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Behind the rapid shift in public opinion on same-sex marriage
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A dramatic shift in public opinion on same-sex marriage over a 10-year period can be attributed largely to the secularization of millennials, demographer and pollsters say. - photo by Eric Schulzke
Even before the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage a constitutional right last week, there was an aura of inevitability about the outcome that would have been hard to anticipate just seven years ago.

Back in 2008, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama openly opposed same-sex marriage as presidential candidates, aligned with the 56 percent of Americans who opposed it, according to Gallup. That same year, California, one of the most liberal states in the Union, passed an amendment defining marriage as heterosexual.

If public opinion had moved as glacially as it historically does, little would have changed in the intervening years. In that scenario, Justice Anthony Kennedy, the deciding vote in the June 26 ruling, would have faced much stronger headwinds and may well have punted to states or found reason to delay.

But as Mr. Dooley, the famous fictional Irish Chicagoan observed in 1901, The Supreme Court follows the election returns. Or in this case, the court followed the public opinion polls.

In 1996, Gallup's polling showed that 68 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage with 27 favoring it. By 2008, when California passed its controversial constitutional amendment defining marriage as heterosexual, opposition had dropped to 56 percent. Just seven years later, in May of 2015, opposition was down to 37 percent and support had risen to 60.

The key factor behind this shift in public opinion about same-sex marriage is generational change, said Alec Tyson, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., but that change has occurred very rapidly. Seventy three percent of the current generation of millennials, those between 18 and 34 years old, now support same-sex marriage, Tyson said.

I cant think of another divisive social issue that has seen such a rapid and sizable shift in public opinion, said Dan Cox, research director at the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). "Though marijuana legalization may go in that direction.

Paul Brewer, associate director of the Center for Political Communication at the University of Delaware, says the speed of the shift comes into focus when compared with how slowly views on interracial marriage changed.

In 1959, Gallup had support for interracial marriage at 4 percent, Brewer said, and by 1995 it still had climbed only to 48 percent. By 2013, however, 87 percent of Americans approved of interracial marriage.

Brewer compares this to how quickly public opinion shifted on the Voting Rights Act, which was supported broadly long before interracial marriage. Likewise, the public supported gays in the military long before the government switched its position.

In short, changes in views on marriage have tended to trail shifts on other issues. "Marriage seems to be a big threshold to cross," Brewer said. "If you win this, you win."

Generational gaps

In classic patterns of social change, including for issues such as racial and gender equality, change has been glacial, generational or even multi-generational. But in the case of same-sex marriage, the tables upended within 10 years.

"There are huge generational gaps," Cox said. In one graphic, PRRI used a massive data set to analyze attitudes on same-sex marriage by age. Support for same-sex marriage is at more than 70 percent among 18-year-olds, and that support drops steadily with each additional year of age, reaching a low of 30 percent among those age 90.

In short, Cox and Tyson argue that what paved the way for the court to move so boldly was as dramatic a shift in public sentiment as many demographers and pollsters say they have ever seen.

Cox does not pretend to have all the answers, but he does note the likely contribution of the Internet. Today's youth have direct engagement with popular culture that was not possible previously, he said.

The shift has been driven largely by rapid and overwhelming changes in the views of younger people, referred to as "generational replacement," and it carries over into related areas including attitudes toward religion.

But experts also point to significant shifts within other age groups in this case.

Knowing people

Tyson points to some evidence that friendships with gays and lesbians plays a role in shaping opinion. He notes that 45 percent of those with gay or lesbian friends view same-sex marriage as highly important, compared to around 25 percent of those with no or few gay acquaintances.

Overall, Pew found that 73 percent of those who know a lot of gays and lesbians favor same-sex marriage, compared to 59 percent of those who do not know any, a large but not enormous gap.

But Id be very cautious drawing causality from this data, Tyson said, noting that people who associate with gays and lesbians may do so because they already live near them and are comfortable with them, rather than shifting opinions due to knowing them.

Brewer agrees that social contact is a compelling explanation for the change.

"More and more people are more aware that they know gay people," Brewer said. "And all the evidence Ive seen suggests having gay friends, seeing gay people, even on TV makes a huge difference."

Brewer points to a 2003 Pew study that asked respondents to name the first gay person that came to mind. Those who mentioned someone they knew were far more likely to support gay marriage. Those who named a public figure, like Ellen Degeneres, fell in the midrange, while those who could not think of any were most opposed.

"These things reinforce each other," Brewer said. "It's easier to come out if popular culture supports it, and popular culture becomes more supportive the more people come out."

Religion fading

Others look for clues in related opinion data, which suggests that the younger generation is distancing itself from organized religion and attendant doctrines.

"It's impossible to look at this and not realize that religion is a major part of the story," Cox said, citing poll data showing that the rising generation of millennials is increasingly detached from religious institutions.

Pew released a study earlier this year that found that 70 percent of Americans now describe themselves as Christian, down from 78 percent in 2007, while 23 percent are unaffiliated, up from 16 percent.

The new generation of religiously unaffiliated young people is very different from those in previous generations, Cox said, and includes a lot of atheists and agnostics.

Even among those who are religious, views on same-sex marriage have shifted, though not as dramatically as with the secular people, Cox said.

According to Pew, by 2014 60 percent of Catholics favored same-sex marriage, up from 35 percent in 2003. Meanwhile, white mainline Protestants shifted from 36 percent to 62 percent over that same time.

White evangelicals and black Protestants remain most strongly opposed to same-sex marriage. "They have moved," Cox said, "but not as far as white Protestants. Still, the movement has been significant. White evangelicals shifted from 12 percent in 2003 favoring same-sex marriage to 28 percent in 2014.

Focus groups

"Younger generations are more likely to question the conception of God handed to them by religious leaders," agreed Samuel Sturgeon, a demographer at Bonneville Communications in Salt Lake City, "where previous generations were more likely to accept appeals to authority."

Many millennials see religious institutions as not focused on things that matter to them, like poverty, hunger and war, Sturgeon said. He has conducted extensive focus groups with millennials on these issues, he said, and polling data correlate to his findings in those sessions.

Millennials put a heavy emphasis on "inclusivity" over "purity," Sturgeon said. "They want everyone to belong.

This can lead to paradoxes. Millennials might refuse to tolerate intolerance, Sturgeon said, but in doing so they may draw lines that exclude groups of people they dont like. Some might support the Palestinians over Israel, even though the former deal very harshly with gays while the latter is very tolerant. The millennials he talks with dont recognize these as contradictions, he said.