The A major, decisive battle in the culture war is over. The other side won. Soon their efforts will amount to little more than bouncing the rubble.
I don’t know what else to conclude from this latest comprehensive poll from this new, comprehensive poll from the non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute, taking a snapshot of America’s views on same-sex marriage. Excerpts:
Today, roughly equal numbers of Americans say they strongly favor (22%) legalizing same-sex marriage as say they strongly oppose it (20%). By contrast, a decade earlier strong opponents (35%) outnumbered strong supporters (9%) by roughly a 4-to-1 ratio.
Today, majorities of Americans in the Northeast (60%), West (58%), and Midwest (51%) favor allowing gay and lesbians to legally marry, while Southerners are evenly divided (48% favor, 48% oppose).
According to the PRRI press release, it is hard to overestimate the age/generation factor in opposing same-sex marriage. Opponents of SSM are literally dying off. For the overwhelming majority of Millennials, SSM is seen as just and right. None of this is news, by the way, not to anybody who has been following this story.
What is news, or at least what will be surprising to many, is this:
The survey, using self-identification, finds 5.1 percent of the adult population identifies as either gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Notably, Americans overestimate the size of the LGBT population by a factor of 4 (20 percent median estimate). Only 14 percent of Americans accurately estimate the gay and lesbian population at 5 percent or less.
Well, yeah. The US media has been flooding the zone with coverage — and heavily positive coverage — of homosexuality and gay marriage for a decade. This is a data point that, to my mind, helps falsify the narrative that the pro-SSM arguments have won. This was not a matter of dispassionate analysis, except perhaps among a small minority. This was about emotions, and always was going to be about emotions. The pro-SSM side won the propaganda battle. There’s not much point in conservatives complaining about it now. But it is important to understand how this happened.
To me, the most interesting data point is this one:
Regular churchgoers (those who attend at least once or twice a month), particularly those who belong to religious groups that are supportive of same-sex marriage, are likely to over- estimate opposition for same-sex marriage in their churches by 20 percentage points or more.
About 6-in-10 (59%) white mainline Protestants believe their fellow congregants are mostly opposed to same-sex marriage. However, among white mainline Protestants who attend church regularly, only 36% oppose allowing gay and lesbian people to legally marry while a majority (57%) actually favor this policy.
Roughly three-quarters (73%) of Catholics believe that most of their fellow congregants are opposed to same-sex marriage. However, Catholics who regularly attend church are in fact divided on the issue (50% favor, 45% oppose).
Why is this so interesting? Because it shows the power of perception. The way people really think within these churches is meaningfully different from the way they think that they think. In other words, the opposition to SSM within many American denominations is largely a phantom. Not even among regular churchgoers in the Catholic Church, which is implacably opposed at the theological level to SSM, can they muster a majority to oppose gay marriage. Nobody should expect the Catholic Church to start marrying gay couples now, or ever. But the results of this poll suggest that if activists within American churches started to push, they would find the resistance to approval of homosexuality collapsing.
They should be careful what they wish for, because their victory may be Pyrrhic. The same poll finds that a significant number of Millennials who have left the church saying that the church’s perceived negativity towards LGBT folks had a lot to do with it. That strikes me more as a rationalism than a reason. If that were true, they would go to one of the liberal, gay-affirming churches. For reasons that are not entirely clear, once many people cease to believe in traditional Christian teaching on sexuality, they cease to believe in Christianity in any meaningful sense. Which came first? Hard to say. But if a church or denomination’s view on homosexuality were a deciding factor, we would see liberal churches gaining members among the Millennials. In fact, all churches are losing their affiliation.
I know there’s going to be a lot of crowing in the comments thread about this from liberals. There always is. I’ll publish it, but I don’t really care about it. What I’m really interested in is what religious and social conservatives who find themselves on the losing side here think is the next step. A federal judge in Texas today did what federal judges these days do: found the state’s prohibition on SSM unconstitutional. We all know, or should know, where this is going as a legal matter, and soon. We also know, or should know, where this is going as a cultural matter.
So, what next? What’s our plan for ourselves, our families, our churches, and our local communities? Do we even have one? What would it look like?