The random-sample survey of more than 2,000 Americans asked, "Do you believe homosexual behavior is a sin?" Forty-four percent said yes and 43 percent said no. Thirteen percent were not sure.
Being a born-again, evangelical or fundamentalist Christian often corresponded with a negative view of homosexuality. Among those groups, 82 percent said homosexual behavior is a sin while 14 percent said it is not a sin. In contrast, 29 percent of all other religious groups said it is sinful and 51 percent said it is not.
Men and Americans without a college degree were more likely to say homosexuality is sinful. Forty-seven percent of men said it is a sin, but only 40 percent of women.
And 49 percent of those without a college degree said homosexual behavior is a sin, compared with 35 percent who have a college degree.
"When asking questions like this to a general sampling of the population, it is important to note that people's definition of 'sin' may differ based upon their religious background and beliefs," Scott McConnell, director of LifeWay Research, said. "We intentionally used the word but also know it means different things to different people."
McConnell noted that in 2011, Gallup's annual Values and Beliefs poll approached the question of homosexuality asking if it was "morally acceptable."
"While we find 44 percent believe homosexuality is a 'sin,' Gallup reports 56 percent of Americans consider gay and lesbian relations morally acceptable," McConnell said.
Respondents in the LifeWay poll also were asked the question: "If you were considering visiting or joining a church, would knowing that the church taught that homosexual behavior was sinful impact your decision positively or negatively or have no impact?"
Only 26 percent of respondents said it would have a positive impact while 36 percent said it would have a negative impact. Nearly a third (32 percent) said it would have no impact.
Of those who said homosexual behavior is sinful, a slight majority (54 percent) said a church teaching it is sinful would positively impact their decision to visit or join. But among those who do not believe homosexual behavior is sinful, 74 percent said a congregation teaching it is sinful would negatively impact their decision to visit or join.
"Conversations about sin are inherently religious in nature," McConnell said. "Merriam-Webster tells us the use of the word 'sin' is religious or moral and often specifically refers to a 'transgression of the law of God.' It is no surprise, then, that the sharpest negative reaction to a church specifically teaching that homosexual behavior is a sin comes from the least religious, those who do not attend religious services."
Regarding the effect of a church's stand on homosexuality, the survey found:
-- Americans who never attend a place of worship strongly leaned negative in their response to the impact of a church teaching homosexual behavior is sinful. Those who never attend a place of worship were most likely to say this teaching would have a negative impact on them visiting or joining the church if they were considering it (72 percent) compared to only 21 percent of those who attend worship services more than once a week.
-- Younger Americans took a more negative view of churches teaching against homosexuality. Those 18 to 29 (19 percent) were the least likely age group to say that a congregation teaching against homosexuality would have a positive impact upon their decision to visit or join. Those 65 and older were the most likely age group to say it would impact their decision positively (35 percent) and the least likely to say it would impact their decision negatively (29 percent).
-- People in large (44 percent) and small (43 percent) cities were more likely to say a church's teaching against homosexuality would impact their decision negatively than those in suburbs (32 percent) and rural areas (26 percent).
"Americans remain evenly split on the moral and religious questions of whether homosexual behavior is a sin," McConnell said. "It likely reflects different beliefs about Scripture and different beliefs about who defines sin."
The online survey of 2,144 adult Americans was conducted Sept. 23-26, 2011, among a sample of an online panel representing the adult population of the United States. Responses were weighted by region, party, age, race, religion, gender and education to more accurately reflect the population and provides a 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed +2.2 percent. Margins of error are higher in subgroups.
David Roach is a pastor and writer in Shelbyville, Ky.
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