It has become a familiar debate in the media, not least on BBC Radio Ulster. Last week, when filling in on the Stephen Nolan show, William Crawley moderated a conversation about civil partnerships for people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LBGT) community.
The guests were some of the usual suspects: Non-Subscribing Presbyterian minister Rev. Chris Hudson, who supports civil partnerships, and Traditional Unionist Voice’s David Vance, who does not.
One point that went unchallenged at the time by any caller was Vance’s claim that the liberalisation of the mainline churches in the United States had been the direct cause of their numerical decline relative to conservative, evangelical churches.
Vance argued that churches which supported gay marriage, civil partnerships, and/or any other seemingly liberal measures had paid for it by seeing people leaving them in their droves for churches that preached what Vance would consider the ‘true’ gospel.
The trouble is, sociological research doesn’t support this claim.
A comprehensive study by American sociologists Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout, published as a book, The Truth About Conservative Christians: What They Think and What They Believe (University of Chicago Press, 2006), draws on an extensive range of survey data to refute this ‘common sense’ argument. They write (p. 103-104):
The Conservatives, it is said, have a strong appeal for American Protestants because of their emphasis on traditional evangelical teachings. The Mainline clergy have sent their flocks elsewhere by some combination of liberal politics and ‘feel good’ religion. … the growth of the Conservative denominations represents a reaction against ‘excessive liberalism’ in which people raised in Mainline denominations register displeasure with the (supposed) liberal ethos of Mainline Protestantism by leaving to join denominations that emphasize the Conservative beliefs they share.
But Greeley and Hout are able to demonstrate that up to 70% of the growth of conservative churches (and the relative decline of the mainline churches) can be explained by higher birth rates among women in conservative denominations (p. 105).
That’s right: people aren’t switching their allegiance from the mainline to the conservative churches. Rather, the mainline Christians just aren’t having as many kids as the conservatives.
Sociologist Jim Wellman’s later study of churches in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, Evangelical vs. Liberal (Oxford University Press, 2008), lends further support to the demographic explanation.
Quite apart from pointing out that Vance’s claim just doesn’t hold up to sociological scrutiny, I think it’s important to interrogate the instrumentalist assumption behind what he said.
Vance seemed to be saying that churches should oppose civil partnerships because if they did not, they would see a direct drop in their membership.
So should churches be trying to please the most people so they don’t lose members, or should they rather be trying to do what is right?
Of course, Hudson and Vance disagree vehemently about what is right for churches to say and do around the issue of civil partnerships. It would be better if their ethical arguments were not clouded by false claims about religious demographics in the United States.