Survey: Americans turn sharply favorable on gay issues

March 3, 2014


Americans’ attitudes toward the lives and choices of gays and lesbians have changed radically since Massachusetts first legalized same–sex marriage a decade ago.

A new survey finds a significant shift toward tolerance across every religious, political and age group and every region of the country, said Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. PRRI's survey, released Feb. 26, reveals the ramifications of these changes in family, church and community life.

“Only the issue of marijuana looks anything like this in terms of rapid movement in favorability," Jones said. "But with that one exception, it’s unusual to see this much change in a relatively short amount of time."

Overall support for same-sex marriage jumped 21 percentage points, from 32 percent in 2003 in a Pew Research survey to 53 percent in 2013 in PRRI’s survey. 

During this period, gay marriage became legal in 17 states and the District of Columbia and the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, that blocked federal recognition of legally wed gay couples.

Since 2003, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have opened their doors to gay bishops and clergy, even as most other major U.S. denominations kept their teachings against homosexual behavior intact.

Yet over the decade, PRRI found, the number of people who say same-sex marriage is against their religious beliefs dropped, from 62 percent to 51 percent.

Within specific groups, the drop was less dramatic but still apparent:

  • For white evangelical Protestants, the number fell from 84 percent to 78 percent.
  • Black Protestants, down from 66 percent to 61 percent.
  • Catholics, down from 65 percent to 53 percent.
  • White mainline Protestants, down from 59 percent to 45 percent.

 Only one group ― the fast growing numbers of people who say they are not affiliated with any religion ― showed an increase, rising from 18% to 26%. Jones said the increase came largely from less educated minorities who have moved away from church but still consider themselves religious.

Overall, most people (51 percent) say sex between adults of the same gender is morally wrong. Still, 43 percent ― and 56 percent of millennials (ages 18-33) ― say it is morally acceptable.

Even so, “support for legality outstrips moral acceptability in several religious groups,” said Jones. For example, 47 percent of white Catholics find gay sex to be morally acceptable, “but 58 percent of the same group say they favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. It is not only that they are more tolerant of a legal norm. They are shifting their own moral lens on the issue.”

Meanwhile, religious leaders’ continued preaching against homosexual behavior is driving some people out the church doors, Jones said. PRRI found people perceive three major religious groups to be “unfriendly" toward lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people:

  • The Catholic Church (58 percent)
  • The Mormon church (53 percent)
  • Evangelical Christian churches (51 percent)

Among those who say they left their childhood religion and now have no religious identity, nearly one in four (24 percent) say their church’s negative teachings or treatment of LGBT people was an important reason they left. That rises to 31 percent of millennials, damaging churches' ability to bring in ― and keep ― young adults, Jones said.

At the root of change: A personal connection to someone who is LGBT. The number of Americans who say they have a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian rose from 22 percent in 1993 to 65 percent today. Again, millennials lead the way: 71percent say they have a close friend or relative who is gay or lesbian.

“We looked at the power this has over views toward social policy issues,” said Jones, and found that the two related factors ― age and social connection ― “overlap to create a different worldview of ‘normalcy.’”

And those with personal ties to an LGBT person are almost twice as likely to favor same-sex marriage (63 percent to 36 percent against). PRRI reports: “This ‘family and friends’ effect is present across all major demographic, religious and political groups.”

Republicans with personal ties are doubly likely to support same-sex marriage than Republicans with no such connections: 43 percent vs. 21 percent. For Democrats, the “friends and family” split is even greater: 73 percent vs. 44 percent.

Political divisions remain sharp, although all major groups moved toward more support for gay marriage:

  • Democrats, from 39 percent in 2003 to 64 percent today;
  • Independents, from 39 percent to 57 percent;
  • Republicans, from 18 percent to 34 percent.

There’s also a change in how people would like to see same-sex marriage become legal. In 2006, 46 percent thought it should be decided by the states. Now, it’s 52 percent.

The survey did find several issues of widespread agreement on LGBT issues:

  • About seven in 10 surveyed say LGBT people face “a lot of discrimination.”
  • 72 percent favor laws protecting LGBT people from workplace discrimination, although only 15 percent of Americans correctly say such discrimination is currently legal under federal law.
  • Roughly 6-in-10 (58 percent) Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt children.
  • Almost all Americans overestimate how many people are LGBT. The median estimate is 20 percent of the U.S. population -- four times the correct number of 5 percent.

“Americans are terrible demographers,” said Jones. “We asked them to estimate a number of minority groups and every category was wildly overestimated.”

Neither are many people good at projecting public opinion. Despite multiple surveys in the last two years showing majority support for same-sex marriage, PRRI finds, “Nearly half (49 percent) of the public incorrectly believes that most Americans oppose same-sex marriage, and roughly 1-in-10 (9 percent) believe the country is divided on the issue.”

The survey of 4,500 U.S. adults was conducted in English and Spanish, on landlines and cell phones, between Nov. 12 and Dec. 18. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.7 percentage points.

  1. I am a 47 year old female that was raised in a loving family and grew up in the Baptist Church. I was fortunate in that the Pastors did not teach hate, but I knew how the denomination felt about homosexuality. I had boyfriends throughout my growing up, but I was never happy. These were really cute, kind and great guys. My friends were always jealous, but I knew deep inside what was different about me. When I was 16 years old, I came to fully understand when I fell in total and complete love. I tried to "pray the gay away", but nothing changed and I couldn't talk to anyone about it. I was popular in school and very active in church. I had no one to turn to for understanding and kept my feelings hidden. She and I kept our relationship hidden, while dating guys for acceptance from our friends and society. It was a beautiful time in my life, but I struggled deeply, felt abandoned and cried each night. We were secretly together until I was 21 years old. For years, I tried to run away from myself, because I couldn't face who I was and I felt that God didn't love me. When I was 28 years old, I told my family and friends, I was very blessed that everyone in my life was so accepting. I had finally found inner peace with who I was, that God doesn't make mistakes, that God loves me and I could not possibly go to hell for who I love. My true love and I reconnected over 10 years ago and we've been together ever since. For 30 years, I have been a Christian without a church home and without a denomination to belong to. I have spent years watching Christians hold Bibles in their hands while saying hateful and horrible things about gay people and others. It has shattered and broken my heart beyond expression. For 30 years I became skeptical and hardened when it came to other Christians. In October 2013, God placed a person in my life who I thought very highly of her views, stands on current issues and her thoughts of how love is the most important message that Jesus and the Bible teaches. Without me knowing it, little seeds were planted in our conversations and I was amazed that this religious person could have views just like mine. She is an active part of your denomination and those conversations sparked my interest in learning more about PC USA and the Bible. I am thrilled beyond words to learn about the changes in your denomination in 2011 and I pray that full equality will be in the near future for this denomination. I've been attending a Presbyterian church for two and a half months and I feel so happy to have a church home and a denomination that I have so much respect and love for. We are all sinners, but I don't believe who I love is one of those sins.

    by M. H.

    March 12, 2014

  2. Although Jesus was the most accepting person we've ever known, he came to save us from our sins. He accepts us while we are still sinners and says sin no more. Loving the sinner but not the sin is Jesus' model. A God of love with no justice or a God of justice with no love...he is neither, he is a God of BOTH love and justice. He loves all people and so should we. But he also calls out sin...and so should we. I will submit, before we start to call out sin in others we should call out our own sin. My sin is no better than anyone else's. I will acknowledge my sin, because when I do, I accept the costly grace that Jesus died to cover me in. If I don't believe I have sinned, his blood is cheap grace that spilled in vain...recognizing the sin is what changes lives. It changes lives because it is exactly what Jesus did...he loved the sinner. Loving perfect people, loving people who do no wrong, that's easy...but loving each other while we are sinful, that's hard, that's costly, that's Jesus.

    by Kay M

    March 5, 2014

  3. Some day may we see people as people not as particular sexes in order to drive our particular beliefs. Jesus was the most accepting person we've known in our faith dimensions.. a deep look at the 12 disciples should give us a clue...not sure how many of us would want those 12 as elders on a session. Jesus' life was exhibited by his acceptance (grace) of others. The first evangelist was in John 4...the rather shady lady at the well... how we need to learn and live with the help of the Spirit.

    by Bud Fr

    March 3, 2014

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