Religion and/or Republicanism – What Drives LGB Identifiers Out of State?

By Ryan P. Burge and Paul A. Djupe

[image credit: Eile Magazine]

Patrick Egan, a political scientist at NYU, raised an interesting question in a twitter post today: Does the religious makeup of the state drive LGBT citizens out? Out of the state, that is. With evidence from the 2016 CCES, which is what we would draw on for this too, he finds a negative relationship – states with higher rates of religious importance have lower percentages identifying as LGB.

We’ll readily admit that Patrick Egan is a very talented political scientist and this tweet is just interesting and provocative on its face. There is no doubt that American religion has not been hospitable to the gay community, though that has changed somewhat as norms among Americans have changed rapidly in the last two decades. So, we don’t necessarily disagree, but thought it was worth inquiring further. In particular, we thought that (1) we should parse out different religious groups as more or less hospitable to LGBT members and (2) we should check to see whether the real threat could be identified with more precision as the Republican Party.

Ryan went right to the same data source as Patrick and pitched what may be the critical variable and the crux of the argument. That is, religious importance levels in the states are tightly correlated with Republican identification levels, so it is not clear which one is driving the pattern. There are two groups of outliers that are particularly interesting. There is one group of western states that are whiter and more libertarian including Utah, Arizona, and Idaho, which have somewhat lower religious importance levels given the level of Republicanism in the state. The other group is more religious and less Republican; these states are in the South and have sizable black populations like Mississippi and Georgia.

The key is that the relationship between Republican affiliation in the state is just as strongly linked to the LGB proportion in the state as religious importance. The outliers here are also interesting. Those western, libertarian states also have higher rates of LGB identifiers than you would suspect from their Republicanism – e.g., Oregon, Idaho, Colorado. And those Southern states with pervasive religiosity across the population tend to have lower than expected LGB populations. Indiana stands out as the most southern midwestern state; it also attracted national attention and boycotts from Governor Pence’s attempt to protect a version of religious freedom through a RFRA that initially condoned discrimination (it was revised after it sparked outrage).

Some of this has to do with the style of Republicanism that the state pursues, some of this has to do with the kinds of religious groups who inhabit the states, and most of it has to do with the urban enclaves available to host diverse populations. For instance, NOLA stands out distinctly to push conservative Louisiana out of the band of statistical expectations.

We thought that we could make one more contribution to this discussion by highlighting the LGB makeup of religious groups in the US (we covered T here). These groups are not evenly distributed in the US, so this contributes to sorting (and are reflections of sorting as well). It is no surprise to anyone who studies religion that there are sizable gay populations in religious groups, though it’s also absolutely no surprise that the rate of being a religious none is much higher in the gay community. The ‘none’ rate in the adult population in 2016 was up to 29.7%, but the rate in the gay community was 48.6%. So, how is the very slim majority distributed?

Atheists, Buddhists, and agnostics have the highest rates of LGB identifiers, but Episcopalians and Congregationalists (UCC) follow close behind. You do find more mainline Protestant denominations higher in the list. But most of them are indistinguishable given the relatively small numbers involved here. Moreover, it’s notable that by the time we get to the ELCA, a reasonably liberal mainline group, that the proportion LGB is below the national average. And, further, the proportions do not correspond neatly to the liberalism of the members – Catholic adherents are some of the most supportive of gay rights, but the proportion of members is quite low (less than 5%). Of course, the hierarchy has not been a proponent of gay rights, which introduces another wrinkle about the differential impacts of a supportive membership versus antagonistic leadership.

The groups that anchor the low end are no surprise – self-described fundamentalists, pentecostals, nondenominational affiliates, Southern Baptists. We have no doubt (and no data[1]) that there are more people unwilling to out themselves in those denominations, which complicates the conclusions we can draw from this analysis. Once the 2018 CCES is released in the spring, we’ll check the evolution of these numbers and expect them to grow.[2]

A very simple regression model suggests the mutual power of religious importance and Republicanism linked to the LGB identification levels. And those elements interact in a sensible way – more Republican states have almost uniformly lower levels of LGB identification regardless of religious identity, while LGB identification hinges on the religiosity of Democratic states.

This analysis joins a growing literature that explores the movement of people in and out of religious organizations. Research by Michele Margolis has found that young people reentering religion in their late 20s depends on partisanship; Djupe and colleagues have found that people are driven out of churches by political disagreement (including those who disagreed with their clergy about Trump support); and a visible Christian Right drove up the rate of nones in the states pushing anti-gay rights ballot measures. Gaining some leverage on this problem engages an old debate not just about the composition of religious organizations, but the sorting process across the United States that underlies partisan polarization.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website. The syntax for the post can be found in this gist.

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University Political Science, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of (see his list of posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.


1. We looked to see if “prefer not to say” ran inverse to the LGB proportion, but this is an imperfect measure of being in the closet – it seemed to have no relation.

2. Other survey efforts have estimated the LGBT population at a different, lower level. Gallup, for instance, estimates 4.1%, which is up from 3.5% in 2012. They do not ask the question in an ideal way, combining gender identity with sexual orientation, but that should not change the overall distribution.


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