Historic Pro-Gay Equality Shift Led by Millennials—Evangelicals Included

The Public Religion Research Institute released on Monday “Generations at Odds: The Millennial Generation and the Future of Gay and Lesbian Rights,” a bookend to its June study on Millennials and abortion rights.

The report affirmed the steady upward trend in support among the general public for gay rights generally and marriage equality specifically, which PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones described as accelerating in the past two years. He said 2011, in which a number of reputable polls found majority support among Americans for marriage equality, marked a sea change in public opinion. Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who commented on the new report, used historical data to highlight the dramatic change in public opinion on gay rights issues over the past quarter century, during which she said attitudes on reproductive choice, by contrast, were relatively stagnant. She said, for example, that the first poll in which she could find a question on marriage was in 1988, when only 12 percent agreed that gay couples should be allowed to marry and 73 percent disagreed.

In the new PRRI poll, which finds Americans equally divided on marriage, majority support for marriage equality holds across most religious groups, including Catholics (52 percent in favor, 41 percent opposed) and white mainline Protestants (51-40). The exceptions are black Protestants (34 percent support, 60 percent oppose), and much more strongly, white evangelicals (19 percent support, 76 percent oppose).

There’s a similar religious divide when it comes to theological judgments about whether sex between two adults of the same gender is a sin, with majorities of all religious groups other than black Protestants and white evangelicals saying it is not a sin. Black Protestants are nearly as likely as white evangelicals to identify gay sex as a sin (78 and 80 percent respectively), but black Protestants are much more likely to draw a distinction between that religious view and their views on public policy. That distinction is also evident among the public as a whole. PRRI Research Director Dan Cox said that among Americans who morally disapprove of same-gender sexual relationships, nearly one in five still favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, and four in ten say gay and lesbian relationships should be accepted by society.

The report highlights a huge generation gap, noting that there is at least a 20-point gap between Millennials (defined as 18-29 year olds) and seniors (65 and older) on a range of policy issues, including marriage, adoption rights, civil unions, and protections against employment discrimination. The gap extends to young evangelicals: 44 percent favor marriage equality, compared to 19 percent of evangelicals overall, and only 12 percent of evangelical seniors.

At some religious right conferences, leaders have bemoaned this gap and held out hope that as young evangelicals get older, get married, and have children, they will become more conservative on gay rights issues. Jones said he believed that was a false hope, saying that growing older and having families will not change the younger generation’s familiarity and friendships with gay people. Laura Olson, a Clemson University political science professor who also commented on the poll, agreed, speculating that if anything the trend will continue to intensify as people come out younger and are more free to be out at work and to participate in social and athletic activities and religious congregations.

A bit of bad news for equality supporters is that there is greater intensity among equality opponents than supporters—the more you are opposed to lesbian and gay rights, the more intensely felt that preference will be—which Olson said reflects the kind of resistance that usually accompanies radical cultural change.

A couple of other notes on the new study:

Americans who consider themselves part of the Tea Party movement (about 15 percent of the public), are more opposed to same-sex marriage than the public at large; they’re even more opposed than Republicans. The 68 percent opposition among Tea Partiers approaches the 76 percent opposition among white evangelicals.

According to Cox, among the five strongest predictors of whether a person opposes same-sex marriage, four are predictors of opposition, while one predicts support for marriage equality:

1. Having a literal view of the Bible
2. Attending religious services at least once a week
3. Being conservative
4. Having a close friend/family member who is gay or lesbian
5. Being an evangelical Christian 

Peter Montgomery, a Washington, DC-based writer, is an associate editor for Religion Dispatches and a Senior Fellow at People For the American Way. His work focuses on religion, politics, and LGBT issues. Follow him on twitter @petemont.