Homosexual Rights vs Homosexual Relations

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

Sometimes the best ideas for posts come from Twitter dot com. I was tweeting some polling data about support for gay marraige in the wake fo the Supreme Court’s Bostock decision that employees can’t be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. And, I got a great question about views of same-sex relationships:

I can’t answer that question exactly with the data that exists, but I can get pretty close.

The GSS has asked about views of same-sex marriage consistently since 2004, but it has also asked this question since 1973: What about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex – do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?

I’ve heard a lot of evangelicals espouse a position recently that they don’t think the government should prohibit same-sex marriage, but that they have a theological disagreement with homosexuality. We do know that, by and large, American religion has become more gay accepting. So, what share of each religious tradition thinks that gay marriage should be legal, but that homosexual sexual relations are wrong?

It’s pretty apparent from these graphs that there weren’t many people who were morally opposed to same-sex relations but in favor of same-sex marriage until the last decade or so. And, there are many traditions where the two trend lines track each other very well. This is true for all traditions outside of Protestant Christianity, really.

However, some daylight began to open up for evangelicals and mainline Protestants around 2014. It’s notable that both trendlines turn upward, but at slower rates for acceptance of same-sex relations. The biggest gap is clearly evidenced by black Protestants. In 2018, the difference between the two trend lines was 19.4 percentage points for Black Protestants, 15.7 points for evangelicals, and 15.2 points for mainline Protestants.

I wanted to do a crosstab to try and determine how each of the six largest traditions fall on these two questions. That’s visualized via heatmaps above. Clearly, there’s a lot more heterogeneity on these two issues than I would have assumed to exist. Nearly two-thirds of evangelicals fall into the box that is opposed to gay marriage as well as same-sex relations. On the opposite side, seven in ten nones support gay marriage and same-sex relations. But, for the other groups there’s not such a clear cut story.

For instance, the largest share of mainline Protestants fall into the favor-favor category, but it’s still only 45.8% in this category. Another 30% are in the oppose-oppose camp – that’s a steep divide (that’s becoming more visible among United Methodists) but that’s also apparent among Catholics. Half of black Protestants fall in the oppose-oppose square, but a quarter are on the opposite side. But, the share of people who believe that same-sex marriage should be legal but oppose same-sex relations never goes above 20.6% for any group. In most traditions, it’s just 10-15%. So, there aren’t a whole lot of socially conservative libertarians in the United States, but the fact that there are some is important. A good portion of the American ethos is to support individual freedoms and a sizable portion of religious Americans have reached the point of siding with the Supreme Court that the right is acceptable despite their personal misgivings.

So, who are these people? I took a look at some broad demographics to get my bearings. For instance, 47.1% of people who hold this view are Democrats, which speaks to the large share of black Protestants that fall into this category. In terms of age, it’s much more prevalent among those in the middle of the age distribution than the youngest or oldest Amreicans.

Racially, there’s not much to write home about. African-Americans were 16.4% of the population in 2018 and make up 19.5% of this subgroup. In fact, no racial group really stands out – it’s distributed in a way that one would expect given the overall population. Finally, it’s notable that over a quarter of people who believe that same-sex marriage should be legal but oppose same-sex relations attend church nearly weekly or more. Another 20% attend once a month. So, this view is not just held by religiously-devout individuals or those who never attend church – it exists at all levels of religiosity.

What does all this mean for the future of the church? I took a look at just 18-35 year olds to get a sense of where things may be headed in the future. Clearly, young evangelicals are becoming more comfortable with gay marriage than they are with same-sex relations. The gap between these views used to be relatively small, but then grew to about ten points in 2012 and 2014. But from that point forward it increased even more to 13 points in both 2016 and 2018.

The other side of this is that among the youngest Americans who are not evangelical, the gap is much smaller. It is now just six percentage points and acceptance of homosexuality in both rights and relations is nearly universal.

One of the most well-studied views of American religion is that it is a marketplace. Churches offer a service to the community that needs to be seen as attractive to a large number of consumers. Growth happens when those products that are provided match up well with the desires of the target audience. The market for churches that don’t affirm LGBT individuals, both in marriage and in sexual relations, is growing smaller by the day, something reflected in the growing perceptions about the acceptance of homosexuality in churches.

The schism that happened among the United Methodists will likely be just the opening salvo in a period of significant upheaval as churches have to assess their priorities going forward. Religious economy theory says that some churches will choose theological fidelity and see stagnant or even declining attendance, while others will adjust their product to appeal to a different consumer base in the hopes of seeing growth. It will be a fascinating few decades.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website. The syntax for this post can be found here.

One comment

  1. “Religious economy theory says that some churches will choose theological fidelity and see stagnant or even declining attendance, while others will adjust their product to appeal to a different consumer base in the hopes of seeing growth.” Anecdotally it appears that the churches liberalizing the most are seeing the biggest decreases in attendance and fidelity. Wouldn’t this theory suggest that at least some churches, seeing this, would see greater theological fidelity as a solution?


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