It has been a wrenching season for three of America’s largest religious denominations, as sex-abuse scandals and a schism over LGBT inclusion fuel anguish and anger within the Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist and United Methodist churches. There’s rising concern that the crises will boost the ranks of young people disillusioned by organized religion.
“Every denomination is tremendously worried about retaining or attracting young people,” said Stephen Schneck, a political science professor at Catholic University. “The sex-abuse scandals will have a spillover effect on attitudes toward religion in general. I don’t think any denomination is going to not take a hit.”
For the U.S. Catholic Church, the clergy sex-abuse scandal that has unfolded over two decades expanded dramatically in recent months. Many dioceses have become targets of investigations since a Pennsylvania grand jury report in August detailed hundreds of cases of alleged abuse. In mid-February, former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was expelled from the priesthood for sexually abusing minors and seminarians.
The Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination, confronted its own sex-abuse crisis three weeks ago in the form of an investigation by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News. The newspapers reported that hundreds of Southern Baptist clergy and staff had been accused of sexual misconduct over the past 20 years, including dozens who returned to church duties, while leaving more than 700 victims with little in the way of justice or apologies.
For both denominations, allegations of cover-ups and insufficient sympathy for victims have been as damaging in the public eye as the abuse itself.
The United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant denomination, ended a pivotal conference Tuesday in a seemingly irreconcilable split over same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT clergy. About 53 percent of the delegates voted to maintain bans on those practices and strengthen enforcement, dismaying centrists and liberals who favored LGBT inclusion and now are faced with the choice of leaving the UMC or considering acts of defiance from within.
The Rev. Adam Hamilton, whose Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, is the nation’s largest UMC congregation, said the outcome would push youthful pastors and other young adults away.
“Three out of four of millennials who live in the U.S. support same-sex marriage and do not want to be a part of a church that makes their friends feel like second-class Christians,” he told the conference. “Many of you have children and grandchildren who cannot imagine that we’re voting this way today. They wonder, have these people lost their minds?”
Since long before the current crises, most Christian denominations in the U.S. have been losing members. The most recent survey of the religious landscape by the Pew Research Center found that the biggest growth was in “unaffiliated” — people who described themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.”
That latter group is known among contemporary religious leaders as the “nones.” Their ranks include many young people who want spirituality in their lives but are disenchanted with institutionalized religion.
“The ‘nones’ want their lives to make a difference, and they’re trying to figure out how,” said the Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of the Christian social justice organization Sojourners. “They’re not going to join a religion that’s not making a difference or, worse yet, is full of hypocrisy.”
There have yet to be comprehensive surveys gauging how the latest crises have affected church membership and attendance. Nancy Ammerman, professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University’s School of Theology, suggests the impact will be significant.
“We see young adults who are overwhelmingly on the progressive side of sexuality issues and overwhelmingly not sitting still for sexual abuse of all kinds,” she said. “When they see religious leaders who aren’t on the right side of that, they’re more likely to say, ‘I’m done.'”
Any such developments will reinforce existing trends, Ammerman said. “If you’re already only going to church three or four times a year, if you’re moving from one place to another, your ties (with a church) have already gotten weak.”
While the three ongoing crises vary in key respects, there is important common ground: the increased outspokenness, organizing skills and social-media prowess of Catholic and Southern Baptist sex-abuse survivors and LGBT United Methodists.
“We’re in a historical moment where the marginalized voices will not be silenced,” said Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a religious studies professor at Manhattan College in New York. “Victims of sex abuse and LGBT communities have reached the breaking point.”
In the case of the Catholic and Southern Baptist churches, there’s been extra motivation for some critics because of those churches’ insistence on a male-only clergy.
“You have very top-down, patriarchal institutions representing a kind of power that civil society has left behind,” Imperatori-Lee said.
The months ahead will be challenging for the three denominations, notably for liberal United Methodists who must decide if they can abide under the LGBT bans they opposed.
U.S. Catholic bishops hold a national meeting in June. They will be weighing the exhortations of Pope Francis at the Vatican’s recent summit on sex-abuse prevention.
David Campbell, a University of Notre Dame political science professor who studies religion’s role in U.S. civic life, believes the exodus of white Catholics from the pews will be offset by an increase of Latinos even as the abuse crisis persists. But he predicts the Church will suffer a significant drop in donations.
As for the Southern Baptist Convention, it formed a sexual-abuse study group last year that has not yet announced recommendations. Advocates for victims are watching closely to see if substantive steps are taken.
The Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, takes heart from record-high enrollment at SBC seminaries.
“I do not believe the students on our campus represent a majority of their generation,” he said. “But they are the minority that is committed to the church.”
Yet Mohler says the SBC shouldn’t take these young people’s commitment for granted.
“They will be and should be offended if we do not handle the challenge of sexual abuse well,” he said. “We must do the right thing and do it without delay.”
At Howard University’s School of Divinity, Christian ethics professor Cheryl Sanders tells students aspiring to the ministry that they will be held more accountable than their predecessors. But she exhorts them to believe, despite the challenges, that their work will be essential.
“The fact is that people turn to the church when they have needs,” she said. “The church has a role even in spite of itself.”