Nearly one-third of Millennials who left childhood religion cite negative church teachings about gay and lesbian people as important factor
WASHINGTON — In the decade since Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, Americans’ support for allowing gay and lesbian people to legally wed has jumped 21 percentage points, from 32 percent in 2003 to 53 percent in 2013, transforming the American religious landscape.
A major new national survey of more than 4,500 respondents conducted by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute finds that while most religious groups opposed same-sex marriage in 2003, today there are religious groups on both sides of the issue. In addition to the nearly three-quarters of religiously unaffiliated Americans (73 percent) who favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry, majorities of Jewish Americans (83 percent), white mainline Protestants (62 percent), white Catholics (58 percent) and Hispanic Catholics (56 percent) currently support same-sex marriage. Hispanic Protestants are divided; 46 percent favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry and 49 percent oppose. By contrast, nearly 6-in-10 (59 percent) black Protestants and nearly 7-in-10 (69 percent) white evangelical Protestants oppose same-sex marriage. Only 35 percent of black Protestants and 27 percent of white evangelical Protestants support same-sex marriage.
“While many churches and people in the pews have been moving away from their opposition to LGBT rights over the last decade, this new research provides further evidence that negative teachings on this issue have hurt churches’ ability to attract and retain young people,” said PRRI CEO Dr. Robert P. Jones. “Nearly one-third of Millennials who left their childhood religion say unfavorable church teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people played a significant role in their decision to head for the exit.”
A strong majority of (58 percent) Americans, including 7-in-10 (70 percent) Millennials (ages 18 to 33), agree that religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues. Notably, nearly one-third of Millennials who left their childhood religion to become unaffiliated say negative teachings about or negative treatment of gay or lesbian people were either a somewhat (17 percent) or very (14 percent) important factor in their decision to leave.
Two factors, age and having a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian, have an especially large impact on support for same-sex marriage, the survey finds.
Today, nearly 7-in-10 (69 percent) Millennials favor same-sex marriage, compared to 37 percent of Americans who are part of the Silent Generation (ages 68 and older). Even within groups that oppose same-sex marriage, Millennial stand apart. For example, half (50 percent) of Millennial Republicans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, a view shared by only 34 percent of Republicans overall. Nearly 6-in-10 (59 percent) black Millennials say gay and lesbian people should be allowed to legally marry, compared to only 39 percent of black Americans overall. More than 4-in-10 (43 percent) white evangelical Protestant Millennials favor same-sex marriage, compared to 27 percent of white evangelical Protestants overall.
“Few changes over the last 20 years have had a more profound effect on support for same-sex marriage than the increasing number of people who now have a gay friend or family member,” noted Daniel Cox, PRRI Research Director. “The number of Americans who have a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian has increased by a factor of three over the last two decades, from 22 percent in 1993 to 65 percent today.”
The survey finds that Americans who have a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian are 27 points more likely than those who do not to favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry (63 percent vs. 36 percent). This “friends and family” effect is present across all major demographic, religious and political groups.
The survey also finds that LGBT Americans continue to face significant levels of discrimination. Majorities of Americans overall say that transgender people (71 percent) and gay and lesbian people (68 percent), face a lot of discrimination in the United States. More than 8-in-10 (83 percent) LGBT Americans say gay and lesbian people face a lot of discrimination in the country. Roughly two-thirds (66 percent) of Americans, including 80 percent of LGBT Americans, also agree bullying of gay and lesbian teenagers is a major problem in schools today. The belief that bullying of gay and lesbian youth is a major problem in schools is broadly shared across partisan and religious lines.
Americans strongly support laws that would protect gay and lesbian people from discrimination in the workplace. More than 7-in-10 (72 percent) Americans favor laws protecting gay and lesbian people from job discrimination, compared to less than one-quarter (23 percent) who oppose. Solid majorities of both political parties and every major religious group support workplace nondiscrimination laws for gay and lesbian people. Three-quarters (75 percent) of Americans incorrectly believe it is currently illegal under federal law to fire or refuse to hire someone because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Only 15 percent of Americans correctly say that such discrimination is currently legal under federal law, while nine percent offer no opinion.
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.
Among the findings:
Since Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage in 2003, support among Americans overall for legalizing same-sex marriage has jumped a full 21 points from just under one-third (32 percent) in 2003 to a majority (53 percent) in 2013. Notably, while all major religious groups opposed same-sex marriage a decade ago, today, there are religious groups on both sides of the issue.
- Today, roughly equal numbers of Americans say they strongly favor (22 percent) legalizing same-sex marriage as say they strongly oppose it (20 percent). By contrast, a decade earlier strong opponents (35 percent) outnumbered strong supporters (9 percent) by roughly a 4-to-1 ratio.
- Majorities of Americans in the Northeast (60 percent), West (58 percent), and Midwest (51 percent) currently favor allowing gay and lesbians to legally marry, while Southerners are evenly divided (48 percent favor, 48 percent oppose).
- Political divisions on the question of whether to legalize same-sex marriage have become wider during the past decade, the new survey finds. The gap in support for same-sex marriage between Democrats and Republicans has increased from 21 percentage points in 2003 to 30 points today. In 2003, roughly 4-in-10 Democrats (39 percent) and political independents (39 percent) favored same-sex marriage, compared to 18 percent of Republicans. Currently, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of Democrats and nearly 6-in-10 (57 percent) independents support same-sex marriage, compared to only 34 percent of Republicans. More than 6-in-10 (62 percent) Republicans oppose same-sex marriage.
- When it comes to how to address the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage, a slim majority of Americans (52 percent) prefer states to decide while more than 4-in-10 (43 percent) say it should be decided at the national level. Today, 6-in-10 (60 percent) opponents of same-sex marriage think the question of whether to legalize same-sex marriage should be decided by the states. By contrast, a majority (54 percent) of same-sex marriage supporters prefer the issue be decided at the national level. In 2006, however, the preferences of each group were reversed.
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 underestimate support for same-sex marriage in their churches by 20 percentage points or more.
- About 6-in-10 (59 percent) 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 percent oppose allowing gay and lesbian people to legally marry while a majority (57 percent) actually favor this policy.
- Roughly three-quarters (73 percent) 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 percent favor, 45 percent oppose).
Even though most polls since 2012 have shown a majority of Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry, only about one-third (34 percent) of the public believe that most Americans favor same-sex marriage. 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.
Millennials report a nearly 20-point gap between the views of their families and the views of their friends. Nearly half (49 percent) of Millennials say most of their family members oppose same-sex marriage, compared to 41 percent who say most of their family members support it. In contrast, only 30 percent of Millennials say most of their friends oppose same-sex marriage while nearly twice as many (59 percent) say most of their friends favor same-sex marriage. Americans from the Silent Generation are equally likely to say that most of their friends (57 percent) and family members (56 percent) oppose same-sex marriage.
Roughly 6-in-10 (58 percent) Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt children. Support has increased substantially since 1999, when 38 percent of Americans favored allowing gay couples to adopt children. The partisan divisions on attitudes toward adoption largely mirror the findings on support for same-sex marriage.
- Majorities of every generational cohort except the Silent Generation favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt children. Seven-in-ten (70 percent) Millennials, 58 percent of Generation X, and 52 percent of Baby Boomers favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt children. Among members of the Silent Generation, only 42 percent favor this policy while 49 percent are opposed.
By a ratio of more than 2-to-1, the Democratic Party is perceived as being friendlier toward LGBT people than the Republican Party. Seven-in-ten (70 percent) Americans say the Democratic Party is friendly toward LGBT people, compared to 14 percent who say it is unfriendly. Sixteen percent say they don’t know or refused to provide an opinion. By contrast, fewer than 3-in-10 (28 percent) Americans say the Republican Party is friendly toward LGBT people while a majority (54 percent) believe the Republican Party is unfriendly toward LGBT people; roughly 1-in-5 (18 percent) offer no opinion.
- LGBT Americans are as likely as Americans overall (70 percent) to say that the Democratic Party is friendly toward LGBT people, compared to 20 percent who say the party is unfriendly. Fifteen percent of LGBT Americans think the Republican Party is friendly toward LGBT people, compared to more than 7-in-10 (72 percent) who say the GOP is unfriendly toward LGBT people.
Currently, majorities of Americans perceive three religious groups to be unfriendly to LGBT people: the Catholic Church (58 percent), the Mormon church (53 percent), and evangelical Christian churches (51 percent). Perceptions of non-evangelical Protestant churches, African-American churches and the Jewish religion are notably less negative.
Among Americans who have left their childhood religion and are now religiously unaffiliated, about one-quarter say negative teachings about, or treatment of, gay and lesbian people was a somewhat important (14 percent) or very important (10 percent) factor in their decision to disaffiliate.
The percentage of Americans who believe AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior has fallen dramatically over time. Fourteen percent of Americans agree with the idea that AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior, while 81percent disagree. In 1992, more than twice as many Americans (36 percent) agreed that AIDS might be God’s punishment for immoral sexual behavior while fewer than 6-in-10 (57 percent) disagreed.
A majority of Americans say people with HIV or AIDS face a lot of discrimination in the country. Americans are significantly more likely to say those who are living with HIV or AIDS in the United States became infected because of irresponsible behavior than to say the same about those living with HIV or AIDS in the developing world.
- Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Americans say that people with HIV or AIDS in the United States became infected because of irresponsible personal behavior, while just one-quarter (25 percent) say they became infected through no fault of their own.
- By contrast, only about 4-in-10 (41 percent) Americans believe that people who have contracted HIV in the developing world did so because of irresponsible behavior. Nearly half (48 percent) say they contracted the disease through no fault of their own.
The report draws from bilingual (Spanish and English) telephone interviews conducted between November 12, 2013 and December 18, 2013, by professional interviewers under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates. Interviews were conducted by telephone among a random sample of 4,509 adults 18 years of age or older in the entire United States (1,801 respondents were interviewed on a cell phone, including 977 without a landline phone). The landline and cell phone samples were provided by Survey Sampling International and the final sample was weighted to ensure proper representativeness. The survey was funded by The Ford Foundation. The margin of error is +/- 1.7 percentage points for the general sample at the 95% confidence level.
Read the topline questionnaire, including the survey methodology.