New Research Suggests Christians See LGBT Progress as Threatening

By Clara L. Wilkins and Lerone A. Martin | August 17, 2021

Dozens of gay Catholics hold an evening Mass at the St Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. in 2013. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

It is the dawn of a new era for sexual and gender minorities in the United States. The Senate and presidential transitions at the beginning of 2021 brought about increased political representation and power for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals. President Biden reversed former President Trump’s ban on transgender people from serving in the military and signed an executive order reaffirming protections for LGBT federal employees. Biden also made two historic appointments. Pete Buttigieg became the first openly gay secretary in the president’s Cabinet, while Rachel Levine became the first openly transgender federal official. And in the president’s home state of Delaware, Sarah McBride made history as the first openly transgender state senator in the U.S. history. Furthermore, the State Department recently announced intentions to include a gender marker on passports for non-binary, intersex, and gender non-conforming people. In other words, this year has continued to shepherd significant social and political advancements for LGBT people.

How might conservative Christians respond to changes like these and the growing acceptance of LGBT Americans? New research that we conducted and recently published in the Journal for Personality and Social Psychology, the top empirical social psychology journal, suggests that many Christians (particularly conservative ones) feel that Christians are hurt by gains for LGBT people. Even though Christians and sexual minorities are overlapping groups (the majority of LGBT individuals identify as Christian), many Christians fail to recognize this reality. Instead, they perceive a zero-sum relationship with LGBT people: believing that social advances for sexual and gender minorities are harmful and threatening to Christians. We call these perceptions zero-sum beliefs, or ZSBs.

We conceptualize ZSBs as a sense of perceived conflict between these groups. Across five studies, conducted between July 2016 and December 2019, our research explored the extent to which Christians in the U.S. endorse ZSBs about their relationships with LGBT individuals. That is, we studied the extent to which Christians perceive gains for LGBT individuals as hurting Christians. We were interested in assessing the causes and the consequences of such zero-sum beliefs. Our research provides insight into how we might reduce ZSBs and allow future gains made by LGBT people to be viewed as non-threatening by Christian groups.

Several conservative Christian politicians have suggested that gains for sexual and gender minorities do come at a cost for Christians. For example, as a senator, Jeff Sessions described the Supreme Court’s ruling that legalized same-sex marriage as an “effort to secularize” the country “by force and intimidation.” All true Christians and their faith, he implied, were harmed by the decision. Virginia House Delegate Todd Gilbert was even more frank. “The activists who pursue same-sex marriage …” he said, “are not satisfied with equality and they will not be satisfied until people of faith are driven out of this discourse, are made to cower, are made to be in fear of speaking their minds, of living up to their deeply held religious beliefs.” In our research, we sought to understand whether that sentiment is widely shared by other Christians and why, and if religious beliefs could be harnessed to alleviate such fears.

We conducted our research with support from a grant 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. For four of five of our studies, we surveyed approximately 2,000 self-identified, heterosexual, cisgender, and predominantly White Christian Americans through CloudResearch Prime Panels—a database that includes tens of millions of participants from all over the world.

In the first study, Christians who identified as heterosexual and cisgender reported what they perceived to be the amount of discrimination that Christians and LGBT groups faced in each decade between 1950 and 2020. Consistent with a zero-sum framework, on average the Christians in our sample reported that they perceived that bias against LGBT people has significantly decreased over time and that discrimination against Christians has correspondingly increased. Strikingly, Christians reported that bias against Christians is as severe as bias against LGBT people in the current decade. Christians also endorsed explicit statements pitting the groups against each other (e.g. “As LGBT individuals face less discrimination, Christians end up facing more discrimination”) to a greater extent than other groups surveyed (i.e. heterosexual cisgender non-Christians and LGBT participants).

Our research provides evidence that such ZSBs are driven by concerns about a changing cultural climate. Christians in our study who were randomly assigned to read about a decreasing Christian population in the United States (relative to those who read a control article about geographic mobility) reported greater concern about threats to their religious values. These Christians also perceived that LGBT individuals have made more social progress, they perceived greater anti-Christian bias, and they reported greater conflict between Christians and LGBT individuals. In other words, considering a society in which Christians are less dominant was sufficient to increase perceptions of Christians’ victimization and Christians’ perceived conflict with LGBT individuals.

This pattern was particular apparent among White conservative Christians surveyed. Although White Christians have historically wielded significant cultural and social influence in the U.S., their population and relative social impact is declining as Americans increasingly identify as non-religious. White Christians worry about their group’s place in an increasingly secular society. Those concerns likely translate into perceived group victimization as well as concerns about an outsized political and social influence of other groups, including LGBT people.

Religious understandings are often developed in community, with a pastor, congregation, or the broader Church. In another study, we were interested in examining the role of the Church in developing sexual prejudice and beliefs that might engender ZSBs. We were able to examine the role of Church authorities in shaping attitudes by utilizing a naturalistic experiment provided by the February 2019 United Methodist Church (UMC) vote on language regarding human sexuality. Specifically, UMC delegates from all over the world gathered and voted to tighten restrictions on LGBT people’s participation in the Church; they ultimately voted not to allow the ordination of LGBT clergy or the blessing of same-sex unions. We collected data in a sample of 321 United Methodists recruited at churches in St Louis County and at the UMC General Conference. United Methodist participants reported their ZSBs and sexual prejudice before and after the vote to restrict LGBT participation in the Church. Before the vote, ZSBs were positively related to sexual prejudice, and that relationship became even stronger after the vote. This suggests the vote likely sanctioned sexual prejudice and gave these Christians the freedom to express their bias more openly.

Importantly, our research also identified why it is critical to understand the origin and consequences of zero-sum beliefs because these ideas predicted social biases against sexual and gender minorities, including greater prejudice against LGBT individuals and lower support for same-sex marriage. For example, Christians who scored higher on zero-sum beliefs were more inclined to endorse statements like “male homosexuality is a perversion.”

Disagreement is normal in a democracy but barring equal treatment under the law should never be normalized. Therefore, it was critical that we found a method to reduce these zero-sum beliefs for the sake of equality and democratic flourishing. We were able to identify a promising path by understanding some of the causes of ZSBs. We found that if participants reflected on their religious values, the measure of their ZSBs increased. Specifically, Christian participants who were randomly assigned to reflect on their religious values reported higher zero-sum belief endorsement than those who reflected on non-religious topics. In other words, beliefs about the conflict between Christians and LGBT individuals stem, in part, from Christians’ interpretations of their religious beliefs. Thus, we wondered whether we could harness religious values to reduce ZSB endorsement.

Because the Bible is widely accepted as the definitive religious text for Christians, we questioned whether we could utilize passages from the Bible to reduce group conflict between Christians and LGBT individuals. In other words, we tested whether we could suggest that acceptance is consistent with core Christian teachings. In an experiment, we randomly assigned Christians to reflect on a biblical passage related to acceptance (John 8: 3-11, in which Jesus fails to condemn an adulteress), or a control passage (an excerpt from a poem by Kahlil Gibran). We hypothesized that reading about biblical acceptance might decrease Christians’ prejudice against LGBT people by modeling acceptance.

In the same experiment we also examined subgroup differences among Christians. Specifically, we examined how identification as fundamentalist would shape reactions. Fundamentalism is a broad designation based on how Christians interpret the Bible. Fundamentalist Christians believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of God, the ultimate authority in Christian life and practice. In contrast, mainline Christians endorse a more modern, historical critical method of Biblical understanding, believing that interpretations of scriptures should evolve with cultural understandings.

Given these differences, we rightly predicted that fundamentalists would be more threatened by the perception of a changing cultural climate than mainline Christians. Furthermore, given fundamentalists’ perception of absolute biblical truth, we also thought they might be less receptive than other Christians to an intervention aimed at changing attitudes. Our data also supported this prediction. Overall, fundamentalist Christians endorsed ZSBs to a greater extent than other Christians, but they were less receptive to the intervention to reduce ZSBs.

Notably, the intervention was effective for mainline Christians; those who read a biblical passage highlighting acceptance reported significantly lower ZSBs than those Christians in the control condition. Mainline Christians who read about biblical acceptance also reported greater support for same-sex marriage and lower sexual prejudice (relative to the control condition). Thus, highlighting the consistency between religious teachings and acceptance of LGBT was sufficient to causally reduce negative ZSB outcomes for mainline (but not fundamentalist) Christians.

Despite recent social advancements, LGBT groups remain marginalized. In the U.S., LGBT individuals accounted for approximately 19 percent of hate-crime victims, according to the most recently available FBI hate crime statistics, and despite making up less than 5 percent of the population. And, in spite of Christians’ perceptions of increasing bias against their group, attitudes toward Christians (even conservative ones) have remained remarkably stable and positive over time. In contrast to these more objective indicators, our research revealed that Christians are inclined to perceive a zero-sum relationship with LGBT individuals, and that those beliefs are associated with negative attitudes, bias, and harm toward LGBT groups. Such backlash continues. The Human Rights Campaign predicted that this will be the worst year for anti-LGBT legislation. Our research suggests that the more than 250 anti-LGBT bills introduced in state legislatures this year might be in response to recent social and political progress.

This zero-sum belief backlash, however, is not inevitable. Recognizing the ways in which Christian teachings are consistent with acceptance can mitigate negative outcomes. We hope that Christians, both lay and clergy, as well as the broader public, will learn about our research and consider the ways in which religious values can be harnessed for acceptance and equal treatment under the law, regardless of sexual or gender orientation.

Clara L. Wilkins is Associate Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

Lerone A. Martin is Associate Professor of Religion and Politics and Director of American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

© 2011 Religion & Politics