Two things are clear in a new Pew Research Center poll on gay marriage:
1. The political fight over gay marriage is over. (This fact has been apparent for quite some time.)
2. Cultural acceptance of homosexuality broadly, and gay marriage in particular, remains far less advanced in society.
Let's unpack each point.
The poll makes clear that no matter what the Supreme Court decides in early July regarding gay marriage and the Defense of Marriage Act, gay marriage is well on its way to legalization nationally.
Almost three in four respondents said that legal recognition of same-sex marriage is "inevitable" -- that's up from 59 percent who said the same thing in 2004. While 85 percent of those who support gay marriage say legality is inevitable, it's even more eye-opening that 59 percent of those who oppose same sex marriage also believe its legal recognition is inevitable.
The gap between those who favor gay marriage (51 percent) in the Pew poll and those who think it is inevitable (72 percent) is absolutely remarkable. And it's why so many GOP strategists have publicly urged their party to stop fighting on an issue where the politics are headed so clearly in the other direction.
The second point -- how gay marriage and homosexuality fit into the broader cultural fabric -- is a fascinating window into how the debate over legal/illegal differs from the conversation about right/wrong.
Forty-five percent of those tested said it was a "sin" to engage in homosexual behavior, the same numbers that said it was not a sin. A majority (56 percent) said that same-sex marriage would "go against my religious beliefs" while 41 percent said it would not.
In both cases, the number of people calling homosexuality a sin or saying that it would go against their religious beliefs has dropped since the same question was asked in 2003. But it has dropped less quickly than some other measures of opposition to homosexuality and gay marriage.
And, there is still a broad cultural divide regarding the nature vs. nurture question on homosexuality, according to the new Pew poll. Forty two percent of respondents said that homosexuality is "just the way some choose to live" while 41 percent said people are born gay or a lesbian.
Opposition to the "rightness" of homosexuality run strongest among the most religious elements of society. Nearly eight in 10 (78 percent of white evangelical Protestants) call homosexual behavior a sin as do 67 percent of those who attend church services weekly or more.
Social conservatives, of course, make up a considerable percentage of the Republican base -- particularly in early-voting presidential primary swing states like Iowa and South Carolina. That reality makes it more difficult for the party to walk away from the issue politically speaking since such a large chunk of their most reliable voters view it in moral rather than political terms.
As the race for the Republican presidential nomination begins in earnest after the 2014 midterms, it will be interesting to watch how the top tier contenders balance that political vs. moral calculation -- and how the path they choose affects their ability to appeal to the ideological middle for whom the debate on gay marriage is already over.
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