Human Rights

More Americans Than Ever Support Gay Marriage, Leaving Christian Right Behind

Attitudes toward gay marriage continue to evolve.

In America today, it's more normal to support gay marriage than not to.

That's according to findings from the Public Religion Research Institute, a non-profit, nonpartisan research organization. By comparing results of a survey it conducted in 2013 with one it did a decade ago, PRRI found that today, over half of Americans support same-sex marriage, up from just 32% in 2003. Its findings are similar to those of the Pew Research Center, Gallup, and other poling organizations, which have all noted a significant increase in support for same-sex marriage in the past 10 years.

Certain groups stick out as being far less supportive than others. Only 39% of African Americans support same-sex marriage, compared with 53% of Hispanics and 53% of whites. There is a nine-point difference between men and women, with 57% of women in support, compared to 48% of men. Sixty-four percent of Democrats and 57% of independents support same-sex marriage, compared to only 34% of Republicans, a gap that has increased by 21 percent points in the last decade.  

But regardless of differences between groups, within groups, it's becoming more popular to support same-sex matrimony, even among those who have been traditionally staunchly against it. Take white evangelical Protestants, who continue to be some of the least supportive: while only 27% support same-sex marriage today, that's a significant increase from the 12% who supported it in 2003. Support for same-sex marriage is strongest among Millennials (people aged 18-33), with 69% in support, compared with only 37% of the Silent Generation (those aged 68 and older). The "generational tidal wave," as PRRI CEO Robert Jones calls it, holds true across religious and political lines: for example, whereas only 34% of Republicans overall support same-sex marriage, half of Millennial Republicans support it. 

Personal connection and perception matter: knowing someone who's gay, and thinking that sexuality is biologically determined, strongly influences whether an individual supports gay marriage. The difference is striking: while 63% of those who support same-sex marriage have a close friend or family member who identifies as gay or lesbian, only 36% of those who oppose do. More Americans have family and friends who are openly gay than ever before: 65% today, versus just 22% in 1993.

Notions of whether being gay is something you're born with, or something you acquire through upbringing and environment, has also shifted in the last decade. In 2003, 38% of Americans thought a person's sexuality was biologically determined. Today, 44% do. People's views on the topic are positively correlated with their support for gay marriage, with 76% of those who believe it is biologically determined supporting same-sex marriage, compared with only 28% among those who believe it's a learned trait.

"In a certain sense sexuality becomes less dangerous if it is fixed early," explains Clyde Wilcox, professor of government at Georgetown University, who spoke at the launch of the report in Washington DC this week. "It's not contagious, and it's not anyone's fault. You can't discriminate because it's not a choice." Groups least supportive of same-sex nuptials—evangelicals, Republicans, African Americans—are less likely to think sexuality is biologically determined than those who are not, and less likely to have a close friend or family member who identifies as gay or lesbian.

Religious conservatives may be getting left behind as the country changes its mind. With the exception of Jews (83% of whom support gay marriage), religious people are far less likely to support gay marriage than those who are not. (Religiously unaffiliated people trail closely behind Jews in their support, followed by white mainline Protestants. Around 50% of white Catholics, Hispanic Catholics and Hispanic Protestants support gay marriage. Thirty-five percent of black Protestants do.) Americans also tend to view religions as not supportive of LGBT rights, a perception that may be hurting their cause. Survey findings demonstrate a significant drop in religious affiliation across America (22% are unaffiliated today, versus 8% in 2003), which may be in part linked to negative perceptions of religious' groups treatment of LGBT people.

“Nearly one-third of Millennials who left their childhood religion say unfavorable church teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people played a significant role in their decision to head for the exit," says Jones. Fifty-eight percentof Americans, including 70% of Millennials, say that religious groups' stance on LGBT issues is alienating young people. Young people and those who identify as LGBT are far more likely to be religiously unaffiliated than the population at large. 

Jones says negative public perception of religious groupings on LGBT rights and a lag in support for gay marriage among worshippers may provoke change by religious institutions. "Can theology just take its cues from public opinion? Most theologians would have a problem with that position," he says. "But what does it do when public opinion moves over here, and theology is over here?" 

While LGBT and their allies have reason to celebrate the national upsurge in support, PRRI notes that a large proportion of Americans, especially religious Americans, think that same-sex sexual relationships are immoral (although they may still support gay marriage), and that LGBT face some of the highest discrimination in the country. And even though there's a national shift in attitudes on same-sex marriage, it still isn't a priority for most Americans. Only 24% of Americans say same-sex marriage is a critical issue for them personally, with 25% saying it's one of several important issues. Nearly 50% of Americans say that the issue is not that important to them personally, with same-sex marriage ranking below jobs and unemployment, healthcare, immigration, HIV/AIDS and abortion. 

Moreover, just because there's increasing support for same-sex marriage, it doesn't mean the US is becoming less conservative as a whole. "We're not winning on guns. Sometimes Millennials are the most conservative on pro-choice. It's not that these are changing attitudes on sexuality in general," notes Wilcox. "Since 1992, the percentage of people who say that LGBT sex is always wrong has plummeted, but those who say that sex outside of marriage is always wrong went up."

Nationally, Americans are more likely to consider themselves pro-life (48%) than pro-choice (45%), and more likely to identify as conservatives (38%) than liberals (23%). Wilcox suggests that while other issues remain polarized, the rise of LGBT people in pop culture helped to make the issue more palatable, which made it easier for people to come out to their family and friends. 

Mara Kardas-Nelson is a freelance journalist covering health, policy and the environment. 

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