Young evangelicals’ surprising opposition to same-sex marriage: blip or something real?

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This graphic is not offered for republication.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

This graphic is not offered for republication.

There is a curious phenomenon showing up in survey data. And it may flip our understanding of public opinion toward same-sex marriage on its head.

Young evangelicals may be bucking the culture and standing against same-sex marriage. They are out of step with other young adults and much more in line with older evangelicals.

The 2012 American National Election Study asked 5,914 people their position on same-sex marriage. The large sample size gives us the ability to look at age differences among subgroups. There were over 1,200 evangelicals, which is more than the total number of people in most national surveys.

The ANES gave people three options: did they support same-sex marriage, civil unions (but not “marriage”), or no recognition of same-sex relationships? Overall, younger people were much more in favor of marriage equality than older Americans were.

Evangelicals are one group in the USA who remain doggedly against same-sex marriage. Even as Americans as a whole and other religious groups have moved toward acceptance of same-sex marriage (at least as a legal arrangement), evangelicals have remained opposed.

What is curious, however, is the difference in age cohorts. The graph shows two groups of Americans: evangelicals and everyone else.  Among non-evangelicals, there is support for same-sex marriage, particularly among younger adults. A majority of those under 40 support same-sex marriage.  Younger evangelicals, too, are more supportive of same-sex marriage than are older evangelicals with one major exception.

Fewer than one-in-four college-age evangelicals support same-sex marriage. Non-evangelicals the same age are three times more likely to hold this position. These younger evangelicals take a position much more like their parents than other Americans their age.

The graph takes into account sample size (the dashed lines show the 95 percent confidence interval, which is based on the margin of error). Still, the data should be taken with caution. We need to see what other surveys find. This could be a blip (for lack of a better term) or something real. It’s too soon to say with certainty.

But if it is real, then it suggests that evangelicals may be changing how their youth view marriage and sexuality. The age cohort in the study came to age after same-sex marriage started making advances.  As a result, the 17-21 year old adults grew up in the time in which opposition to same-sex marriage became a defining issue among evangelicals, a line in the sand between those seen as holding Biblical truth and those acquiescing to cultural changes. Add to this the possibility of defection. Younger adults raised as evangelicals may have left because of differences over this issue.

Whatever the reason, it’s something we need to keep an eye on and study more.

Correction: An earlier graphic had the labels reversed. The graphic is now correct.


  • John McGrath

    College age Evagelicals have just emerged from high schools in conservative areas of the country. In such high schools hatred of homosexuals and bullying are not only accepted but approved, and often supported by school authorities.

    Among both liberals and conservatives in the college age group “loyalty” is extremely important to their identities, and loyalty often takes fervid, even extreme forms. This is true of both conservative and liberal youth. In most cases young people do not grow skeptical in later years of their earlier loyalties but they may grow more moderate in their expression. We shall see.

  • Frank

    Why is is a surprise that some young people take God seriously when he tells us what marriage and sexuality should be, man plus woman, and not follow the herd of those who succumb to culture?

  • Steven

    Your graph legend is wrong. Red should be other Americans, not Evangelicals. Makes me lose faith in this article somewhat!

  • Alan Katz

    Um, your article doesn’t match your chart.

    According to the legend on the chart, evengelical youth are MORE likely to support same-sex marriage. And, from what I’ve read in other surveys, that’s true. Notwithstanding other comments here to the contrary, young people are infinitely more accepting of same-sex relationships – it is the demographic bubble that ensures equal rights no matter what the courts do. Most polls show young people 18-29 approve of same sex marriage by 73 – 80%, and other polls show evangelicals right up there with them, though a little lower.

    I suspect that the graph has it right, and your article totally misinterpreted it. If you follow the graph, not the article, you get the same gay-positive results all the other surveys are showing.

  • Pingback: Are Millennials Leaving the Church Because of Homosexuality? - The Wardrobe DoorThe Wardrobe Door()

  • Chuck

    I think that blip has something to do with late teenagers coming from conservative churches and households not having had the opportunity to be exposed to people and ideas. Additionally, if they are at public universities, there’s a defensive insularity that happens among EVs at those places. They are essentially mirroring the beliefs of the church communities. I don’t think it’s a generational trend, per se, so much as it is a developmental one.

  • The Great God Pan

    It’s not surprising and it’s not a blip. How much Pro-Religion Kool Aid do you have to imbibe before you get to the point where you’re surprised that evangelicals of any age are opposed to gay marriage?

  • The Great God Pan

    The chart clearly shows that fewer than 25% of evangelicals aged 17-21 support gay marriage, compared to around 75% of non-evangelicals in that age group.

  • Jason Jehosephat

    Or maybe being someone who support same-sex marriage correlates with people *leaving* the evangelical denominations, so that the remaining evangelicals continue to appear to be resolutely against it.

  • Marco Luxe

    It may be an anomaly of self identification. College age young adults may simply not want to self identify as evangelicals because of a negative perception with their peers. This leaves only the most conservative young people to self identify as EV, ant that makes it look like all young EVs are bucking acceptance. This is what can happen when you omit raw numbers and segregate data.

  • Mike84

    Agreed, but for different reasons.
    Why is it a surprise that followers (of any age) of a hateful, ignorant, primitive doctrine, are ignorant, and intolerant and hateful people?

    The important thing is that, as a whole, Americans are in support for equality, and the bigots are a dying breed.

  • Tom

    Obviously the data is being corroborated elsewhere that Evangelicals, no matter what age, are largely opposed to the homosexual agenda, which explains why these Christians are often bullied and labelled as hateful, ignorant, homophobic, etc. by those they disagree with. They are extremely problematic in the plan to re-engineer American society.

  • Jonathan

    I’m curious to know whether professor Tobin Grant considers it possible for Black people to be evangelicals too.

    In previous articles he has used the term “Evangelicals” to refer only to White evangelicals, while Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American evangelicals don’t count.

    So in this case, which is it? Are you numbers here referring only to White evangelicals, or to all evangelicals?

  • This post uses denomination to classify evangelicals. “Protestants” are divided into three traditions (or sub-traditions, depending on how you want to label them): evangelical, mainline, and black protestant. Evangelical tradition includes traditionally white denominations, but it is not only whites. Anyone who attends an evangelical tradition church is defined as an evangelical in this survey; likewise anyone who attends a Black Protestant church (e.g., AME) is a Black Protestant, regardless of their race or ethnicity.

  • Joseph Dindinger

    The only reason for young people to not support marriage is because they have yet to be indoctrinated at institutions of “higher” learning.