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Cultural backlash as LGBTQIA progress seen as an attack on Christianity

Conservative Christians are more likely to believe that Christianity is a defining feature of their identity. As a result, they see themselves as being at odds with LGBTQ individuals, who are perceived as having increasing social influence.

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Is Christianity under attack? It depends on whom you ask. Some church leaders and politicians claim recent LGBTQIA progress — such as the 2015 US Supreme Court ruling guaranteeing same-sex couples the right to marry — is an attack on Christianity.

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis sought to understand whether that sentiment is widely shared by other Christians. Their findings from five separate studies conducted over 3½ years shed light on the root causes and consequences of such “zero-sum beliefs” — a belief that social gains for one group necessarily involves losses for the other — about Christianity and the LGBTQIA community, and offer possible interventions to reduce such all-or-nothing beliefs.

The findings are published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a social psychology journal. They show that zero-sum beliefs (ZSBs) are most common among conservative Christians and are shaped by their understandings of Christian values and the Bible and in response to religious institutions.

“Many Christians have come to see themselves as being on the losing side of the culture wars,” said Clara L. Wilkins, principal investigator and associate professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences. “Christians may perceive that a (place) where same sex marriage is legal is one in which they have lost their sway and are now victimized.

“This is especially common among conservative Christians, who also are more likely to believe that Christianity is a defining feature (of their identity). As a result, they see themselves as being at odds with LGBTQIA individuals, who are perceived as having increasing social influence.”

Wilkins and Lerone A. Martin, co-principal investigator and director of American culture studies at Washington University, conducted five studies between July 2016 and December 2019 to explore the extent to which Christians endorse ZSBs about their relationships with LGBTQIA individuals. For four of the five studies, they surveyed approximately 2,000 self-identified, heterosexual, cisgender and predominately white Christians in the US.

The February 2019 United Methodist Church (UMC) vote on language regarding human sexuality provided an opportunity for Wilkins and Martin to examine the role of church authorities in shaping attitudes. For this naturalistic experiment, they collected data in a sample of 321 United Methodists recruited at churches in St. Louis County and at the UMC General Conference.

The research was funded by the Templeton Religion Trust and as part of the Self, Virtue, and Public Life Project, a three-year research initiative based at the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing at the University of Oklahoma. 

Key findings from the studies include:

  • Conservative Christians reported that bias against Christians is currently as severe as bias against LGBTQ people. Christians and LGBTQIA individuals agreed that bias toward LGBTQIA people has decreased in recent years. However, the significance of this reality differed. Christians saw the decrease of LGBTQIA bias as corresponding to more bias against Christians, while LGBTQIA did not see that increase. In a separate study, Christians — when reflecting on religious values — reported an increased level of perceived conflict with LGBTQIA people. This suggests ZSBs are a function of Christian religion and values.
  • ZSBs are driven by symbolic threats, not realistic threats. White Christians are concerned recent social changes threaten their social influence, namely their ability to instill and enforce their notions of Christian values upon broader society — not realistic threats, such as loss of livelihood. Simply reminding white Christians about a changing cultural climate in which their influence is waning was sufficient to increase their perception of Christians’ victimization and perceived conflict with LGBTQIA people.
  • Social institutions play an important role in shaping prejudice. The final study demonstrated that when the United Methodist Church voted to uphold same-sex marriage bans, the relationship between ZSBs and prejudice became stronger, which suggests that UMC Christians may have felt sanctioned to express their bias because of the institutional decision.

    “The church is a strong moral authority with the potential to shape norms and attitudes toward sexual minorities like court rulings have shifted attitudes on same sex marriage,” the authors wrote.
  • Faith communities, clergy and elected officials can harness religious values not for discrimination, but for public virtue and acceptance. In the fourth study, participants either read a Bible passage about acceptance or an excerpt from a poem by Kahlil Gibran. Fundamentalists Christians — those who believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of God — did not vary in ZSB endorsement based on condition. However, mainline Christians who reflected on Bible passages encouraging acceptance were significantly less likely to endorse ZSBs. They also reported greater support for same-sex marriage and lower sexual prejudice relative to the control condition.

    “We found this take-away very interesting in light of how religion, evangelicalism in particular, is often associated with strict definitions of civic belonging. Our research found that biblical faith can also lead to broad civic acceptance,” said Martin, who also is an associate professor in the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. 

Research also offers glimmer of hope

While the research may seem disheartening at first glance, Wilkins and Martin insist it contains a hopeful message.

“In particular, our data suggests that perceived conflict between groups is not inevitable,” they said. “In fact, we were able to successfully lower the extent to which mainline Christians perceive that LGBTQIA gains come at a cost for Christians by having them reflect on biblical acceptance. According to recent analyses, mainline Christians now outnumber more conservative groups.

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“In other words, we identified an intervention to successfully lower ZSBs for most Christians.”


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