Review: ‘Us Versus Us’ by Andrew Marin

us versus us

Andrew Marin is an outspoken, in-your-face American. His first book Love is an Orientation described his personal journey from being a straight conservative evangelical who unthinkingly adopted a ‘traditional’ understanding of sexuality and had little or no real knowledge of gay people to moving to the Boystown area of Chicago, centre of the local gay community, and learning how to show love and acceptance to the people he met there. This has lead him to being at the forefront of efforts to get divided communities of liberals and conservatives to relate to each other. As a matter of principle, he does not set out his own views, but simply urges people to show love and acceptance to each other and find common ground without feeling the need to sacrifice their own integrity in the process.

Us Versus Us is a different sort of book. It’s the fruit of some detailed survey work that he did of LGBT people across America to get some understanding of their spiritual lives. The research was done following good social-science principles, over as wide a group as possible. He then reflects in detail on the results (often by making comparisons with other public-access data on the religious beliefs and experiences of the general population).

I won’t discuss all of his findings, but one stands out: 86% of LGBT people were raised in a faith community between the ages of 0 and 18. This is 11% higher than the general US population. Put simply, if you are gay it is more likely you had significant Christian input as a child or young person. The specific religious affiliations are consistent with their frequency in the general US population.

This fact flies in the face of the dominant cultural narrative, which casts the parties to this conversation as opposing forces. In reality, the culture war has always been a civil war: us versus us.

54% of these LGBT people who were raised in a religious community leave after the age of 18. This is twice as high as the general US population. So if you are gay you are more likely to have grown up religious but you are much more likely to have left your religious community as an adult. The experience of leaving your religious community behind is therefore a hugely significant part of the experience of being gay in America. This may explain a lot about the nature and tone of the debate in US society at large.

Marin does a lot of work on trying to identify what the reasons are why LGBT people leave and what might encourage them to come back. One of his more interesting findings in this regard is that the biggest reason why LGBT people leave is (unlike the general population) because of bad personal experiences. Feeling loved was the biggest thing that would encourage people to return. Love and acceptance counted for more than theological agreement. Marin uses all this data to suggest that Christians and the LGBT community have far more in common than is usually recognised, and that getting too focused on the theological disagreements distracts us from this.

All this is interesting, of course, but obviously poses questions as to how transferable any of these results are to the very different and far more secularised UK context, where people are far less likely to have been raised in a faith community. What might make it more transferable is the hypothesis he develops as to why LGBT people are more likely to have been raised in a faith community. His argument is that coming to terms with an LGBT orientation in a Western homophobic culture is an irrevocably spiritual experience. At least 96% of the entire sample, irrespective of their own religious beliefs, have at some point prayed that God would make them straight. 80% of the sample continue to pray regularly, including a 19% of self-identified atheists. Wrestling with your sexuality as a teenager makes you more spiritual than the average person. If this is true, then it is likely to be true in the UK too.