The firestorm that ensued may seem like yet more evidence of our polarized politics — with Christian small businesses denying services for gay and lesbian weddings, corporate, organizational, and government boycotts, and mobilization by liberals and conservatives alike.
But our research has identified a fascinating silver lining. We find that evangelical Christians who are exposed to claims about religious rights actually become more willing to extend First Amendment rights to their ideological opponents. That is, the campaign to reinforce religious liberty might actually increase political tolerance in the long run.
In our research, we constructed an experiment in which participants read a clergyperson or candidate arguing in support of a photographer who denied service to a same-sex couple for their wedding. This argument was justified one of four ways: morality, free speech, religious liberty, or without any justification. For instance, the religious liberty argument regarding same-sex marriage read:
We need to protect the right to religious freedom in this country. In this case, the business owners were faithful Christians merely expressing their religious opposition to participating in activities that violated their religious consciences. Therefore, I believe that the companies should be permitted to exercise their right to religious freedom to refuse to provide the photography services.
We focused our attention on the evangelical Protestants in our sample – the group most likely to object to same-sex marriage. The survey assessed participants’ willingness to allow a group they “dislike the most” to take actions such as holding a rally in their community, teaching in public school, and running for political office. For about 12 percent of evangelical participants, the group they indicated disliking the most was “homosexuals,” but many more picked atheists (39%) or Muslims (19%).
One might suspect that evangelicals who hear clergy supporting a small business that denied services for a same-sex wedding would become hardened in their views and defensive about cultural threats to their worldview. Instead, evangelicals who read about a clergyperson citing religious liberty to defend the photographer became more tolerant of the ideological enemy they picked later in the survey. (The free speech argument had a consistent, but smaller effect.)
Why would this occur? We argue that claiming a constitutional right for your side is an acknowledgement of minority status and a plea for recognition, equal status, and protection. And by making these issues salient, our experiment may have led these evangelicals to become more sensitive to the minority status and the rights of other groups as well.
What does this mean, then, for the debate about same-sex marriage? There is no doubt that the politics of gay rights taps into deep commitments. Both religious conservatives and LGBT Americans see essential rights at stake. And there is no doubt that opponents of same-sex marriage are using the freedom of religion to strengthen what appears to be a weakening position – as the number of evangelicals declines and public support for same-sex marriage grows.
But amidst this debate, there may be a potentially positive consequence — one that concerns not this particular controversy, but the foundations of equal rights for all. Though ours is just one study, it suggests a long-term dynamic that we could all celebrate: when religious conservatives invoke their right to exercise their religion, they may actually end up more tolerant, not less.
Paul A. Djupe, Andrew R. Lewis, and Ted G. Jelen are political scientists at Denison University, University of Cincinnati, and UNLV, respectively.