God and Prop. 8: New Poll Holds Surprises on Gay Marriage

When Honduran native Flor Guardado went to the polls in 2008, she voted in favor of Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that ultimately outlawed gay marriage in California. She was part of the 53 percent of Hispanic voters who cast ballots in favor of the measure.

“It’s our tradition,” she told the Washington Post after the vote. “In Latino Central American culture, the gays aren’t accepted.”

A new poll released by the Public Religion Research Institute reveals two years after Prop. 8 that attitude among some Hispanics in California may be changing; but the poll also reveals deep differences between Latino Protestants and Catholics.

“The divide between Latino Protestants and Latino Catholics in California is a really important divide for understanding the landscape in California on gay and lesbian issues,” said Robert P. Jones, the founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute.

The poll revealed that if the vote on Prop. 8 were to take place now, a majority (51 percent) said they would vote no—keeping gay marriage legal in the state. Forty-five percent said they would vote to keep such unions illegal. The telling part is that Latino Catholics, along with white Catholics and white mainline Protestants, were the three religious groups with the strongest support for gay marriage, with 57 percent of Latino Catholics in support, outpacing the 51 percent and 54 percent, respectively, of white Catholics and white mainline Protestants. Only 22 percent of Latino Protestants support legalizing gay marriage.

The trend shows Latino Protestants lining up with white evangelical Protestants and black Protestants in their opposition to gay marriage. Seventy-three percent of Latino Protestants oppose such unions as do 71 percent of white evangelicals and 58 percent of black Protestants.

The numbers show that the divide is mainly theological, particularly over how these groups view the Bible.

Californians who see the Bible as the literal word of God were less likely to support gay marriage (only 26 percent), than those who saw the Bible as a book written by men and not the word of God (76 percent of whom support gay marriage). The literalists tend to be among protestants of the Latino, white evangelical, and black groups. Latino Catholics and white mainline Protestants tend to view the Bible as not literal, though still as a sacred text to be taken seriously.

The difference also lies in how Latino Catholics and Protestants view God. Overall, most of those polled from all religious factions (53 percent) say God is “a person with whom one can have a relationship.” Thirty-one percent view God as an impersonal force. Latino Catholics, the pollsters report “stand out for the relatively high proportion who believe that God is an impersonal force.”

Rev. Madison Shockley, the pastor at Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, California, says when viewed in that light, it’s easy to see why the theological gap is so great—it all turns on the how religious groups value human freedom.

“If you think of God as personal then you wonder, ‘What does God say about this?’ and that then determines how you feel about it. But, if God is a force in the universe, then people tend to understand that force as one for good, for love, a positive force. Then it’s incumbent on the human to interpret what is good, what is love, what is positive? That leaves a lot more room for human freedom to determine in a particular moment in time, ‘What does God desire of us?’”

Another point of difference seems to be what Flor Guardado emphasized: culture, especially around family. While Latino Catholics tended to have strong support for gay and lesbian equality in areas like workplace protection and allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military (about three-quarters support both), Latino Protestants are less enthusiastic with only 59 percent supporting workplace protections and 50 percent supporting open service in the military. The two groups were largely divided over gay adoption as well with 51 percent of Latino Catholics in support, but only 27 percent of Latino Protestants in support.

“You see closer correlations between Latino Catholics and Protestants on individual rights like in the workplace and military service, but we see the bigger breaks when it comes to family issues like adoption and marriage,” Jones noted.

It was the issue of family that kept Guardado from voting for marriage equality back in 2008: “I’m sorry for the gay people. They have feelings,” said the mother of two. “Legally, I don’t want that for the children. They will be confused and think it’s okay. They might think they’re gay, too.”

While these differences may be glaring, Latino Catholics and Protestants, along with black Protestants, do have one thing in common: all three groups have shown the largest movement in support for gay rights over the past five years. The strongest surge of support has been among Latino Catholics with 31 percent reporting an increase in support for equality versus 9 percent who say they’ve grown more opposed. (That’s larger than the overall jump of 25 percent in support for gay rights among all groups.) Their Protestant counterparts report a 25 percent jump in support, but 15 percent have grown more opposed. Among black Protestants, 27 percent report growing support for gay rights, while 13 percent are more opposed.

What makes these numbers even more interesting is who holds sway on the opinions of these groups. Overall, doctors, therapists, and parents of gay and lesbian children or gays and lesbians themselves are seen as trusted sources of information. However, only 25 percent of Latino Catholics say they trust their own clergy leaders a lot on this issue, preferring instead to trust parents of gay or lesbian children, and gay or lesbian couples.

Black and Latino Protestants, however, put a lot of stock in what their pastors have to say (39 percent and 42 percent respectively). Not surprisingly, white evangelical Protestants trust their pastors’ views on homosexuality overwhelmingly (62 percent).

But what are these people, especially those who have reported becoming more supportive of marriage equality, hearing from their pastors? Latino Catholics—who have reported the largest increase in support—mostly hear nothing, or their pastors take no position on the issue (19 percent). They hear that homosexuality should be discouraged 15 percent of the time, and positive messages of acceptance about 8 percent of the time.

Black protestants hear negative views about homosexuality from the pulpit about 47 percent of the time while Latino Protestants hear homosexuality preached against 37 percent of the time. Homosexuality is spoken of in a positive light only 2 percent of the time in black churches, and five percent of the time in Latino Protestant settings.

Rev. Shockley attributes the rise in black Protestant support to a tradition in the black church to not take sides in the culture war, but to instead take a “sideline position.”

“There are a higher rate of people in the black community who believe it has nothing to do with them so they are predisposed to say, ‘Y’all want to go ahead, go ahead.’”

Despite the divide in the Latino community, however, as well as the continued opposition from white evangelicals and black Protestants, Jones and his researchers expect the trend of support for gay marriage to continue to grow across all the religious groups for one reason: age.

“The message I take away from this research is that opponents of Proposition 8 can sit tight because time is on their side,” said Diane Winston, the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. “Each year, as more young people become eligible to vote, if the demographics hold, they will be supporters of marriage equality. It’s great to keep educating people but it looks like there is a certain inevitability that change will come.”