How Evangelicals Have Shifted in Public Opinion on Same-Sex Marriage
President Obama's announcement that he supports same-sex marriage will likely cause ripple effects among evangelicals. Polls show that evangelicals remain among the most opposed to same-sex marriage, but the same polls also show that opposition has diminished over the past two decades.
The potential backlash from evangelicals had an immediate impact on some of Obama's evangelical supporters. Pastor Joel Hunter prays with the President, but he told reporters yesterday that it would be more difficult to support him now. Obama called Hunter shortly after the interview to apologize and to make sure that their relationship was still strong, according to The Washington Post. Hunter told the Post that that their relationship was fine.
"A pastor doesn't abandon people because he happens to disagree with the decisions that they've made," Hunter said.
In a statement following Obama's announcement, Sojourners supported "full legal rights for all people" and religious freedom rights.
"Sojourners supports equal protection under the law and full legal rights for all people regardless of sexual orientation," the magazine stated. "We affirm the right of faith communities, congregations, and religious organizations to define marriage in accordance with their own traditions and interpretation of Scripture."
Those who have supported the President could face some political heat because of Obama's announcement but maybe not as much as they would have 20 years ago. Opposition to same-sex marriage has dropped, even among evangelicals.
What Surveys Show
Polls show a significant difference in results depending on how they ask about same-sex marriage, especially when it's framed as a "right" compared to when it's framed as supporting marriage between a man and a woman. The difference in wording can create about a 12 percentage point difference.
The federally-funded General Social Survey has asked about the public's views toward homosexual relationships for decades, revealing how attitudes have shifted over time. In 1988, the two-thirds of white Americans believed that "sexual relations between two adults of the same sex" was "always wrong," including 85 percent of born-again Christians. By 2010, both groups began to accept same-sex relationships. Born-again Christians still opposed homosexuality, but they answered the questions the same way non-believers answered in the 1980s. In 2010, two-thirds of evangelicals believed that homosexuality is "always wrong," compared to just 30 percent of others.
Washington Post columnist Mike Gerson noted that social conservatives may need to frame marriage differently due to the generational shift.
"In much of the country, social conservatives may need to choose a more defensible political line — the protection of individual and institutional conscience rights for those who disagree with gay marriage," he wrote. "It is also a commitment of genuine pluralism to allow those with differing moral beliefs to associate in institutions that reflect their convictions."
Polls suggest that younger Americans are less opposed to same-sex marriage. In the 2010 General Social Survey, one in five younger white Americans opposed the idea of gay couples having the right to marry legally. In contrast, 47 percent of those over 35 opposed same-sex marriage.
The generational split includes evangelicals, where 44 percent of younger evangelicals oppose same-sex marriage, 20 points less than older evangelicals (63 percent). Younger evangelicals also appear more conflicted, with 17 percent saying they were not sure about the issue, compared to only 7 percent of older evangelicals were uncertain.