Is Affirming Christianity Still Relevant?

By now, anyone who doesn't live in a monastery knows Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson made anti-gay and racially insensitive remarks in an interview with GQ, and that the religious right has leapt to his defense. Much has been written about it, but my lessons learned are a bit different.

First, this is a disaster of our own making. His racist remarks were frequently ignored or left out in articles by progressive media, even though some bloggers noted the issue. This allowed the religious right to frame the issue as "Bullying gays vs. good, God-Fearing Christians." They succeeded beyond their wildest expectations as a result of this journalistic incompetence, so much so that conservative pundits like Neal Boortz wondered out loud on national radio why Jesse Jackson was getting involved in a gay rights issue.

However, media ineptitude wasn't the most shocking thing I observed.

It was that affirming Christianity as a cultural influencer is more or less dead.

The religious right has managed to completely own the relationship between Christians and gays, and that relationship is one of disgust and condemnation. Any message of acceptance has been lost, and the influence of affirming denominations has waned to irrelevance in the debate. It is taken as a given by decision makers (like the CEO at A&E Network), independents and young people that Phil's view is the Christian view.

While affirming churches are trying to get their message out, it is no longer being received by either the public or decision makers. Conservatives have made opposition to gays, in every form, the paragon of freedom of religion and speech. Republicans have managed to brand Christianity as homophobic as effectively as Coke has made red with a white swoosh synonymous with their product. As a result, liberal, affirming Christianity is no longer a voice in the culture wars, and is in sharper decline than any other religious group, according to Pew Research. Thus, when Christian organizations and individuals try to speak up to say "We're not all like that," the typical reaction they get reminds me of a quote from Harry Potter: "Yeah, well, yeh get weirdos in every breed."

In other words, don't make any judgments based on statistical outliers. And affirming Christians are seen as an outlier.

Nate Silver reminds us not to make any decisions based on a single data point though. Unfortunately, the data, both empirical and anecdotal, all points in the same direction. Affirming churches were smaller than those hostile to LGBT people to begin with, and are declining even faster churches where the most outspoken opposition has come from. This is in part due to the higher birth rates and insularity of conservative faiths. The top down leadership structure of some ensures that officials (and often members) do not stray too far from the party line on LGBT issues. In other cases (Evangelicals), the pressure from other members not to accept LGBT people is just as intense.

In short, hoping that organizations opposed to LGBT issues will change isn't going to happen for a long time.

However, the "graying" of progressive churches is a vicious cycle. With each passing day it becomes harder to get new people in the door. The question is, why would someone who is young and socially liberal want to embrace the label of Christian? Sarah Palin, Phil Robertson, and others have managed to successfully "brand" their faith as rural, homophobic, racist, ignorant, and intolerant of anyone who tries to contradict their interpretation of their faith. If you reject any of these, then you're not a real Christian.

Or at least not one whose opinion matters in the culture wars.

The growth of the "nones" is greatest in the Northeast corridor, and it comes at the expense of progressive churches, which have seen the worst declines in the same region. A few years ago, Ada Calhoun wrote at Salon how being a Christian in New York was a source of shame. Since then, matters have only gotten worse as the right wing ownership of Christianity has been so spectacularly successful.

This is not to say that there is no value in the affirming denominations. They are of great benefit to many people. For many they provide community, hope, and a chance to reconnect with beliefs that are important to them. They are undoubtedly of a net benefit to us. However, I cannot help but conclude that they have lost whatever ability they may have had to influence the narrative of how Christianity and the LGBT community intersect.

When I arrived at the conclusion that the battle had swept past affirming denominations as a factor in our cultural discourse, I reached out to a number of deeply religious LGBT individuals I knew, hoping somehow that one of them would tell me I was missing something, or looking at the issue from the wrong angle. That somehow affirming Christian denominations are relevant to the national fight for LGBT equality and acceptance.

They couldn't.

After I laid out what I was seeing, one of them wrote back to me, "I wish you were wrong."

I wish I was wrong, too.