RELIGION AND GAYS
by Virginia Postrel • Nov 18, 2003 at 11:33 am
A new Pew Center survey finds some interesting, though not surprising, trends in attitudes toward homosexuality.
Opposition to gay marriage has increased since the summer and a narrow majority of Americans also oppose allowing gays and lesbians to enter legal agreements that fall short of marriage. Moreover, despite the overall rise in tolerance toward gays since the 1980s, many Americans remain highly critical of homosexuals--and religious belief is a major factor in these attitudes.
A 55% majority believes it is a sin to engage in homosexual behavior, and that view is much more prevalent among those who have a high level of religious commitment (76%). About half of all Americans have an unfavorable opinion of gay men (50%) and lesbians (48%), but highly religious people are much more likely to hold negative views.
Religiosity is clearly a factor in the recent rise in opposition to gay marriage. Overall, nearly six-in-ten Americans (59%) oppose gay marriage, up from 53% in July. But those with a high level of religious commitment now oppose gay marriage by more than six-to-one (80%-12%), a significant shift since July (71%-21%). The public is somewhat more supportive of legal agreements for gays that provide many of the same benefits of marriage; still, a 51% majority also opposes this step.
A new national survey of 1,515 adults, conducted Oct. 15-19 by the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds that homosexuality in general --not merely the contentious issue of gay marriage --is a major topic in churches and other houses of worship. In fact, clergy are nearly as likely to address homosexuality from the pulpit as they are to speak out about abortion or prayer in school, say people who attend church regularly.
The clergy in evangelical churches focus considerably more attention on homosexuality-- and address it far more negatively--than do ministers and priests in other denominations. Two-thirds of evangelical Protestants who attend church services at least once a month say their ministers speak out on homosexual issues, compared with only about half of Catholics (49%) and just a third of mainline Protestants (33%). And compared with others who attend services where homosexuality is discussed, substantially more evangelicals (86%) say the message they are receiving is that homosexuality should be discouraged, not accepted.
The poll finds that people who hear clergy talk about homosexuality are more likely to have highly unfavorable views of gays and lesbians. This is especially the case in evangelical churches. Fully 55% of evangelicals who attend services where the issue of homosexuality is addressed have very unfavorable views of homosexuals. This compares with 28% of those who regularly attend services in non-evangelical Protestant and Catholic churches where clergy discuss homosexuality. Similarly, evangelicals who hear sermons on this issue are much more apt than others to believe that gays and lesbians can change their sexual orientation and to view homosexuality as a threat to the country.
The survey underscores how the debate over societal acceptance of homosexuality has shifted since the mid-1980s. The public has moved decisively in the direction of tolerance on many questions; in particular, discrimination against homosexuals is now widely opposed.
As I've said before, saying that homosexuality is wrong has increasingly become the defining public characteristic of evangelical Protestants. Publicly disapproving of gays separates them from popular culture--and, hence, reinforces religious commitment--while exacting little personal toll. When I was a kid, evangelical churches disapproved of dancing, of rock music, of working women, of divorce. Now they incorporate all of those elements in their church programs. (They still don't like divorce--who does?--but today's evangelical churches not only have programs for divorced members, they even arrange their buildings' security so non-custodial parents can't swipe the kids.) What's left? Gays. That's why pastors tend to talk so much about them.