LGBT Activism at Christian Colleges and Universities

I am actively engaged in research on LGBT activism at Christian universities. My new book Gay on God’s Campus explores questions related to individual participation in LGBT activist groups across Christian colleges and universities. A recent article in Social Currents explains the presence of LGBT groups and inclusive non-discrimination statements across Christian colleges and universities in the United States, while a forthcoming article in Sociological Spectrum accounts for the presence of discriminatory student handbook bans on “homosexual acts” and “homosexual behavior” at Christian colleges and universities. Finally, an earlier article published in Research in Social Movements, Conflicts, and Change shows how divisions over religion and sexuality were “bridged” by an LGBT activist group at one Christian university. These papers are available on request.

Coley, Jonathan. 2018. Gay on God’s Campus: Mobilizing for LGBT Equality at Christian Colleges and Universities. The University of North Carolina Press. (order)

Although the LGBT movement has made rapid gains in the United States, LGBT people continue to face discrimination in faith communities. In this book, sociologist Jonathan S. Coley documents why and how student activists mobilize for greater inclusion at Christian colleges and universities. Drawing on interviews with student activists at a range of Christian institutions of higher learning, Coley shows that students, initially drawn to activism because of their own political, religious, or LGBT identities, are forming direct action groups that transform university policies, educational groups that open up campus dialogue, and solidarity groups that facilitate their members’ personal growth. He also shows how these LGBT activists apply their skills and values after graduation in subsequent political campaigns, careers, and family lives, potentially serving as change agents in their faith communities for years to come. Coley’s findings shed light on a new frontier of LGBT activism and challenge prevailing wisdom about the characteristics of activists, the purpose of activist groups, and ultimately the nature of activism itself.

Coley, Jonathan S. 2018. “Theologies of Exclusion: Christian Universities and Discrimination against Sexual Minorities.” Sociological Spectrum 38(6): 422-437. (external link)

In an era of rapidly evolving attitudes toward LGBT rights, why do some Christian colleges and universities continue to discriminate against lesbian, gay, and bisexual students? The most intuitive answer to this question might point to many religious traditions’ conservative teachings about same-sex relationships. Nevertheless, many schools associated with socially conservative religious traditions are actually inclusive of their sexual minority students. Building on recent insights from the literature on religion and the “culture wars,” and analyzing original data on student handbook bans on same-sex relationships and “homosexual behavior” across 682 Christian colleges and universities, I show that it is when schools are associated with individualist religious traditions that emphasize personal piety that conservative teachings on same-sex relationships are associated with discrimination against sexual minorities. The study holds implications both for research on the exclusion of sexual minorities in schools and theoretical debates on the relationship between religion and social injustice.

Coley, Jonathan S. 2017. “Reconciling Religion and LGBT Rights: Christian Universities, Theological Orientations, and LGBT Inclusion.” Social Currents 4(1): 87-106. (external link)

socialcurrentsWhy do some Christian colleges and universities approve LGBT groups and non-discrimination policies while others resist them? Scholars are beginning to develop models to explain LGBT inclusion in schools, but they have undertheorized the role of religion in facilitating or impeding LGBT inclusion. In this article, I draw from literature on religion and the “culture wars,” especially insights on religions’ theological orientations, to explain Christian colleges and universities’ inclusion of LGBT students. I show that communal orientations – theological emphases on social justice – strongly predict the adoption of LGBT groups and non-discrimination policies at Christian colleges and universities. By contrast, individualist orientations – theological emphases on personal piety – impede the adoption of such groups and policies. Importantly, I find little support for alternative explanations of Christian colleges and universities’ inclusion of LGBT students that focus on liberal or conservative teachings on same-sex relationships. Beyond bridging literatures on the political sociology of LGBT rights and religion and the culture wars, the article supports an emerging theoretical framework for understanding the role of religion in a wide range of social justice debates.

Coley, Jonathan S. 2014. “Social Movements and Bridge Building: Religious and Sexual Identity Conflicts.” Research in Social Movements, Conflicts, and Change 37: 125-151. (external link)

rsmccSocial movement scholars have increasingly drawn attention to the process of “bridge building” in social movements – that is, the process by which activists attempt to resolve conflicts stemming from different collective identities. However, most scholars assume that social movements primarily attempt to resolve tensions among activists themselves, and thus that bridge building is a means to other ends rather than a primary goal of social movement activism. In this article, I challenge these assumptions through a case study of a “bridging organization” known as Bridge Builders, which sought as its primary goal to “bridge the gap between the LGBT and Christian communities” at a Christian university in Nashville, Tennessee. I highlight the mechanisms by which Bridge Builders attempted to facilitate bridge building at the university, and I argue that Bridge Builders succeeded in bridging (a) disparate institutional identities at their university, (b) “structural holes” between LGBT- and religious-identified groups at their university, and (c) oppositional personal identities among organizational members. As I discuss in the conclusion, the case of Bridge Builders has implications for literatures on bridge building in social movements, cultural and biographical consequences of social movements, and social movement strategy.