Over a week ago, Rick Perry added his name to the National
Organization for Marriage’s pledge to support a federal marriage amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, bringing the number of GOP presidential candidates who have signed on to the pledge to four. Although Perry’s previous declaration that states should have the ultimate say on the issue of same-sex marriage has netted him some accusations of hypocrisy, the move to declare his backing for a constitutional amendment may seem unavoidable if Perry is to compete for evangelical Protestant and tea party votes, two groups that are strongly opposed to same-sex marriage. (Perry has also had to do some fancy footwork on his position on evolution, which I wrote about recently here.)
New data from the Public Religion Research Institute shows, however, that this Republican campaign dynamic-opposition to same-sex marriage as a litmus test of conservative authenticity-has waning appeal to younger Republicans now, and promises to lose steam in years to come. Our new poll, “Millennials, Religion and Gay & Lesbian Issues,” released on August 29, shows a 20-point generation gap between millennials (age 18 to 29) and seniors (age 65 and up) on a whole range of gay and lesbian issues.
On the more contested issues of same-sex marriage and adoption of children by gay and lesbian couples, millennials are approximately twice as likely as seniors to support them. While only about 1-in-3 seniors support same-sex marriage (31 percent) or adoption by gay and lesbian issues (36 percent), more than 6-in-10 millennials support both issues, with 62 percent favoring gay and lesbian marriage, and 69 percent in support of gay adoption.
These findings are arresting, not only for what they say about the future of these issues in political debates in the general public, because this generation gap persists even among conservative political and religious groups. Public support for allowing same-sex marriage has seen double-digit increases over the past five years, a dramatic shift in public opinion that appears to be carrying along millennial Republicans with it. Just under half of younger Republicans (49 percent of Republican millennials and 44 percent of Republicans ages 30-44) favor allowing gay and lesbian people to marry, compared to only 19 percent of Republican seniors and less than one-third (31 percent) of all Republicans.*
The survey also uncovered another shifting dynamic that will increasingly alter the political calculus and campaign strategy. Politicians have long assumed that the battle lines over same-sex marriage are drawn between secular Americans who support it and religious Americans who oppose it. But millennials are also transforming the religious landscape, and there are now major religious groups on both sides of these debates. Majorities of non-Christian religiously affiliated Americans (67 percent), Catholics (52 percent), and white mainline Protestants (51 percent) favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. On the other hand, 6-in-10 (60 percent) African American Protestants and approximately three-quarters (76 percent) of white evangelical Protestants oppose allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.
Cultural transformations are always difficult to discern on their leading edge, and there is always the possibility that unforeseen future events may alter event strong trends. But it is notable, for example, that 2011 is the first year that supporting same-sex marriage is not a minority position. The growing support for gay and lesbian rights, driven in large part by the millennial generation, makes it likely that we will look back on 2011 as the year marking a sea change in views on gay and lesbian issues that will change politics on both sides of the aisle.
*The analysis of millennial Republicans is based on less than 100 cases (N=85). Some caution should be exercised in interpreting these results. To read the full report, topline results, questionnaire and methodology for the Millennials, Religion, and Gay & Lesbian Issues Survey, click here.