“Dear Friend, Militant homosexuals are plotting a dangerously different future for America!” began a 1984 letter from Jerry Falwell, cofounder of the Moral Majority.[i] Falwell, a minister at the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA, became a lynchpin of the religious Right’s “culture war” and helped cement the relationship between the Republican Party and conservative Evangelicals. In 1984, Falwell’s vitriolic messages reached an estimated two to four million voters, and often claimed he, and other white conservative Christians, were all that stood between “the future of our children and our country” and the “homosexual agenda.” Fallwell’s ideas were infused with white Christian nationalism, a political ideology that views America as a Christian nation and supports the erosion of the separation of church and state. By refusing to conform to white cisgender and heterosexist norms, Falwell said, LGBTQ people are “revolting” “perversions” whose arrogance represents an “attack on America.”[ii] “I know you don’t want to see the family values that you hold dear replaced by the anti-God…anti-American values of the homosexuals,” Falwell told his readers.[iii]

While some LGBTQ people have long distrusted discriminatory religious institutions, others have used faith to resist the demonization and antidemocratic predilections of white Christian nationalism. In faith, they find both spiritual affirmations of LGBTQ identity—that is, beliefs and spiritual practices that challenge exclusionary theology and reconcile LGBTQ and religious identities—and political opportunity, pillars of political mobilization among marginalized groups in the United States. Given the LGBTQ movement’s capacity to mobilize, it is no coincidence that contemporary anti-LGBTQ groups challenge LGBTQ affirmation not only in America’s churches, but also through health care, school curricula, and popular media.

As I show in my forthcoming book, religious affirmation, engaging in spiritual practices that affirm one’s LGBTQ identity, has a powerful effect on identity development and political activism among LGBTQ people. When combined with the political opportunities provided through religious participation, religious affirmation can help undercut the anti-LGBTQ narratives that sustain white Christian nationalism. It can also help mobilize a political and religious constituency that bears the banner of pluralism and democratic accountability—values which are the antithesis of white Christian nationalism.

False constructions of LGBTQ identity: Un-American and un-religious

Melding American patriotic and Christian themes, the weakening of the separation of church and state, and a willingness to construct and police a strict boundary around “true” American identity are key features of white Christian nationalism. Importantly, the white Christian nationalist construction of LGBTQ people as “un-American” relates to other oppressive ideologies—like anti-immigrant and antisemitic sentiments—that exclude minoritized groups from narratives of the American founding.

The anti-LGBTQ rhetoric of Falwell and contemporary adherents of white Christian nationalism also rests on the construction of LGBTQ people as “un-religious.” White Christian nationalists reinforce the notion that America is a “Christian nation” and that LGBTQ people cannot be Christian or even religious. The effect of these dual constructions has been a political boon for the anti-LGBTQ movement. Throughout American history, the coercive power of the state and the “moral authority” of many major religious institutions have been leveraged against LGBTQ people to establish both legal and social systems built on hetero- and cissexism—or the idea that LGBTQ people are not “normal.”

I found many examples of this dual construction in the records I reviewed at the Archives of Sexuality and Gender and the Craig Rodwell and Harold Picket Papers at the New York Public Library and the Judson Memorial Church Archive at New York University in spring 2023. Included in the Craig Rodwell papers, along with the Falwell letter introduced above, are three photographs Falwell’s son Jonathan reportedly took at San Francisco Pride that year. “Only three,” Falwell says, “in a sealed envelope to protect children from such sights.”[iv] One of these photos shows two men kissing. The other two photos feature a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a drag troupe founded the same year as the Moral Majority known for their charitable work and religious satire, and a pride marcher dressed to resemble Jesus. On the back of one photo, Falwell describes the costumed marcher as “a homosexual blasphemously pretending to be a gay Jesus Christ before thousands of ordinary citizens.”

The construction of LGBTQ people as un-religious rests on several assumptions I detail elsewhere. They include an understanding of LGBTQ identity as a choice—that is, not innate—and a strict adherence to a binary understanding of gender, including the notion that the cismale-led family is the ideal way to perpetuate white Christian society. The constructions of LGBTQ people as un-American and un-religious are central to the ascendency of the Christian Right and the contemporary reinvigoration of white Christian nationalism. Adherents of white Christian nationalism and the institutions of the Chrisitan Right  benefit from the exclusionary narrative that silences religious LGBTQ people. Namely, because white Christian nationalism is a political movement, perpetuating the false notion that LGBTQ people and other political opponents are not “true” Americans makes it easier to justify limitations on their rights. Furthermore, as the most recent manufactured “moral panic” over LGBTQ rights has taken hold in American politics, the political institutions of the Christian Right have experienced an influx of funding— with some increasing revenue by more than 25 percent between 2016 and 2020. But the visible mobilization of religious LGBTQ people undercuts white Christian nationalism’s exclusionary narrative.

Remaining faithful

In spring and winter 2022, I surveyed more than 1,100 LGBTQ people in the United States. I recruited the former sample with snowball sampling techniques and the latter using quota sampling in partnership with Qualtrics, Inc. I performed quantitative statistical analyses, including bivariate and regression estimations, of the primary survey data as well as analyses of secondary survey data including probability and non-probability samples of LGBTQ people collected by the Pew Research Center in 2013 and by the Cooperative Election Study between 2016 and 2019. When asked about their religious experiences before and after coming out, most LGBTQ people in my sample reported that they remain affiliated with a faith tradition after coming out. Similarly, most LGBTQ people in each of the other samples I analyzed identified with a faith tradition after coming out. In addition, most of the LGBTQ people I sampled did not change faiths after coming out. In short, while LGBTQ people are less likely to identify with a faith tradition than non-LGBTQ people, they are assuredly not “un-religious.”

Importantly for understanding how LGBTQ religious people challenge white Christian nationalism, I found that religious socializing experiences affect LGBTQ politics in several ways. In one sense, faith (i.e. the combination of beliefs and spiritual practices that help form our understanding of our place in the world) catalyzes activism. That is, interaction with a faith community can potentially augment political attitudes and behaviors.

While some of the LGBTQ people I surveyed reported never having been politically active prior to joining their current faith community, others reported that it was a negative experience with a faith tradition that led them to political activism. This group seemingly responded to the extremism perpetuated by those, like Falwell, who use religion as a sword to discriminate. This means that experiencing religiously fueled discrimination mobilized them to act politically to counter the effects of anti-LGBTQ discrimination. For many in this group, however, those underlying negative experiences with faith communities often resulted in their own religious disaffiliation.

Still, disaffiliation after coming out represents only about one-quarter of LGBTQ people in four datasets I have reviewed. Since the 1970s, formal religious affirmation of LGBTQ people has been on the rise. Dozens of major American denominations welcome LGBTQ people in some way, including welcoming LGBTQ people as members, ordaining LGBTQ clergy, blessing same-sex relationships, or celebrating LGBTQ people in liturgy. There are also dozens of LGBTQ religious organizations that offer support and advocacy both within and outside of the major denominations. Still other denominations were founded by LGBTQ people and minister primarily to LGBTQ congregants. As I explain in my book, through framing and political recruitment, LGBTQ people who participate in these faith communities gain both a positive understanding of their LGBTQ identity in the context of their faith tradition and gain skills and opportunities to act politically in response to anti-LGBTQ extremism.

Importantly, LGBTQ-affirming faith (i.e., inclusion and positive affirmation of LGBTQ identities within religious traditions) reinforces a non-stigmatized notion of LGBTQ identity. This both affects LGBTQ politics and has implications for American pluralism. As I describe below, welcoming faith traditions open opportunities for civic engagement to traditionally marginalized groups (i.e., souls to the polls or marching in Pride parades), help reinforce a commitment to democratic accountability and civic responsibility, and reflect the nation’s overall commitment to diversity and pluralism. By developing these spaces throughout the twentieth century, religious LGBTQ people have developed a framework that destabilizes the exclusionary tenets of white Christian nationalism in the United States.

Affirming faith and LGBTQ political activism

Affirming faith traditions are powerful social and political institutions that can disseminate identity affirmation and increase political participation. While one version of catalytic faith I describe above is associated with negative religious experiences, among some LGBTQ people, faith catalyzes political activism because it introduces them to an affirming cosmology that compels them to act out the social justice principles they believe.

Affirming faith traditions are powerful social and political institutions that can disseminate identity affirmation and increase political participation. While one version of catalytic faith I describe above is associated with negative religious experiences, among some LGBTQ people, faith catalyzes political activism because it introduces them to an affirming cosmology that compels them to act out the social justice principles they believe.

The relationship may not always be causal, however, as affiliation with an affirming religious denomination may precede coming out as LGBTQ. In such cases, then, faith may act more as a facilitator, providing opportunities to engage politically. Because affirming faith traditions offer more opportunities for LGBTQ people to participate, they also increase the likelihood that LGBTQ people will develop civic skills that help with political activism. This is especially true of first-time activists, I found.

Importantly, the political activism of religious LGBTQ people is often not myopic. That is, LGBTQ religious activism is largely intersectional in its understanding of American political and social inequality. Although an imperfect movement—for example, hierarchical religious organizations often replicate misogynist power dynamics and predominantly white LGBTQ religious congregations have been called out for excluding LGBTQ people of color—the stories of political activism from within LGBTQ religious spaces often tell of a movement to empower from the margin-to-center. From the 1950s to the 2000s, LGBTQ religious activists have confronted anti-Black racism, xenophobia and anti-immigrant panics, poverty and homelessness, medical and criminal injustice, and championed religious pluralism, among other activities.

Not all LGBTQ-affirming religious groups engage in these forms of activism, and affirmation is not the same across the board. Some religious traditions may allow LGBTQ people to be members, but not ordain them as clergy, for example. Still, the religious landscape of the United States is changing, and the demand for LGBTQ-affirming and social-justice-minded congregations is palpable. In 2014, the Public Religion Research Institute found 70 percent of millennials believe that religious groups are alienating young adults “by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues.” In addition, the study found nearly one-third of nonreligious millennials identified “negative teachings about, or treatment of, gay and lesbian people” as either somewhat or very important factors in their decision to disaffiliate.

LGBTQ religious activism has helped put pressure on America’s political and religious denominations to change and helped hold them accountable to the needs of marginalized people. Nevertheless, America’s religious and political institutions are approaching a crossroads where one path leads to multiracial, pluralistic democracy and another path leads to white Christian nationalist authoritarianism. Research shows the suppression of difference and the use of state coercion to police morality and American identity under the banner of white Christian nationalism are already happening.

The lessons from LGBTQ religious people are a template for undercutting the influence of this exclusionary ideology by embracing and amplifying not just a counternarrative but an accurate narrative of American pluralism. Faith communities that empower LGBTQ people to engage in politics, while not always successful at rewriting laws, have and will continue to educate religious leaders and laity alike, press for social acceptance across society, and work to stem the authoritarian tide.

[i] Jerry Falwell, untitled letter dated August 9, 1984 to “Friend,” Craig Rodwell Papers, Box 5, Folder 9, New York Public Library.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.