"Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson called homosexuality a sin and compared it to bestiality in a GQ profile, stoking widespread controversy and earning a suspension from the television network that puts on his popular show.
What may surprise some people is that his viewpoint — the part about homosexuality being a sin — is espoused by nearly half the country.
Even at a time when views about gay marriage are shifting quickly, the country is divided on gay rights and how it views homosexuality more broadly. And it's important to note that views about gay rights are not the same as judgments about sin and morality. People might be fine with legalizing something they see as sinful.
A May Pew Research Center poll showed the public split right down the middle on the question of whether homosexuality is a sin, with 45 percent coming down on each side.
The data serve as a reflecting point not only of how much the public has shifted its thinking about gays in the last decade -- consider that in 2003, 55 percent said homosexual behavior was a sin, and just 33 percent said it was not -- but also how big a split there is in this country.
The divide is driven by a confluence of factors, including religion, geography and politics.
Robertson is an evangelical Christian. As the Pew poll shows, opposition to homosexuality runs high among white evangelicals, with 78 percent saying it is a sin.
And Robertson comes from Louisiana, a socially conservative state. In 2007 55 percent of Louisiana residents said homosexuality should be discouraged by society, 15 points higher than the nation overall in the Pew Religious Landscape survey (40 percent; 50 percent said it should be accepted).
Some prominent conservatives rushed to Robertson's defense Thursday -- not to vouch for the substance of his statement, but for his right to free speech, illustrating how the debate has become a focal point in the political realm, too.
But Robertson's implication that gays are choosing to engage in sinful behavior is not a position that most Americans would agree with and his comparison to bestiality probably pushed him over the top.
A large majority in a March 2013 Post-ABC poll said being gay is just the way people are (62 percent), rather than something they choose to be (24 percent). In 1994, that split was a narrower 49 to 40 percent.
This much we know: Americans have moved steadily toward embracing gay rights in the last decade. For evidence of this, just look at the 17 states -- including New Mexico which legalized gay marriage Thursday -- plus D.C. where gay marriage is legal compared to the zero in early 2003.
Still, though, there remains a cavernous divide between advocates and opponents -- not only in the gay rights debate, but on the question of morality, too. This latest incident with Robertson underscores that.
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