Religion and Support for Gay Marriage

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

I think we can all want to believe that a rousing speech given by a public figure can transform the public’s view on a key social issue, however the reality is a lot less exciting. More or less, shifts in public opinion are glacial. People can change their minds on issues but it is highly unlikely. Someone likes guns today? They will probably still like guns in two decades. Abortion is my go-to example of this. I wrote a post way back at the beginning of Religion in Public about it. Here’s the upshot: after spending millions of dollars, conducting thousands of rallies, pickets, and demonstrations, the share of the population that support a woman’s right to chose is unbelievably stable.

The graph above provides some of the best longitudinal data available from the General Social Survey. In the mid-80’s about 38% of the population supported “abortion on demand.” By the mid 1990’s that had gone up to the low 40’s. In the last ten years or so there has been a somewhat upward trend to around 46%. In 35 years, support for a woman’s right to choose has gone up about eight points. That’s not a lot to write home about.

Gay marriage is much different. In fact, it’s likely the fastest moving issue that social science has ever measured. Pew indicates that in 2007, 37% of the population were in favor of same sex marriage. In May of 2018, a USA Today poll found that support was now 67%. Just for comparison: abortion support went up 8% in 35 years, while support for gay marriage up by 30 points in just over a decade. It’s clearly a culture war issue that has fallen by the wayside. But are there pockets of resistance in religious communities? Is support affected by generations? Or church attendance? I had nibbled around the edges of the issue on Twitter but I wanted to take a closer look for the blog.

The bar graph above comes from the 2016 wave of the General Social Survey and looks at all seven traditions under the RELTRAD scheme. The GSS asks the question in a Likert fashion with five possible response options ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree. It’s clear that support is highly dependent on religious tradition. For instance, over 86% of Jewish people agree that “homosexual couples should have the right to marry one another.” In contrast, support among evangelicals is just 34%, with another 14% neither agreeing or disagreeing. What is also striking is that mainline Protestants, despite their more liberal leanings, are also tepid in their feelings about same sex marriage. This data indicates that just 43.3% agree with gay marriage, with another 18.7% feeling ambivalent.

One thing that we know about mainline Protestants is that they have a higher mean age than other religious traditions, which could potentially point to why they might be reluctant to accept gay marriage. The graph below looks at support from a generational perspective. Are young people more accepting of same sex unions, and what about my obsession with young evangelicals?

It’s clear that respondents, as a whole, have shown increased support for gay marriage from 2004 to 2016. The maximum amount one can move on this scale is four points. The overall sample moved .98 points towards more acceptance between 2004 and 2016. For those under the age of 35 the move was 1.16, while those over 35 moved .97 in the same period. The graph above also includes estimates for younger and older white evangelicals. What is most striking is the overall move by younger, white evangelicals. In 2004, their mean support score was 2.03, but that jumped to 3.43 in 2016. That shift in support is larger than younger respondents in the entire sample. In 2004, younger white evangelicals were statistically as supportive of gay marriage as older white evangelicals, but they have clearly broken away from the older generations. In fact, the 2016 data indicates that young white evangelicals are as supportive of gay marriage as the average person in the United States who is 35 and older.

What role does religious involvement play in supporting same sex marriage? Using the 2016 CCES, I calculated the percentage of each sample that was supportive of same sex marriage at various levels of church attendance. (The CCES uses a dichotomous question: Do you favor or oppose same sex marriage? The results above are those who indicated support for SSM). The pattern is unmistakable and persists for a number of groups: there is a clear inverse relationship between church attendance and support for gay marriage. In almost every case, as one attends church more, they support gay marriage less. This holds for Catholics, white Evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and the general population. One would think that there are some liberal traditions out there that would preach tolerance and affirmation, but if they do exist they are not bubbling up in this data. This reinforces an earlier post I wrote called Searching for the Religious Left. In almost every case, those who attended church the most were much more likely to vote for Donald Trump than those who attended church at any lower level. It seems that if you want to be a frequent church goer and a political liberal, there aren’t many places for you. For instance, of those who attend a religious service multiple times, just one in four supports gay marriage.


Finally, I wanted to do a deep dive on a number of specific religious groups that are identified in the CCES. The question wording on the issue of gay marriage was consistent between 2012 and 2016 and therefore it was possible to compare support for the topic between those two dates for over 40 religious groups. (Note that I only retained groups that had at least 100 respondents in both the 2012 and 2016 waves). The red dot indicates the level of support in 2012, while the purple dot is support for SSM in 2016. As a reference, the average level of support in 2012 was 52.1%, which jumped to 65.1% in 2016.Average support went up 13% across all traditions.

As is evident in the darkened bar to the right, almost all traditions show a net increase in support across the four year period. In fact, just three groups saw a drop: Buddhists, the National Baptist Convention, and Other Holiness. I would chalk most of that up to smaller sample sizes and possible measurement error. However, note that many traditions saw a double digit increase in support. For instance, support among Anglicans was up 22.2%, United Methodists were 16.3% more supportive, and the Presbyterian Church in America was up 19.4%.

The group that follows the national trend the most closely are Catholics. They evinced an increase of 14.3%, which is just slightly higher than the national average of 13%. It’s clear that the groups that are, by and large, the least supportive are from the Pentecostal/charismatic tradition. In fact, five of the bottom six traditions fall into this camp. On the other end, atheists indicate levels of support that are well over 90%, providing support for the idea that gay marriage concern is deeply rooted in (any) theology.

It’s clear from these results that while support for gay marriage is strong, it is not universal. Evangelicals, and those who attend church at least weekly, show strong opposition to same sex marriage. However, there are some reasons for optimism. Younger evangelicals have shifted fairly dramatically toward supporting gay marriage, and there is no reason to believe that they will reverse course anytime soon. When the Supreme Court of the United States permitted same sex marriage under the Obergefell decision, it seems that the Court was ratifying what was already going on in the country – a significant weakening in the resistance to same sex unions. It seems likely, if not inevitable, that support for same sex marriage will reach 75% in the next 5-10 years as older Americans die off and are replaced by a younger generation that have grown up in a culture that has normalized gay marriage. It would appear that culture war issues have shifted away from gay marriage and more toward religious freedom, a change that could portend a whole host of new conflicts.

Featured Image Credit: RNS

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.


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