Recent data reveals disturbing trends
The last several decades have brought profound shifts in beliefs and practices about sexuality among Evangelical Protestants. These changes are abundantly evident in major national surveys. I have also experienced them on the “front lines” as an evangelical college professor teaching relevant topics in marriage and family classes since about 1987. When I began my academic career, traditional Christian teachings on sexuality were embraced by the majority of my evangelical students even if they often struggled, as I did, to live up to them. That no longer appears to be the case. In fact, these days, defending biblical sexual ethics in my Family class sometimes get me “pinged” as a “bigot” even by avowedly evangelical students.
This is surprising among people supposedly committed to the most conservative forms of Protestantism, who claim to base their doctrines and lifestyles upon the clear teachings of the Bible, and to live under the Lordship of Christ. After all, the simple biblical teaching that all sex outside of marriage between one man and one woman is sinful is hardly secret or subtle. Orthodox Christianity in all major branches has never seriously questioned this. And yet, among younger people especially, it has been quite a few years since biblical beliefs and practices have been the norm among evangelicals.
With regard to beliefs and practices pertaining to heterosexual sexual activity outside of marriage among religious youth, Mark Regnerus’s Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion In the Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: 2007), though a bit dated now, is a fine introduction to this admittedly distressing topic. Within the last few years, I have documented these grim realities among professing evangelicals across a broad range of ages. I have done this in material presented through the Institute for Family Studies (IFS), large portions of my book Christian Marriage: A Comprehensive Introduction (Lexham Press: 2019), research on epidemic levels of cohabitation outside of wedlock among evangelicals published in the April 2021 issue of Christianity Today and in the IFS. And my soon-to-be released After the Revolution: Sex and the Single Evangelical (Lexham Press: 2022), delves into this topic in great detail. In it, I deal with a range of sexual practices and beliefs among evangelicals, comparing them to other religious groups and to those of no religious affiliation, using hard facts, comprehensive explanations, and church-based solutions grounded in Scripture and social science.
However, other than some statistical material in an article mainly focused on Roman Catholics I did for Crisis Magazine in May 2021, I have not tackled the issue of homosexual beliefs and practices among evangelicals in any depth. My reasoning for focusing far more on heterosexual sins among evangelicals is simple: it is a much bigger problem in the church. Moreover, churches, parents and young people that think that heterosexual sex outside of marriage is acceptable, or at least turn a blind eye to it, are not in any position to uphold biblical teachings on homosexuality. To accept the one while rejecting the other is hypocrisy that should and will be tossed back into our faces. When we cave on the one, we quickly retreat from orthodoxy on the other. We must deal with first things first. But now, here, I would like to look at beliefs about same-sex sexual relations, as well as practice and sexual orientation, among professing evangelicals.1
Here, I have categorized religious groups using a standard approach called RELTRAD. This uses denominational affiliation, separating those in evangelical Protestant denominations from those who are “Mainline” or in historically Black, Protestant churches. No approach is perfect, including RELTRAD. There are certainly unsaved, uncommitted people tied to evangelical denominations, and there are some fine Bible-believing, born-again Christians affiliated with mainline churches. But it is an adequate description for those people being served by evangelical pastors and leaders, magazines, universities, charitable institutions, and so on. 2
My modest goal in this article is to provide an adequate description. An article that details the plethora of causal forces, explores the thinking of those who claim to be both faithful followers of Christ and morally accepting of homosexuality, and sets forth some possible solutions, is beyond what I can do here. However, let me note that I do tackle those issues in After the Revolution: Sex and the Single Evangelical, and in the main, most of the forces, thought patterns, and solutions I address there seem to hold in confronting error in belief, confusion, and sinful practices in the area of homosexuality as well.
Let’s see what we can learn from these highly respected national surveys.
Beliefs About Same-Sex Sexual Relationships
That homosexual sexual activity could be viewed as morally acceptable by a significant portion of evangelicals, much less an emerging majority of them, is nothing short of astounding. Personal justifications for this position are thin if not ludicrous, but I do not have space to address them here.3 Suffice it to say that I am not surprised to find people in denominations that have long ago jettisoned a high view of Scripture finding ways to approve of homosexual practice. However, part of the very definition of “Evangelical Protestant” is the belief in the Bible’s ultimate authority in matters of doctrine and action—Sola Scriptura.
Nevertheless, the GSS documents a startling movement towards increasing moral acceptance of homosexual sex among evangelicals. Figures 1a and 1b below show the percentages agreeing that “sexual relations between two adults of the same sex” are “always wrong,” versus “not wrong at all,” among respondents from different religious groups.4
Although evangelicals are generally less accepting of homosexuality than other groups (with the exception of Black Protestants), the percentages affirming that homosexuality is “always wrong” have clearly declined, while those saying it is “not wrong at all” have increased dramatically. Moreover, this includes all ages from 18 through the very old. The picture changes a lot when we compare age groups. As Figure 2 shows, younger evangelicals are much more liberal. In fact, recently most of those 18 to 29 did not think homosexual relations were “always wrong,” and 4 in 10 said they were “not wrong at all.”
On the other hand, we must consider degrees of religious commitment. One major element of this is attendance at weekly worship. As Figure 3 shows, in the GSS, differences in moral beliefs about homosexual activity among evangelicals differs dramatically by church attendance. Even so, among those who attend weekly or more, over 10 percent said this activity was “not wrong at all.” Among even those who do so one to three times per month, only about half said it was “always wrong.” It is distressing how bad things are even among those who are pretty regular in their attendance habits.
The NSFG enables us to focus on younger evangelicals in more detail. It also lets us explore not only the role of church attendance, but another key measure of religious commitment—how important religion is in their daily lives. The NSFG measures moral attitude toward homosexual activity a bit differently. It asks for degree of agreement or disagreement with the statement, “Sexual relations between two adults of the same sex are all right.” Figure 4 looks at the percentages of evangelicals who disagreed or strongly disagreed with that statement, ages 15 to 44 combined, over time. These are the respondents taking a more biblical view. It starts with the cycle conducted from 2006 into 2010.5 Notice that by the last cycle—2017 through 2019—less than half of the females, and only 54 percent of the males, disagreed with this claim. Except for tiny numbers who neither agreed nor disagreed, the rest almost all agreed with it.
Comparing age groups among males does not show consistent, large variations among them, except that those 18 to 22, and especially those 23 to 27, are more liberal than the others. However, among females, the age differences are enormous. Among evangelical women 15 to 22, and to a lesser extent 23 to 27, homosexual activity is accepted by huge majorities. Those 43 and older are much more conservative than those 42 and under. This is clear in Figure 5, which covers the last survey cycle (2017–19).6
Regardless, as we can see by this figure, as well as Figure 4, female evangelicals are more liberal than male evangelicals on this issue and have changed much more over time. In fact, in the 2006 to 2010 cycle, among evangelicals ages 15 to 17, 78 percent of males and 79 percent of females—virtually the same amount—disagreed that homosexuality is all right. Now those percentages are 55 and 30 percent, respectively. As an evangelical college professor who must address these issues in the classroom, I am witnessing this shift firsthand—both the overall liberalization, and the higher levels of female acceptance of homosexuality.
Here again however, we find that religious commitment makes a huge difference. Using even more simplified categories, I compared disagreement that homosexual activity is all right among those who attend church more or less frequently (Figure 6). I also looked at those who answered “very” versus “somewhat” important to this question: “Currently, how important is religion in your daily life?”7 (Figure 7) The results speak for themselves.8
The NSFG has measured homosexual activities of different kinds only since the 2011 to 2013 cycle, which only gives us less than ten years of reviewable data.
Figure 8 shows the overall percentages that have ever engaged in consensual sexual relations with someone of the same sex across these years for evangelical males and females ages 15 to 44. These overall percentages do not show consistent rising or falling during this short time period. However, they certainly show that females are a lot more likely than males to have ever engaged in sex with someone of the same sex.
Note that asking respondents to self-report homosexual activity—even anonymously—leads to under-reporting. Some who have done this will refuse to admit it. Thus, we can reasonably estimate that at least one in five evangelical females between 15 and 44 have now had sexual relations with another woman at least once. How many evangelical churches acknowledge and respond to this in their approaches to ministry?
A more disturbing picture emerges when we look at males and females across different age groups, and it does not bode well for the future among younger evangelicals. The picture for the 2017–19 survey cycle, shown in Figure 9, is startling. Eleven percent of evangelical girls ages 15 to 17 have already at least experimented with lesbian sex. One in five have done so by ages 23 to 32, and close to that number among those ages 43 to 49. Among males, at least among those 42 or younger, the cohorts from 18 to 32 show a dramatically higher percentage. (We can assume that younger teenage boys are still reluctant to engage in this behavior.) Are professing evangelical churches even beginning to come to grips with this?
As Figures 10 and 11 show, different levels of religious commitment matter, especially among women. For the latter, differences by church attendance are very powerful, especially comparing those who attend church less than monthly or never versus those who more frequently attend. Still, that one in ten weekly church-going females have had lesbian sex at least once is concerning.
Admittedly, when we get into numbers as small as these percentages sometimes represent, results must be interpreted with caution.9 However, Figure 12 suggests a few tentative trends inside all the “noise” of survey-by-survey fluctuations. Although the percentages are very small, homosexual orientation increased among male evangelicals ages 15 to 44 during this time period. Meanwhile, among females, after a lot of decline following the 2011–13 survey, bisexual orientation jumped up significantly in the latest cycle, to almost 5 percent.10
The age breakdowns for 2017–19, as shown in Figures 13a and 13b, are concerning. Among males, fully 8.1 percent of those 15 to 17, and 7.7 percent of those 18 to 22, describe themselves as either homosexual or bisexual. Among females, those percentages are 11.1 and 7.3, with 11.1 percent for those 23 to 27.
But what is especially striking about females is the gravitation toward a “bisexual” identity among those 15 to 17 and 23 to 27. The fact that 10.5 percent of evangelical female teens ages 15 to 17 think of themselves as “bi” is startling. My task here is more to describe than to explain, but this movement towards bisexualism among young evangelical women, consistent with the high percentages that have engaged in same-sex sexual activity at some point, needs to be studied in much greater depth. Why are so many younger evangelical females today open to sex with other women? Why do so many of them believe it is natural for them to feel that way?
There is a bit of relevant corollary information in the NSFG. I did not wish to analyze it in as much detail, but it does add additional information to what we are seeing about females.
When asked if they are attracted only to males or females, among evangelicals 15 to 44 years of age from 2011 to 2019, between 94 and 96 percent of males answered, “only females.” But only between 87 to 89 percent of women answered, “only males.” Meanwhile, women answering “mostly” males ran from about 7 to 10 percent. While there were not huge swings over time—and few females were attracted equally, mostly or solely to other women— more than 10 percent of female evangelicals view themselves as at least somewhat capable of being sexually attracted to other women.
Moving along, and finally, we see that once again, higher religious commitment is associated with lower likelihood of identifying as a homosexual or bisexual. The largest issues are among those most detached from the life of the church and the desire to apply their faith to daily life. This is clear in Figures 14 and 15.
The facts we have examined here demonstrate some distressing realities that Christians need to pay attention to. There are bigger problems in both belief and practice than most pastors and other church leaders seem to be aware of. It would also surprise many believers just how much more liberal homosexual beliefs and practices are for evangelical women compared to men, though obviously both sexes are displaying concerning levels of liberal beliefs about this issue, and far too many are dipping into at least some same-sex activity. The shifts in sexual orientation among younger believers are worrying, especially the high levels of bisexual identity among younger females. This data ought to be a call to action.
The good news is that those who attend church more faithfully and who believe it is important to live their Christian faith “24/7” are clearly doing better. That makes sense. People that are not committed to their faith will not do as well. For example, connection to all that Christ gives us through his body, the church, is vital to Christian health (Heb. 10:25). After all, it is among God’s people that we “stir up one another to love and good works” (v. 24).
The first order of business for church leaders wishing to help believers be sexually faithful is simply to encourage them to be highly committed to their churches and faith—regular in weekly attendance and more consistent in applying their faith and carrying on their spiritual disciplines. Assuming the church is faithful in teaching orthodox doctrine, including on biblical sexuality, it will then be in a better position to instruct, encourage, admonish, and otherwise help more of those who claim to be part of evangelical denominations.
Sadly, as of the 2017–19 NSFG for those 15 to 49, among evangelicals, only 37 percent of males attend church weekly or more, and just six in ten say that their religion was very important in their daily life. Among females, those percentages are 46 and 67 percent, respectively. Looked at together, at least for those under 50, it is hard to say that American evangelicals are generally and strongly characterized by the kind of faith commitment that is necessary to healthy Christian belief and living.
Beyond that, but only with those minimums in place, there is much we can do to see that believers are grounded in biblical teaching on sex as they face contrary messages and confusion, not just out there “in the world,” but in too many churches and other ostensibly evangelical Christian settings. Overall, our sexual teaching and practice must be embedded within a rich tapestry of sound theology, not treated as a separate area. However, there is a desperate need to equip believers, young and old, with sound, focused biblical teaching on homosexuality, directed at the various lies and justifications that too many are currently assaulting God’s people with.
I realize that statistics such as I have presented here can be both depressing and alarming. That is not a bad way to react if it does not lead to hopelessness. God shows us these things using various means so that—with prayer, study, practice, effort, and experience—we can do better. For God’s honor and the sake of his people, let us do just that.
*Image Credit: Pexels
- In this article, I use the General Social Survey (GSS) but especially the much larger and more focused National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG). All of the information about homosexual practice, as well as a much of the information on the beliefs about the morality of homosexual activity, is derived from the NSFG. The NSFG has historically included only ages 15 to 44, although more recently their age limit was raised to 49. It enables us to focus more on younger adults and teenagers. The NSFG also surveys males and females separately. The large size of the NSFG gives us healthy samples, even when pulling out major religious subgroups. For example, its most recent release, conducted from 2017 into 2019, included 6,141 females and 5,206 men. This yielded 1,867 Evangelical Protestants: 1,050 females and 817 males. The GSS surveys the entire adult population ages 18 and up and has a much smaller sample size. In 2018, for example, there were 2,179 respondents, with 533 evangelicals. ↩
- I discuss “RELTRAD” in greater detail in After the Revolution, pages 75–77. ↩
- For responses to various arguments, let me recommend excellent, accessible treatments such as Kevin DeYoung’s What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality? (Crossway: 2015) or Edward Welch’s booklet, Homosexuality: Speaking the Truth in Love (P&R Publishing: 2000). Also, Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Abingdon Press, 2002) is a priceless source. ↩
- GSS has not been done every year. Each bar represents two consecutive surveys (not always done in consecutive years) combined to increase the sample sizes. For example, 1977 and 1980, and 2016 and 2018. Also, because the methods used to conduct the GSS at the height of the COVID pandemic were dramatically different, results for the last one, which included late 2020 and early 2021, are not included. They cannot be safely compared with previous years. ↩
- This is the first NSFG survey that had all the necessary measurements to do this analysis. It is not possible to look at homosexual practice and belief among evangelicals using RELTRAD before the 2006–10 cycle. ↩
- Notice that age groups are expanded to 49 when just looking at the 2017–19 cycle. Since early cycles only went to age 44, this is not possible doing the trends over time. ↩
- Very few evangelicals select “not important,” the only other option. So, I only look at the other two. ↩
- Here and elsewhere in this article, I do not use sophisticated statistics to analyze the independent roles of church attendance and the importance of religion in daily life. That would not be appropriate for this type of article. Moreover, these two commitments are powerfully mutually reinforcing. Regular church attenders are much more likely to see their religion as important in their daily lives and vice versa. For example, in the 2017–19 NSFG, among female evangelicals who attended church weekly or more, 92 percent said that religion was very important in their daily lives, compared to only 65 percent who attended church 1 to 3 times per month, and 36 percent of those who attended church less than that. Among males, those figures were 91, 60 and 30 percent, respectively. These two types of commitment are logically intertwined, but not the same thing. They should both be encouraged, and Scripture requires we do so. ↩
- Those who refused to answer this item or were listed as “not ascertained” by NSFG data collectors were excluded from the analysis. “Don’t know” respondents were included. Also, in the last two cycles of the NSFG, half of each sample was given “something else” as a sexual orientation option, in addition to these others. Especially since it wasn’t used in the entire samples, there were very few “something else” responses. Among evangelicals, in the 2017–19 cycle, 19 women and 4 men; in the 2015–17 cycle, 13 women and 6 men. Respondents who were not “homosexuals” or “bisexuals” were either “heterosexual” (almost always) or (much less frequently) “don’t know” or “something else.” This complicates timeline comparison, though the general picture with regard to homosexuality and bisexuality is generally accurate despite this inconsistency in measurement. ↩
- And among females, “bisexual” plus “don’t know” and “something else” equals 6 percent in 2017–19. ↩