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.