Religion & American politics, The future of marriage:

The blame game

posted by Wendy Cadge

How did the same people who elected Barack Obama President last Tuesday vote to pass Proposition 8 in California, the state ballot measure to ban same-sex marriage? My liberal friends in Massachusetts and across the country are organizing protests and hanging their heads. “We expected more from California,” they mutter under their breath.

Commentators and bloggers are pointing fingers at African Americans—many of whom supported Proposition 8. But what if we stop talking about race for a minute, and start talking about religion? Surveys from the Pew Forum show that a “stable majority” of Americans oppose same sex marriage, 55% in August 2007. Only 36% of people in August 2007 supported gay marriage. Religion, like education, age, gender, and party affiliation influences people’s opinions about gay marriage. Large fractions of white Protestants (66%), Black Protestants (64%) and Catholics (48%) opposed gay marriage in 2007. And it isn’t just religious affiliation but behavior—people who attend worship services regularly are more likely to oppose same sex marriage. These patterns are not new. Political scientist Laura Olson and I published an article in 2006 showing that religious variables are stronger predictors of public opinion on gay marriage than are demographic measures. Protestants, people with conservative attitudes towards morality and secularism, and (to a lesser extent) people who participate actively in religious life are more likely to oppose gay marriage.

The “No on 8″ campaign in California knew these numbers and worked with a long list of religious organizations. Unitarians, liberal Protestant churches, and Jewish groups are well represented on this list. Catholics, especially important in California, are less present. Nationally, partnerships between religious and gay rights organizations have been slow to develop. The Human Rights Campaign’s Religion and Faith Program did not start until 2005. The National Religious Leadership Roundtable of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force did not start until 1997. Religious and GLBT movement leaders work together more today than ten years ago, but many of these relationships are young and people are still working to develop shared vocabularies.

There is also tremendous diversity around homosexuality and gay marriage among local religious leaders today. In a recent small study Laura Olson and I conducted, 13% of Christian leaders in a southern city were uncertain about their beliefs around homosexuality. 45% believed homosexuality was a sin based on their understanding of scripture. And 42% expressed support for homosexuality and gay and lesbian people based on views that homosexuality is innate, part of the structure of God’s creation. Personal exposure to gay and lesbian people in family networks, seminary contexts, and local congregations was the single most important factor shaping clergy’s supportive opinions. Diversity of opinion about homosexuality and gay marriage was evident not just across groups but within every religious group we studied.

Rather than pointing fingers at African-Americans or people of faith for passing Proposition 8, we who support gay marriage across the country need to recognize two things. First, the vote—52% voted yes and 48% voted no—in California was closer than you would expect based on national public opinion surveys about gay marriage. And second, this diversity of opinion exists within families, communities, churches, and racial and ethnic groups. This will not make those of us who lost the right to marry feel better. This is a loss. But as we make our signs and plan our protests, we must do so in groups that include everyone who supports gay marriage—African Americans, people of faith, and others—rather than pointing fingers. Marriage is not a finite resource. Unfortunately, neither is blame.

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2 Responses to “The blame game”

  1. You are making some very important points in your post but there’s one thing we also need to point out:

    Take a look at the sample that’s underlying that 70% figure: It’s tiny! The CNN exit poll is based on 2,240 respondents. Supposedly, 10% of California voters are African-Americans, that’s a whopping 224 people. That’s a very small sample size but it doesn’t end there. Let’s look at the sampling methodology. Although CNN claims “scientific statistical procedures,” on closer inspection we find that what is randomly selected are the precincts, not the people. So, this is a small, non-random sample. This means that, at best, we can say that 70% of African-American respondents to the CNN exit poll voted for Prop 8. Given the problems with the sample, we cannot say anything based on this sample about all African-American voters in California. The sample results cannot be projected to the population.

  2. The sampling issue for the exit polls is not a factor, and unlike many of the prospective polls, the exit polls tend to have strong response rates and provide good estimates of most relationships. There are only 224 African American respondents because they are a small minority of California voters–under 7%. That, in itself, should diffuse any racial talk about Prop 8. Mormons are even less important, with probably around 2% of California voters. Far more important were sectarian Protestants, who are militantly opposed to marriage rights for same sex couples, and were highly mobilized. My analyses of General Social Survey data show that Catholics are more supportive of same sex marriage rights than are other Americans, which makes protest against the Catholics seem a bit counterplayed.

    The GSS also show some interesting patterns. First, there were no racial differences in attitudes towards same sex marriage 20 years ago. Indeed, the only religious differences were that fundamentalists were more opposed than people with other religious beliefs. Over the last two decades, racial and religious differences emerged because some groups liberalized (whites, Catholics, mainline Protestants), and others did not (African Americans, Other ethnicities, and sectarian Protestants). Notably, African American conservatism does not seem to be only a function of religiosity (the models are complicated, and available on request). Other cultural factors are at work which caused African Americans to hold similar values in 2008 that they held in 1988.

    Of course, Professor Cadge is absolutely correct in pointing out that the Prop 8 result is not really unexpected given what we know about American public opinion. In 2006, GSS data have just under 35% of Americans supporting same sex marriage. However, another 14% are neutral on the issue. But we do think that California will somehow be more liberal. Why do we think California is liberal? This is the state that gave us Nixon and Reagan. Tom Metzger, a white supremacist, made the Democratic ticket in a congressional election in California. Outside of the predictable liberal oases, California is Western Oklahoma. Steinbeck wasn’t purely fiction.

    And, more importantly, let’s not forget that both Presidential candidates disavowed support for same sex marriage. They did so publicly, in California, in a disturbing (to people who cherish a seperation of church and state) genuflection to a fundamentalist minister during what amounted to a religious inquisition of the candidates’ positional piety.

    GSS data also show that the issue of same sex marriage is increasingly a religious issue. People with no religion (15% of Americans), Jews, Catholics, and liberal Protestants are increasingly comfortable with marriage rights. Fundamentalist Christians lag behind and now constitute the vast majority of opponants. Since several religious groups openly endorse same sex marriage—including Obama’s former denomination the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalists, and one of the largest Reformed Jewish confederations—this seems to be a clear issue of religious freedom, and should be beyond the prejudice of the ballot box.

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