Beliefs Culture

Survey: Americans turn sharply favorable on gay issues

Wes Warner (right) holds a gay pride flag during a rally celebrating the Supreme Court's gay marriage ruling at Ilus W. Davis Park in Kansas City, Mo., on June 26, 2013. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

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

"Conflict Between Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Belief" graphic courtesy of Public Religion Research Institute

“Conflict Between Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Belief” graphic courtesy of Public Religion Research Institute

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 Wednesday (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 and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America 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 percent to 26 percent. 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.”

"Who Should Decide Same-Sex Marriage?" graphic courtesy of Public Religion Research Institute.

“Who Should Decide Same-Sex Marriage?” graphic courtesy of Public Religion Research Institute.

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.


About the author

Cathy Lynn Grossman

Cathy Lynn Grossman specializes in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics. She also writes frequently on biomedical ethics and end-of-life-issues


Click here to post a comment

  • Cathy: Good reporting. No editorializing from you, but I expect we’ll see some strong disagreement in the comments.

  • Is it any surprise that culture will continue to drift farther and farther away from the Will of God? We were told this was going to happen.

  • As Americans drift farther away from religion, they drift closer to morality. A great example of social evolution.

    Religion is poison to humanity!

  • The sooner we all understand
    that religion is a useless charade
    the sooner we
    will abandon it and treat each other
    with kindness.

  • “We were told this was going to happen.”

    When every possible outcome is foretold – as in reading astrology, zodiac charts or Bible verses – the result is not something foretold but something “looking for a mark”.
    It is a parlor trick.

  • “we
    will abandon it and treat each other
    with kindness.”


    Just like the Soviet Union did. And they murdered 40 million of their own people.

  • @Steve,
    Are you talking about Josef Stalin, the Orthodox Seminarian
    who placed himself in the Holy Position of Czar, one step and intermediary from God and with his sidekick produced “the miracles of Lysenko” here on earth – the most enormous fruits and vegetables thanks to the power of the Holy Czar, Josef Stalin?

    That is NOT Atheism.

    To this day there are Holy Icons of Stalin with a halo on his head on the walls of the Russian Orthodox Churches from Stalingrad to Siberia – by order of Stalin himself.

    Atheism is the lack of belief in a God.
    Not the replacement of oneself in the position of God!

    Please don’t think you can smear Atheism with that record.
    Stalin’s Russia was the worship of Stalin as a one true God, and it was death to all who wouldn’t obey. That is not Atheism.

  • @Steve,
    Let’s not do the body count tallies.
    The dead in the name of religion outnumber all the atheists in the world.

  • Hardly.

    The atheist countries murdered 100 million or more.

    Killing in the name Christ? Maybe a couple hundred thousand. Not that it makes it right.

    Anyway, we will all stand before Christ Jesus one day.

    But the great part about that is this;

    the One who will be your judge is the same one who died on the Cross for you.

  • @Steve, WOW!!!!

    You said,
    “Killing in the name Christ? Maybe a couple hundred thousand.
    Not that it makes it right”

    Know what? I simply can’t let you think that!

    500 MILLION PEOPLE HAVE DIED at the hands of Christians.

    War on Aids – 20 Million Dead – Catholics obstructed condoms over a 20 year period through their clinics as women begged to be saved from their husbands (“Aids is bad but condoms are worse” – the Pope)
    Spanish Inquisition – 900,000 dead – Catholic
    The Crusades – (1095 c.e. -1291 c.e.) 2 Million dead – Catholics
    Anti-Semitism – 5 millions dead over 2000 years excluding the Holocaust
    Witch Hunts – 500,000 dead
    Ireland – 600,000 dead (Catholic vs. Protestant)
    Rwanda 1994 (Catholic Facists killed 1,000,000 with machetes)
    Boznia-Herzegovina (Catholic Facists)
    The Ivory Coast civil wars (Catholic Facists)
    Franco, the Spanish Civil War (Catholic Facists)
    Cypriat War (Catholics)
    East Timor civil war
    Sri Lankan civil war
    Syria vs. Israel
    Kashmir civil war
    Chechnya civil war
    Thirty Years War (Protestants VS. Catholics)
    WW1 – War of Christendom (37 Million dead)
    WW2 Nazi Anti-Semitism, “Gott Mit Uns” Axis powers – 50 Million dead
    • Albigensian Crusade, 1208-49
    • Algeria, 1992-
    • Baha’is, 1848-54
    • Bosnia, 1992-95
    • Boxer Rebellion, 1899-1901
    • Christian Romans, 30-313 CE
    • Croatia, 1991-92
    • English Civil War, 1642-46
    • Huguenot Wars, 1562-1598
    • India, 1992-2002
    • India: Suttee & Thugs
    • Indo-Pakistani Partition, 1947
    • Iran, Islamic Republic, 1979-
    • Iraq, Shiites, 1991-92
    • Jews, 1348
    • Jonestown, 1978
    • Lebanon 1860 / 1975-92
    • Molucca Is., 1999-
    • Mongolia, 1937-39
    • Northern Ireland, 1974-98
    • Russian pogroms 1905-06 / 1917-22
    • St. Bartholemew Massacre, 1572
    • Shang China, ca. 1300-1050 BCE
    • Shimabara Revolt, Japan 1637-38
    • Sikh uprising, India, 1984-91
    • Spanish Inquisition, 1478-1834
    • Taiping Rebellion, 1850-64
    • Tudor England
    • Vietnam, 1800s
    • Witch Hunts, 1400-1800
    • Xhosa, 1857
    • Arab Outbreak, 7th Century CE
    • Arab-Israeli Wars, 1948-
    • Al Qaeda, 1993-
    • Dutch Revolt, 1566-1609
    • Nigeria, 1990s, 2000s

    If you add up all of the lives that were lost in the name of one religion or another, you come up with a staggering figure that is in excess of One Billion

    800,000,000 people dead JUST BECAUSE OF RELIGION.
    500,000,000 attributable to Christianity alone.

    For shame.

  • C’mon … how about crediting the United Church of Christ (UCC)? We’ve been welcoming GLTBQ members (and ordaining open GLTBQ ministers since 1972).

  • Matt Westwood: You must hold multiple PHD’s in the study of God. The only way you could rationally dismiss the concept of God is if you know everything there is to know about Him. Otherwise your comment is itself quite irrational.

  • Funny, an atheist philosopher is boasting that under atheism there really is no basis for morality:
    “Why do I now accept hard atheism? I was struck by salient parallels between religion and morality, especially that both avail themselves of imperatives or commands, which are intended to apply universally. In the case of religion, and most obviously theism, these commands emanate from a Commander; “and this all people call God,” as Aquinas might have put it. The problem with theism is of course the shaky grounds for believing in God. But the problem with morality, I now maintain, is that it is in even worse shape than religion in this regard; for if there were a God, His issuing commands would make some kind of sense. But if there is no God, as of course atheists assert, then what sense could be made of there being commands of this sort? In sum, while theists take the obvious existence of moral commands to be a kind of proof of the existence of a Commander, i.e., God, I now take the non-existence of a Commander as a kind of proof that there are no Commands, i.e., morality.”

  • @Atheist Max
    So according to your figures, some 800 million people died over some 3000 years of religion.
    According to Steve 100 million people died in the atheist countries. I think it was only in the 20th century that organised atheist countries came into being. So let’s say 100 million people died in 100 years of atheism.
    Which means that if there was 3000 years of atheism, we can expect 3000 million deaths.