This forum took place at an interesting moment, given evidence that suggests changes in American views on both Christianity and sexuality. A 2009 survey found that while a majority of Americans identified themselves as Christians, that percentage had declined 11 percent since 1990. Christianity faces competition not only from Judaism and Islam, the two other branches that emerged from the Abrahamic religious root, but also from Hinduism and Buddhism — as well as atheism.
One in five Americans surveyed said that they have no religious identity, and one in four said that they did not expect to have a religious funeral. The data confirm what most people have come to understand anecdotally: The country is becoming more diverse religiously, and Americans are becoming more comfortable with this pluralism. Many people who grew up in a particular faith have either eschewed formal religion altogether or embraced an à la carte syncretism, where melding multiple faiths and/or philosophies is covered under the nondescript banner of “spirituality.”
Many traditional Protestant African-American churches have taken the fire-and-brimstone approach to preaching about sexuality and the LGBT community. Interestingly enough, this tactic rarely gets deployed for many of the other “thou shalt not”s that are enshrined in the Bible. In truth, many Christians have cloaked their personal revulsion to homosexuality in a thin veneer of religiosity.
While it may reinforce some people’s sense of self-righteousness, shrouding hatred in Scripture makes for bad doctrine and even worse evangelism. Jesus built his ministry by spreading the gospel to people who were scorned by society. In addition to healing lepers and restoring sight to the blind, Jesus was criticized by the contemporary religious rulers for associating too closely with individuals they deemed unworthy.
Although the image of a preacher declaring eternal damnation resonates with many members of the LBGT community, not all churches have taken this position. A recent New York Times article cited U.S. Census Bureau data indicating that child rearing among same-sex couples is more common in the South than in any other part of the country, and found eight churches in Jacksonville, Fla., that openly welcome gay worshippers. It remains to be seen, however, to what extent the recent forum and the demographic trends in historically conservative regions foreshadow a broader shift in black churches’ attitudes toward gays and lesbians.