Sexual Orientation, Mental Health, Gender, and Spirituality: Prejudicial Attitudes and Social Influence in Faith Communities

Article excerpt

This study examined how the attitudes of conservative American Protestants attending Midwestern churches might vary as a function of religious beliefs, gender, and exposure to scenarios of people from stigmatized groups who were asking for spiritual care. Results of the 2 (scenario gender) x 2 (scenario sexual orientation) x 2 (scenario mental health issue) x 2 (participant gender) MANOVA revealed significance for sexual orientation bias ([DELTA] = .79, F (2, 88) = 11.94, p <.001, [[eta].sup.2] = .21) and participant gender bias (A = .91, F (2, 88) = 4.13, p = .02, [[eta].sup.2] = .09. Follow-up ANOVA's revealed different effects depending on whether participants reported personal or perceived group attitudes. We discuss the results in terms of social comparison theory and projection.

Recent historical re-analyses have illustrated the horrific outcomes that occur when people of different cultures encounter each other for the first time (Diamond, 2003). In some cases, stronger cultures used deadly force to impose their spiritual beliefs on others (Mann, 2005). In the case of American slavery, religious leaders used spiritual texts to support both slavery and abolitionist positions (Schama, 2006). More recently, researchers have focused on prejudicial attitudes toward two minority groups: Those having different sexual orientations and those having different mental health conditions (e.g., Bockting & Cesaretti, 2001; Lewis, Derlega, Clarke, & Kuang, 2006). In this study, we explored the attitudes of conservative Christians toward gays and lesbians with or without depression.

Prejudice

Prejudice involves holding derogatory beliefs, attitudes, or thoughts toward people who belong to a group other than one's own group (Bergen, 2001). Presumably, one's early contacts with parents, peers, and members of a stereotyped group provide the information base for prejudicial attitudes (Sechrist & Stangor, 2001). The capacity to form a prejudicial attitude may have its origins in an infant's response of crying when approached by a stranger in contrast to the comfort experienced in the presence of a familiar person (Bergen, 2001). The effects of group influence on the responses toward select outgroups appears in young children. For example, Kowalski (2003) found that the racial attitudes of preschool children mirrored that of their parents.

Groups appear to exert a strong influence on the attitudes of their members. Even if individuals espouse views that are at variance with those of their groups, when it comes to a discussion of an issue, group opinion is likely to hold sway over an individual's opinion. For example, Worth, Allison, and Mes-sick (1987) found that group decisions not only influenced the attitudes individuals attributed to group members but also promoted a shift in which individual attitudes conformed to those of the group. Individuals may not be fully aware of the degree to which external factors affect their prejudicial attitudes. For example, people seem to respond quickly and automatically toward outgroup members as if a particular cue triggered responses associated with an attitude or stereotype held by their group (Wittenbrink, Judd, & Park, 2001). How do individual group members know the opinions of their group? Clearly, unless the group formally expresses an opinion, individuals may not know. In such cases, a group attribution error may occur in which individuals misperceive the attitudes and decisions of the group. To the extent that group attitudes influence individual attitudes, we may well be dealing with the influence of a subjective impression, that is, perceived consensus. According to Sechrist and Stangor, perceived consensus may influence " ... behavior and judgments because it influences the cognitive accessibility of attitudes and cognitions (2001, p. 651)." In this study, we explored individual and perceived group attitudes toward two outgroups in a sample of Christians attending small groups at conservative churches. …