Polling Evidence: The Gay Marriage Conundrum, for GOP and Catholic Bishops

In the latest in a series of polls confirming that US support for marriage equality is now the majority view, is increasing, and accelerating in that support, two new surveys just published carry within them serious warnings for Republican politicians – and for Catholic bishops.

This report from Gallup, which follows earlier findings in March and April from Washington Post/ABC News and CNN/Opinion Research Corporation which also showed a clear majority in favour of legal recognition for same sex marriage, is particularly notable for the long time series behind it, and for the clear evidence that the movement in favour is accelerating sharply:

For First Time, Majority of Americans Favor Legal Gay Marriage.

This year’s nine-point increase in support for same-sex marriage is the largest year-to-year shift yet measured over this time period. Two-thirds of Americans were opposed to legalized same-sex marriage in 1996, with 27% in favor. By 2004, support had risen to 42% and, despite some fluctuations from year to year, stayed at roughly that level through last year.

The second poll, from the Public Religion Research Institute, is scantier on detail, but is significant for confirming (as the others do) that full marriage is now supported by an absolute majority of Americans, and for showing that the strength of support is hardening. It used to be that even as support for marriage was growing, it was only the opponents who felt strongly about it: the supporters of marriage were only lukewarm, which is one of the reasons that ballot initiatives opposing marriage rights were often more successful than polling evidence suggested. No more: in this poll, 24%  strongly supported full marriage for all couples,  only marginally less than the 25% who are strongly against.

The top-line report does not give a trend for the strength of support for marriage, but it does offer a clue from a parallel question on gay adoption. This shows that overall, opposition to gay adoption is weaker than to gay marriage, and that  the number who “strongly favour” gay adoption  is similar to that for gay marriage at 24% . This is up from  19% a year ago, and a little more than the 21% (down slightly from 22% in 2o1o) who are “strongly against”.

The Republicans’ gay marriage problem

The warning for Republicans comes in the growing divide on the issue between their own supporters, and independents and Democrats. Some of the GOP grass roots expect their candidates to make this into an election issue. If they do, they risk alienating the all-important independent and moderate voters – but if they don’t, they alienate their own base. With potential ballots looming in several states to entrench marriage bans while the electorate are clearly moving in the other direction, next year’s Republican primaries could be quite fun to watch.

Democrats’ and Independents’ Greater Acceptance Shifts the Balance

Democrats’ and independents’ support for legalized same-sex marriage increased this year by 13 and 10 points, respectively. Republicans’ views on the issue did not change from last year. Clear majorities of both Democrats and independents now support gay marriage, 69% and 59% respectively, contrasted with 28% support among Republicans.

Even more fun to watch will be Republican trying to recover in years to come from the hole they are digging themselves into with opposition to queer equality: for younger voters, support for marriage equality (now 70%, and up 16 points in just a year) has become so widespread that it is simply no longer an issue. Opposition risks alienating an entire generation (who in turn will influence that which follows) while the voters who form the bedrock of the opposition will simply die off. The voters they are placating will not be around for much longer.

The Catholic Bishops’ gay marriage problem

It is this generational change that the bishops too should be considering.

This poll confirms the pattern seen in every other poll I know of that has looked at it, that Catholics are more likely than other Christians to support marriage equality, in spite of the bishops’ well-known and very public opposition, and very often precisely because of a very Catholic belief in the importance of principles of social justice, and respect for the value of family.

While the bishops continue to denounce moves towards the civil recognition of same-sex relationships, Catholic couples are simply ignoring them, and entering civil marriages or civil unions regardless, in increasing numbers, as the legal opportunities to do so increase.

In formally recognized unions or informal partnerships, many of these couples are raising children. Instead of simply ranting against same – sex relationships, a position that they will not be able to sustain indefinitely in the light of the mounting evidence that a homoerotic orientation is an entirely natural variation in the human condition, and the church’s own statements that we should pay due attention to the findings of science and reason, they should be applying their minds to the important questions of the proper provision of pastoral care for those queer couples and families in their congregations.

Weddings, in a church or in a registry office, do not create a marriage. That comes from the mutual agreement and commitment of two people. What a wedding does do, is to make the marriage public, and publicly accountable. This accountability provides the social glue that helps the relationship to endure in fidelity, and survive the strains that afflict all relationships. With or without public celebrations, gay men and lesbians will form couples, and will raise children. Catholic respect for fidelity in marriage, and for healthy family life for children, should be encouraging these couples to commit to each other in publicly accountable ceremonies, not arguing to prohibit such unions.

Catholic clergy place strong emphasis on the importance of proper marriage preparation, often reminding us that preparing for a marriage that lasts a lifetime is of far greater importance than the usual practice of detailed and expensive planning for a wedding, that lasts a day. They also place great store on the importance of proper religious formation of children, and their preparation for the sacraments (ideally in Catholic schools). But how many priests are willing, let alone suitably trained, to provide suitable marriage preparation classes for same sex-couples?

We know that Catholic theologians  have recognized the urgent need for a change in formal doctrine. The majority of ordinary Catholics are already willing to accept and include all families, and no longer see homoerotic relationships as inherently sinful.

It is time that the bishops faced the facts of the real world, and did so too.


It’s not just American voters who are moving towards support for marriage equality. It’s a worldwide phenomenon, for politicians and church leaders alike. Here is a summary of some important developments that reflect this, from just the past few months:

  • Illinois, Hawaii and Delaware have all approved civil partnership legislation. A similar measure passed in the Rhode Island House just yesterday. It is expected to pass in the Senate easily, and will be signed by Governor Chafee.
  • Civil partnerships which come close to full legal equality are now available in very Catholic Ireland,
  • The Scottish elections this month have increased the possibility of Scotland going ahead with plans to upgrade British civil partnerships to full marriage. The victorious Scottish National Party, and Scottish politicians from all the leading parties in Scotland, have all declared some degree of support.
  • Pressure is growing in Australia for the governing Labour party reverse its existing opposition, and to adopt marriage equality as declared party policy. The Victoria state party will debate a motion to do so this weekend.
  • A Brazilian court has ruled that same-sex couples should be given equal treatment in law, providing de facto recognition to civil partnerships. Formal legal provision for such recognition is expected to follow.
  • Even in Ghana, some gay couples are marrying (but without the benefit of state or church assistance)
  • Danish Lutheran bishops are considering moves to follow the example of their counterparts and Iceland and Sweden, and approve same – sex weddings in church.

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