The gay and lesbian population, which constitutes about 3% of adults, has garnered national attention in the past several years thanks to issues like gay marriage, gay adoption, and other gay rights conflicts. In the wake of those controversies and the spotlight aimed at gays, Americans have developed numerous assumptions about the lives of the homosexual population. A new survey by the Barna Group explores the spiritual life of gay and lesbian individuals, providing some surprising results.
Out of the 20 faith-oriented attributes examined in the Barna study, there were just a few in which there were no significant differences between the heterosexual and homosexual populations. The areas of similarity included the facts that a small minority of people in both groups believe that Satan is real; equivalent percentages of these groups feel they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs with others who believe differently; similar numbers of people from each group contend that good people can earn their way into Heaven through their goodness; and rates of participation in house churches is about the same for both groups.
A majority of the spiritual measures studied revealed statistically significant differences between “straights” and “gays.”
Although most adults affirm the importance of faith in their life, regardless of their sexual orientation, straight adults (72%) were more likely than gay adults (60%) to describe their faith as “very important” in their life. And even though most Americans consider themselves to be Christian, there is a noticeable gap between heterosexuals who self-identify that way (85%) compared to homosexuals (70%). Another gap was then noted among those who say they are Christian: about six out of ten heterosexuals say they are absolutely committed to the Christian faith, compared to about four out of ten among homosexuals.
And even though a majority of adults have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in your life today,” such a relationship was more common among non-gays (75%) than among gay adults (58%). The research also revealed that straight adults were nearly twice as likely as gays to qualify as born again Christians (47% compared to 27%, respectively).
There were substantial differences in some core religious beliefs, too. Heterosexuals were twice as likely as homosexuals to strongly agree that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches; two-thirds of heterosexuals believe the single, most important purpose in life is to love God with all your heart, mind, strength and soul, significantly higher than the half of all homosexuals who embrace the idea; and about half of straight adults and one-third of gay adults contend that their life has been greatly transformed by their faith.
One of the most basic beliefs has to do with one’s understanding of God. This proved to be one of the biggest differences noted in the study. While seven out of every ten heterosexuals (71%) have an orthodox, biblical perception of God, just 43% of homosexuals do. In fact, an equal percentage possesses a pantheistic view about deity – i.e., that “God” refers to any of a variety of perspectives, such as personally achieving a state of higher consciousness or maximized personal potential, or that there are multiple gods that exist, or even that everyone is god.
Religious behavior differs significantly. In any given week the research discovered that heterosexuals are the more likely of the two groups to attend a church service, attend a Sunday school class, pray to God, or read the Bible. Gay adults are 50% more likely than straight adults to be unchurched (42% versus 28%). Overall, heterosexuals are twice as likely as homosexuals to attend a church service, read the Bible and pray to God during a typical week (31% vs. 15%).
The research also explored some attitudinal and demographic elements. Those measures produced a mixture of the expected and unexpected results.
Most gay adults are male (60%) and few are married (19%). Gay adults are considerably younger than average: half are under age 40 compared to just three out of ten heterosexuals are under 40. Gays are less likely than heterosexuals to be white and are also much more likely to earn less than $30,000 annually. (That can be partially explained by being younger and thus less experienced in the marketplace.)
Politically, gays are less frequently registered to vote than are heterosexuals (76% vs. 88%). Among those registered, gays are far more likely to align with the Democratic Party (53% of gays are registered Democrats) than the Republican Party (18% of gays are registered Republicans). The gap in party alignment among heterosexuals is only ten percentage points (41% are registered Democrats vs. 31% who are registered Republicans). Perhaps the most significant difference, though, is the ideology gap. Homosexuals are three times more likely to describe themselves as “mostly liberal” on social and political matters as to say they are “mostly conservative.” In contrast, heterosexuals are twice as likely to define themselves as “mostly conservative” as to select the label “mostly liberal.”
In terms of life priorities, heterosexuals consider faith and family to be among their highest life priorities. Homosexuals assign a lower priority to family (30% said family is their top priority in life, compared to 48% among other adults) and placed a higher emphasis upon the importance of their lifestyle (32% placed this on top, versus 16% of other adults).
Comments about the Findings
George Barna, whose company conducted the research, pointed out that some popular stereotypes about the spiritual life of gays and lesbians are simply wrong.
“People who portray gay adults as godless, hedonistic, Christian bashers are not working with the facts,” declared the best-selling author of numerous books about faith and culture. “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 data indicate that millions of gay people are interested in faith but not in the local church and do not appear to be focused on the traditional tools and traditions that represent the comfort zone of most churched Christians. Gay adults clearly have a different way of interpreting the Bible on a number of central theological matters, such as perspectives about God. Homosexuals appreciate their faith but they do not prioritize it, and they tend to consider faith to be individual and private rather than communal.
“It is interesting to see that most homosexuals, who have some history within the Christian Church, have rejected orthodox biblical teachings and principles – but, in many cases, to nearly the same degree that the heterosexual Christian population has rejected those same teachings and principles. Although there are clearly some substantial differences in the religious beliefs and practices of the straight and gay populations, there may be less of a spiritual gap between straights and gays than many Americans would assume.”
This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group among nine nationwide random samples of adults. In the course of the 9,232 interviews conducted, each respondent was asked if they considered themselves to be “heterosexual, lesbian, gay, or bisexual.” These surveys were conducted between January 2007 and November 2008. In total, there were 8,548 adults in the heterosexual category and 280 adults in the homosexual category. An additional 404 people said they did not know what category they fit or declined to identify their sexual orientation. The range of sampling error associated with the total sample of adults is between ±0.2 and ±1.0 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The range of sampling error associated with the sub-sample of 280 homosexual adults is between ±2.5 and ±5.8 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
“Born again Christians” were defined as people who said they had made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that was still important in their life today and who also indicated they believed that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”
The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization that conducts primary research on a wide range of issues and products, produces resources pertaining to cultural change, leadership and spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org). Additional research-based resources, both free and at discounted prices, are also available through that website.
© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009
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