Why is it that many people who support sexual minorities seem not to like Christians?

The answer is obvious, right? Christians, particularly conservative Christians, have been at the forefront of opposing advancement of the rights of sexual minorities. Those who seek to improve the legal and cultural status of sexual minorities can easily see Christians as enemies. I have no doubt that this is the most common reason why we see a correlation of affinity for sexual minorities and antipathy towards Christians.

But that does not mean that it is the only reason for this relationship. We generally assume that the growth of support for sexual minorities comes from more interpersonal contact with them, a belief in the innate nature of sexual orientation and sexual identity, and a philosophical expansion in our notion of civil rights. But there may be another explanation. What if growing animosity toward Christians actually causes support for sexual minorities? Support for sexual minorities can be a symbolic way for individuals to express their rejection of Christians, especially conservative Christians.

The idea of symbolic antipathy is not new. Some have argued that much contemporary racial animosity is expressed symbolically. Since there is stigma in being seen as a racist, individuals want to avoid that label. So, even if a person actually is racist, it’s unlikely that he or she will express a direct hatred for, say, Hispanic-Americans. But on certain issues (such as immigration) where there are both racial and non-racial justifications to explain one’s position, that person can express that racial animosity through their political convictions. A person could oppose undocumented immigration due to fears about job security or safety from foreign countries. Or one could oppose undocumented immigration due to racism. No one but that person may ever know which is true.

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Likewise, the type of individuals who tend to feel hostility against Christians (white, highly educated progressives) prefer to think of themselves as tolerant. In fact, being tolerant is often a vital part of their social identities. Thus, they do not want to face the fact that they may be motivated by religious bigotry. They are unlikely to admit support for rules that seem to target Christians for mistreatment. But, since it is well-known that traditional Christian theology opposes the goals of sexual minority groups, their animosity towards conservative Christians may be expressed by claiming to promote the rights of sexual minorities.

Of course, this is all just speculation, unless there is some data to back it up. I have found such data.

The Data

In my recent article in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, I used a national survey that asked respondents to rank, on a scale of 0 to 100, how much they like nineteen different social groups. Those groups included gay people, transgender people, Christian fundamentalists, Christians in general, Muslims, and Jews. I calculated whether a respondent’s score was either a standard deviation above or a standard deviation below the average ratings for all nineteen groups. I then used regression analysis to see the relationship of these attitudes on a variety of different measures of questions about the rights of sexual minorities.

Again, it is commonly accepted that people who are already sympathetic to the plight of sexual minorities develop hostility towards conservative Christians precisely because those Christians do not support sexual minorities. My results supported this explanation. I found that the most powerful and consistent predictor of support of the rights of sexual minorities is whether someone has positive feelings towards them. But even when I controlled for the rankings of sexual minorities, and for other independent variables, the respondents’ attitude towards fundamentalist Christians was still a significant predictor for support for the rights of sexual minorities.

Negative attitudes towards conservative Christians were directly related to the support of the rights of sexual minorities. This tells me that sympathy towards sexual minorities isn’t the only thing that makes people express support for them. Hostility towards conservative Christians also matters—and it matters even when I control for how much the respondents reported liking sexual minorities.

To illustrate this, I created a sample of individuals who gave sexual minorities a lower ranking than they gave to other groups. So, we have a group that is not especially sympathetic to sexual minorities. In that group, I separated those who ranked fundamentalist Christians lower than the average ranking of all groups (let’s call them anti-fundamentalists) from those who did not. Among the anti-fundamentalists who were not sympathetic to gays, 53.9 percent supported same-sex marriage. Among those who were not hostile towards fundamentalists but were also not sympathetic to gays, only 30.2 percent supported same-sex marriage.

This difference was also reflected when I looked at other measures of the rights of sexual minorities. I again looked at those who were not sympathetic to sexual minorities. The group included both people who showed animosity to Christians and those who did not. When this group was asked whether businesses should have to serve same-sex weddings, only 47.1 percent of the anti-fundamentalists said they would exempt businesses from serving those weddings, while 74.8 percent of the rest of the subgroup would do so. Similarly, I found that only 41.2 percent of the anti-fundamentalists stated that transgender individuals should use the bathroom corresponding to their sex at birth. By contrast, a full 74.4 percent of the others (those who were not sympathetic to transgender people but who were also not hostile to Christians) said the same.

In other words: even among those who do not particularly like sexual minorities, people are more likely to support LGBT rights if they do not like conservative Christians.

Do Sexual Minorities Benefit from Conflict with Christians?

Interestingly, negative attitudes towards Muslim or Jews are not related to supporting the rights of sexual minorities. The Muslim result is of particular interest, since there is no reason why we should believe that Muslims would be any more supportive of the rights of sexual minorities than conservative Christians. My results demonstrate a unique phenomenon among respondents who do not like conservative Christians. The results are not due to antipathy toward religion in general or toward any religion that does not support the rights of sexual minorities.

In other words, my data seem to indicate that there are people who support sexual minorities’ rights because they dislike—or even hate—conservative Christians. This finding is important because it offers a new explanation of support for same-sex marriage—one that previous researchers have ignored. Support for sexual minorities is strengthened by hatred of conservative Christians.

There are people who support sexual minorities’ rights because they dislike—or even hate—conservative Christians. Support for sexual minorities is strengthened by hatred of conservative Christians.

Sexual minorities may benefit from animosity towards conservative Christians. Of course, sexual minorities have undoubtedly suffered because conservative Christians have not supported their lifestyle. But there is a real possibility that they benefit more from their social conflict with conservative Christians than they lose from it. This is unusual. In most cases, social conflict between two groups is costly to both of them. But it is possible that one group can benefit from the conflict if they use that conflict to gain other allies. Our current culture war may work to the benefit of sexual minorities and the detriment of conservative Christians.

This explanation can also help us understand the efforts to punish Christian businesses, schools, and organizations that do not hold progressive sexual values. Many of these fights are less about granting LGBT individuals their rights and more about making certain that organizations, including those run by conservative Christians, actively support sexual minorities. The libertarian argument for sexual-minority rights has given way to a more aggressive stance towards dissenters from the new norms of sexuality. This movement away from a “live and let live” perspective makes perfect sense if a significant portion of support for sexual minorities is tied to an antipathy towards conservative Christians.

Studying Christianophobia is important because understanding this type of bigotry can provide us information about our society. Researchers have tried to understand how modern forms of racism impact our society, even as our culture has stigmatize those who adhere to ideas of white supremacy. Likewise, understanding how anti-Christian animosity manifests itself within a subculture that prides itself on tolerance can provide insight into social processes such as the LGBT-rights movement. It is my hope that, in time, we will have more high-quality research studying the ways in which anti-Christian animosity shapes the attitudes of cultural elites.