America’s Change of Mind on Same-Sex Marriage and LGBTQ Rights

July 3, 2013 - In March, TIME magazine featured a cover story with the headline, “Gay Marriage Already Won.” But this was a full three months before the Supreme Court’s official rulings in favor of same-sex marriage.

It was only last week when the Supreme Court struck down sections of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), declaring key components unconstitutional, and essentially lifting California’s Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage by leaving it without legal defense.

Yet TIME’s March cover wasn’t a chronological error; rather, it was picking up clear cultural signals: the Supreme Court may have prolonged their decision on same-sex marriage, but in the court of public opinion there was a sense the choice had already been made.

Social shifts as monumental as this one don’t happen overnight—they grow over time, slowly building in momentum. So if America is changing its mind on same-sex marriage, what is underneath this shifting perspective? Who, exactly, are the citizens changing their views? How different are their views today than 10 years ago? And what is happening with regard to Christians and their perspectives on same-sex issues?

Barna Group has tracked public opinion of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) community since 2003 to provide insight into these very questions. On June 27-30, the newest Barna poll conducted after the Supreme Court’s decision, demonstrates the population segments who are trending toward support of LGBTQ rights. The Supreme Court’s rulings last week are merely a legal expression of a profound social shift that has already taken place, and is backed by growing, but still hesitant moral acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships.

America’s Change of Mind on LGBTQ Rights
In the wake of the Supreme Court rulings, public response was overwhelmingly supportive—photos of embracing same-sex couples filled the news, Twitter was flooded with celebratory reactions, and Google even changed its search bar to rainbow hues for anyone who typed in “gay” as a keyword. Of course, others received the rulings with concern, viewing these legal shifts as a building threat to their definition of marriage as one man and one woman.

Overall, the Barna data shows 53% of American adults favor changing laws to accommodate more freedoms for the LGBTQ community. This opinion has become a majority view since 10 years ago, when 42% of adults took such a stance.

In 2003, however, only atheists and agnostics among key religious segments were in firm support of increasing LGBTQ rights. Currently, in addition to religious skeptics, practicing Catholics and those who have faiths other than Christianity are also more likely than not to favor increasing LGBTQ rights. Only practicing Protestants remain opposed to changing laws that enable more freedoms for the LGBTQ community.

America’s Change of Mind on Same-Sex Marriage and LGBTQ Rights

How America Understands the Goals of the LGBTQ Community
When a social shift of this significance occurs, one of the biggest questions is why. And while this answer has room for additional discovery, perhaps one factor may be the growing understanding of the LGBTQ community in the past 10 years. A decade ago, two-fifths of Americans were unable to identify any particular goals of the LGBTQ community. Today, that percentage has dropped to just one-quarter of Americans. This suggests Americans have become significantly more aware of the kinds of social changes the LGBTQ community is aiming for.

In the recent Barna poll, Americans were more likely than in 2003 to identify goals such as achieving equal benefits as heterosexuals (increasing from 10% in 2003 to 32%), equal employment opportunities (from 9% to 15%), and same-sex marriage (from 23% to 33%). Other goals that also increased in perceived awareness include allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt and provide foster care (from 5% in 2003 to 17%) and protection from discrimination (from 5% to 11%).

America’s Change of Mind on Same-Sex Marriage and LGBTQ Rights

How Americans Define Marriage
Americans’ change of perspective on the LGBTQ community doesn’t simply affect the LGBTQ community—it also brings changes to the definition of marriage Americans embrace, though the data suggests this change has been less substantial in the last year compared with attitudes about gay and lesbian rights.

In 2003, a slim majority of Americans (52%) believed marriage is defined as the union between one man and one woman. Yet in 2013, the majority opinion effectively flipped. Today, 48% of all Americans believe marriage is between one man and one woman, signaling a historic shift as the nation’s new minority opinion.

Most practicing Protestants (70%) are still committed to this traditional perspective, dropping just five percentage points in the past 10 years (from 75%). Practicing Catholics have seen a steep decline, from 64% to 50% today. Other faith groups have declined five points, but started much lower than Christian segments (from 45% to 40%). Atheists and agnostics have declined from 26% to 18% in support of a conventional view of marriage.

Other social views related to the LGBTQ community have also undergone change in the past 10 years. The research shows Americans’ willingness to support adoption for same-sex couples has increased from 46% to 57% since 2003. Practicing Catholics are now nearly twice as likely as practicing Protestants to embrace this perspective (60% versus 36%).

America’s Change of Mind on Same-Sex Marriage and LGBTQ Rights

A Changing Moral Compass on Relationships
Despite the significant social acceptance the LGBTQ community has achieved in recent years, the Barna study reveals the gap between what Americans are willing to allow legally and what they believe is morally acceptable. Overall, 37% of Americans say same-sex relationships are morally appropriate. This represents an increase from 30% of Americans who embraced this view a decade ago.

Yet even with a surge of legal changes for the LGBTQ community, nearly six out of 10 Americans today do not view same-sex relationships as moral. While most measures of support for the LGBTQ community have reached majority status, a minority of Americans is willing to condone such relationships from an ethical standpoint.

Practicing Catholics are some of the most likely to have changed views on this question. Their support for the moral acceptability of same-sex relationships has nearly doubled in the past decade. Atheists and agnostics and those who embrace a faith other than Christianity have grown, too, in supporting the moral legitimacy of same-sex relationships. For their part, practicing Protestants have moved so little (from 12% to 15%) that it is within the range of sampling error.

America’s Change of Mind on Same-Sex Marriage and LGBTQ Rights

Where Evangelicals Fit
Barna Group defines a specific group of Christians as evangelicals based upon their statements to various religious and theological questions, such as belief in the authority of the Bible, their rejection of salvation through good works, and their focus on talking about their faith in Jesus with others. (This segment is not defined by self-labeling or denomination; additional details are shown below.) By this measure, evangelicals represent about 8% of the U.S. public. Most evangelicals are practicing Protestants, who altogether represent about one-quarter of Americans.

Among the Barna-defined evangelical segment, most of their attitudes on LGBTQ issues have not changed much since 2003—in fact, they are the one group that has become more resistant toward LGBTQ concerns on several fronts. This includes:

  • Evangelicals remain very unlikely to favor changing laws to support LGBTQ lifestyles (declining from 12% in 2003 to 5%).
  • They continue to be extremely supportive of defining marriage as one man and one woman (inching up from 90% to 93%).
  • And they roundly reject the moral acceptability of same-sex marriage (up from 95% to 98%).

The only area in which evangelicals have become more willing to support LGBTQ causes in the last decade has been their slight increase in favoring adoption by same-sex couples (from 12% to 18%).

The Generational Divide
A striking difference emerged in this survey both in 2003 and 2013: Both among the national average and the Christian population, views on same-sex relationships vary significantly by age. Across the board, twenty- and thirty-something Americans are more likely than Americans 40 and over to support legal changes favoring the LGBTQ community (65% compared to 46%), to view same-sex relationships as morally acceptable (47% compared to 30%), and disagree that marriage is defined as one man and one woman (61% compared to 46%).

Within the Christian community, this generational trend remains the same, though the gap is smaller. Younger practicing Christians are statistically more supportive of the LGBTQ movement than their parents’ generation. Nearly half of of practicing Protestants under 40 today support changing laws to enable more freedoms for the LGBTQ community, while just one-third of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation feel the same.

The ways younger practicing Christians understand the goals of the LGBTQ community also differ significantly than their predecessors’ perceptions. Twenty- and thirty-something practicing Christians today are twice as likely as practicing Christians over 40 to identify protection from violence and discrimination (11% compared to 6%) and sexual freedom (13% compared to 6%) as goals of the LGBTQ community. Younger Christians (19%) are also nearly three times as likely as older Christians (7%) to understand adoption as a desire within the LGBTQ community.

What the Research Means
David Kinnaman, the president of Barna Group, directed the research study. He comments, “Clearly, social and legal acceptance of the LGBTQ community has passed the tipping point in the U.S. At the same time, millions of Americans continue to hold very divergent, often highly contentious viewpoints on the subject of LGBTQ rights and morality. Younger Americans are driving much of this social change, but a big part of the story of the last decade has been the perception change that has occurred among those age 40-plus.

“Among Christians, the Barna study shows that Catholics have far outpaced Protestants in terms of embracing LGBTQ points of advocacy, yet many active Protestants have also shifted their views in recent years. And while non-evangelical Protestants have changed somewhat on these matters, evangelicals have essentially maintained their perception through the past decade. Some will say this demonstrates evangelicals’ principled behavior; others will claim this proves their repressive social views. Either way, the data shows that evangelicals remain countercultural against a rising tide of public opinion. If the sands have shifted under evangelicals’ feet in the last 10 years, we at Barna predict it will seem the ground has completely opened beneath them during the next 10. In part, that’s because the very belief that same-sex relationships are morally wrong is deemed by many to be discriminatory and bigoted.

Kinnaman is the co-author of the book unChristian (2007), which revealed the significant negative perceptions that Christians were anti-homosexual. In light of this as well as the implications of the current research, Kinnaman concludes, “In unChristian, the anti-homosexual perception was the ‘big’ one; the perception that overshadowed all else. This new study confirms how the Christian community responds to the LGBTQ community is, in many ways, the defining social and moral issue of the day. Many churches and Christian leaders are going to rise or fall based on how they address it.

“Facing these matters must include, but not be limited to, questions of marriage, the role of the state in sanctioning marriage, a theology of the body, the ethics of sexuality and friendship, sin and brokenness, human flourishing, and so on. The Christian response to these issues has to be rooted in a deeply relational ethic—that sexuality is a relational and interconnected aspect of our humanity. That relationships matter, including those between people who disagree. Our research on younger Christians shows many leave the church over questions on these complex issues. And unless they are given a robust and compelling vision for why they need to hold to those views—and how to embrace them in a humble-yet-livable way—we expect even more disaffection between young adults and the Church in the years come.”

Twitter: @davidkinnaman | @barnagroup
Facebook: Barna Group

America’s Change of Mind on Same-Sex Marriage and LGBTQ Rights

About the Research
This report is based on two OmniPollSM studies conducted by telephone with adults ages 18 or older in the continental United States. The 2013 study included 1,005 interviews with landlines and cellphone users from June 25 to June 30, 2013. The second study included telephone interviews with 1,029 landline users from September 15 to September 24, 2003. The maximum margin of sampling error for each of the studies is estimated to be within plus or minus 3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Based upon U.S. Census data sources, regional and ethnic quotas were designed to ensure that the final group of adults interviewed reflected the distribution of adults nationwide. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.

"Evangelicals" are respondents who say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. They also meet seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as "evangelical."

"Practicing Christians" include self-identified Christians/Catholics who have attended a church service at least once in the last month and who agree strongly with the statement “your religious faith is very important in your life today.”

About Barna Group
Barna Group (which includes its research division, the Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each update on the latest research findings from Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org). Additional research-based resources are also available through this website.

© Barna Group, 2013.