era of cultural change is—Ellen.

There’s no question that Ellen is the most famous gay American, Pew concludes in one study. Since she came out in 1997, Americans have watched her fall in love, mature in her relationships and get married to her partner Portia. Magazine cover stories and TV celebrity shows also have shown Ellen stumbling, problems arise in her marriage—and, this week, on the cover of Closer magazine Americans are watching them come through marriage counseling to renew their vows.

Pew concludes: “More than anyone else, Ellen DeGeneres is the face of LGBT America. Still. That’s the verdict of two new Pew Research Center surveys, one of the general U.S. population and the other of LGBT Americans specifically.

“Not only was the comedian and television host by far the most frequently cited example of a gay or lesbian public figure in the general-population survey, she and President Obama were the leaders when LGBT Americans were asked to name a well-known figure who’s been important in advancing the rights of LGBT people.”

When Ellen first came out, the public backlash reportedly sent her deep into depression for a time. But the multi-talented star quickly recovered. Today, she ranks No. 46 on the new Forbes list of the world’s most powerful women. She also ranks No. 17 on Forbes’s list of “richest women in entertainment.”

Forbes reports: “Daytime’s most likable TV personality—at least according to industry-standard Q scores—keeps dancing her way up our list. She managed to set two records within 24 hours this year: first, the now-famous ‘selfie’ photo she took with a handful of A-list celebs as she hosted the Oscars became the most re-tweeted Twitter post in history—a record previously held by President Obama. The live post-Oscars episode of her popular syndicated talk show the following day became the most-watched in the program’s 11 years on air. Aside from the ratings success of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, the 56-year-old CoverGirl is beefing up her producing roster. Her production company is working on pilots for the CW and NBC, and cable network HGTV will air a DeGeneres-produced design competition series next year.”

So, what do you think of Ellen?

Are there other important men or women who’ve taught you about gay relationships?

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Change of Heart: The real crisis churches face.

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Change of Heart
2014-Pew-research-chart-on-LGBT-issue-as-a-factor-in-leaving-religious-groups

Click on this chart to read the entire 2014 report from the Public Religion Research Institute.

Christian leaders defending a traditional ban on homosexuality often say that the future of the church is threatened by any softening of the anti-gay wall that encircles thousands of American churches. But leading researchers—including a self-proclaimed supporter of evangelical Christianity, George Barna—say the real crisis is the widespread impression among millions of young adults that churches are hateful organizations persecuting their gay and lesbian friends and relatives.

The most helpful chart displaying these findings, at a glance, comes from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a highly respected center for research on religion in America. The chart appears, above, and you also can visit PRRI’s website to read the entire report. But evangelicals tend to discount such polling as irrelevant.

From the heart of the American evangelical community, though, comes the work of pollster George Barna, who is such a strong supporter of this faith group that he describes his work as “facilitating a spiritual and moral revolution.” By all accounts, his Barna Group research follows accepted standards for polling but the signature style in Barna’s columns and books is interpreting the news from an evangelical perspective.

That’s why it was so startling in 2009 to read about Barna’s research, after interviewing a sample group of homosexuals that “27 percent met the ‘born again’ criteria we use.” That finding may not be “startling” to most readers—but it was explosive news to Barna’s evangelical base. In fact, Barna says now that he was shocked by the response from his audience.

In 2010, Barna wrote, “The reaction to that finding was shockingly hateful–not everyone who wrote to or called us responded in that manner, of course, but an amazingly large share of the notes that came in were venomous. A number of emails questioned my faith and salvation. Several outright condemned me and denied the possibility that I am a follower of Christ. I am used to being challenged and am comfortable with debates about how we apply our faith, but the hostility quotient broke the meter after that release.”

He concluded, “After that experience it has been much easier for me to understand the distaste so many gays have for the Christian body – and why so many young adults who are not gay have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from the conservative Christian juggernaut.”

For more than a decade, Barna has been studying trends in Christian attitudes toward what Barna now calls “LGBTQ Rights.” In Barna’s latest overall report on these trends, in 2013, the polling firm concludes that American Christianity is nearing a historic tipping point. The group Barna calls “Practicing Christians under 40” has moved significantly toward favoring “changing laws to enable more freedom for the LGBTQ community” from 34 percent in 2003 to 46 percent in 2013. Lagging behind them are “Practicing Christians over 40,” who have moved from 23 percent approval across the decade to 32 percent approval in 2013.

Barna now regularly warns church leaders that anti-gay attitudes are hurting Christianity in America.

What do you think of George Barna’s experience?

Do you agree with these findings and Barna’s warning to churches?

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