Expert Commentary

Religious beliefs, contact with gays and lesbians and opinions on same-sex marriage

2012 study from the University of Maryland published in Politics & Policy on how relationships with gay people can influence the views of religious individuals.

Some of the strongest opposition to same-sex marriage is generated by religious groups and leaders. Simultaneously, many opinion polls and studies have shown that close personal contact with homosexuals is associated with an increased likelihood of support for same-sex marriage. So how much can contact with gay persons affect the views of religious individuals?

A 2012 study from the University of Maryland, “The Cross-Pressures of Religion and Contact with Gays and Lesbians, and Their Impact on Same-Sex Marriage Opinion,” examines how the interaction of these two often-countervailing pressures plays out and influences policy preferences on marriage. Published in Politics and Policy, the study is based on data from two separate sources: the Kinder Houston Area Surveys from 2001 and 2009; and the 2006-07 Common Content surveys from the Cooperative Congressional Election Studies (CCES). The study, by Brittany H. Bramlett of the University of Maryland, distinguishes between casual contact with gay persons and closer contact through family or friendship.

The study’s findings include:

  • Having a close relationship with a gay or lesbian individual — a friend or family member — had the greatest impact on the views of Latino Catholics and black Protestants: for Latino Catholics, having such contact diminished support for a ban on same-sex marriage by 12 percentage points on average;  for black Protestants, the effect was 5 percentage points.
  • Several things may explain this effect on Latino Catholics and black Protestants: a stronger affiliation between historically marginalized groups; church teachings about equality; and a possible stronger split between religious commitment and political opinion on this issue.
  • However, the effect of having casual contact with a gay person — a co-worker or acquaintance — is not significant for most religious groups, including white and black Protestants. In fact, “The predicted probability of support for the ban is actually greater by about three to four percentage points for white mainline Protestants and white Catholics with a gay coworker or acquaintance.”
  • Among religious groups, only the views of Latino Catholics seem influenced by more casual acquaintance with gay or lesbian persons: such relationships are associated with a 3- to 5-percentage point decrease in the likelihood of support for a same-sex marriage ban.
  • Among persons unaffiliated with any religion, close personal contact with a homosexual was associated with 8 percentage point decrease in the probability of support for a ban on same-sex marriage. Casual contact with a homosexual person was associated with a 3- to 5-percentage point decline for the unaffiliated.
  • In sum, “Having a close friend or family member who is gay increases the likelihood of supporting same-sex marriage for members of all religious traditions examined here except for white Protestants (evangelical and mainline). The effects are generally greater for the unaffiliated, black Protestants, and Latino Catholics, but there may also be potential for opinion movement for white Catholics.”

The researcher concludes, “On the whole, these findings should encourage same-sex marriage advocates. People do not abandon religious teachings easily, but contact theory predicts that meaningful contact with the other should at least have some influence on opinion. While some of the changes in probability of support for a same-sex marriage ban seem small (three to five percentage points), even small changes make a difference in opinion over time.”

In related research, a 2011 study, “The Young and the Restless? The Liberalization of Young Evangelicals,” finds that young evangelicals are more open to acceptance of same-sex marriage than are older evangelicals.

Tags: gay issues, religion, civil rights

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