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August 5th, 2010
12:07 PM ET

Our Take: The surprising religious divides on Proposition 8

Editor's Note: Dr. Robert P. Jones is the CEO and Daniel Cox is the Director of Research for Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and education organization specializing in work at the intersection of religion, values, and public life.

By Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox, Special to CNN

The ruling yesterday by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker that Proposition 8 violates the constitution highlights the shifting attitudes in California and in the nation over the legality of same-sex marriage. A major public opinion survey released last month by our firm, Public Religion Research Institute, casts important light on the changing religious landscape on this issue, with some surprising findings.

The PRRI survey of more than 3,000 Californians found that if Proposition 8 were on the ballot today, it would not pass.

A majority (51 percent) of Californians now say they would vote to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, compared to 45 percent who say they would vote to keep same-sex marriage illegal.

Despite the fact that the debate over same-sex marriage is often framed as one between secular liberals and conservative people of faith, we found that there are major religious groups on both sides of the battle over Proposition 8 in California. Solid majorities of Latino Catholics and white mainline Protestants, along with a majority of white Catholics, say they would vote to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. On the other hand, solid majorities of African American Protestants, white evangelical Protestants, and Latino Protestants say they would vote to keep same-sex marriage illegal.

One surprising divide uncovered by our research is the chasm between Latino Catholics and Latino Protestants over the issue of same-sex marriage. Like Californians overall, Latinos are closely divided over the issue of same-sex marriage, with a plurality (49 percent) reporting they would vote to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, compared to 46 percent who would vote to keep it illegal.

But this apparent parity among Latinos overall obscures a large Catholic-Protestant gap within the California Latino community. (Note that in California, Latino Catholics currently outnumber Latino Protestants by approximately two-to-one.)

The division among Latinos could hardly be more pronounced: among major religious groups in California, Latino Catholics are the most supportive of same-sex marriage, while Latino Protestants are the most opposed. Nearly 6-in-10 (57 percent) Latino Catholics report that they would vote to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. Among Latino Protestants only about 1-in-5 (22 percent) say they would support a ballot measure that legalized same-sex marriage. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Latino Protestants report that they would vote to keep same-sex marriage illegal.

Although there are a number of potential sources of the Catholic-Protestant rift within the Latino community, the different religious worldviews and ecclesial contexts of Latino Catholics and Protestants play a major role. For example, these religious affiliation differences are significantly stronger than the differences between Spanish and English language dominance or length of time in this country.

Public opinion surveys are often a blunt instrument for understanding the intricacies of theology, but the PRRI survey offers a window into the different ways Latino Catholics and Protestants approach the Bible, which in turn has implications for how religious beliefs are translated into opinions about public policy.

Latino Protestants take a far more literal approach to scripture than Latino Catholics. Nearly 6-in-10 (58 percent) Latino Protestants say that the Bible is the word of God that should be interpreted literally word for word. Among Latino Catholics, only 39 percent approach the Bible this way.

There are also significant differences in the relative trust Latino Protestants and Catholics place in their clergy on gay and lesbian issues. Of six possible public sources of information and opinions about homosexuality (i.e., doctors and therapists, gay or lesbian couples, parents of gay or lesbian children, your own clergy leader, teachers, or clergy from a different denomination than your own), Latino Protestants rank their own clergy the highest, with 42 percent saying they trust the opinions and information their clergy give about homosexuality “a lot.”

In contrast, Latino Catholics rank their own clergy near the bottom, with only about one-quarter (24 percent) saying they trust their clergy “a lot” on these issues.

These insights point to remarkably different religious subgroups within the Latino community: Latino Protestants who take a literal approach to the Bible, have a high degree of trust in their clergy, and strongly oppose same-sex marriage on the one hand; and Latino Catholics who take a less literal approach to the Bible, have much lower trust in their clergy on gay and lesbian issues, and strongly support same-sex marriage.

In the former context, the path from sacred text to policy position is fairly linear with more limited sources of authority, while in the latter, the path is more complex and more open to multiple sources of authority, including practical experience.

The PRRI survey, then, reminds people on both sides of the debate over same-sex marriage that religion plays a key role in people’s attitudes—and, importantly, not always an easily predictable one.

About the PRRI survey: The bilingual (Spanish and English) poll of 3,351 adults in California, including oversamples of 350 African Americans and 200 Latino Protestants, represents the most comprehensive portrait of religion and attitudes on same sex marriage and other gay and lesbian issues since Proposition 8 was approved. The survey was conducted among a random sample of Californians by telephone between June 14 and June 30, 2010, by Public Religion Research Institute and was funded by the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund with additional support provided by the Ford Foundation.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Christianity • Gay marriage • Latino issues • Protestant • Race

soundoff (199 Responses)
  1. imadec

    obviously like your website however you have to test the spelling on quite a few of your posts. A number of them are rife with spelling problems and I to find it very troublesome to inform the reality on the other hand I will certainly come again again.

    April 24, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  2. ybs

    The variation between the Latino groups (Catholics vs. Protestants) points squarely at two things

    1. Sheep are sheep
    2. No one religion defines morality

    It's time we get rid of all religious subjugation - "in god we trust; under one god; so help me god." god/religions are the subjugation of self AND others - no more; no less. We should trust humanity and the law.

    October 22, 2010 at 9:46 am |
  3. ybs

    OK, I reported "abuse" my last 12 comments + this one. Hopefully CNN deletes them. Pretty lame - No edit/delete features.

    October 22, 2010 at 8:26 am |
  4. ybs

    LDS is a raaacist & seeexist group!

    Something about this statement triggers the "Your comment is awaiting moderation" warning. There should be a delete or edit option, CNN!

    October 22, 2010 at 8:17 am |
    • ybs

      The word "cult" is flagged for censorship!

      October 22, 2010 at 8:18 am |
    • ybs

      test... racist

      October 22, 2010 at 8:19 am |
  5. Mark

    You left out the Mormon church and the millions of dollars they coerced out of their members to defeat Prop 8. That just burns my ass the a Utah church can dictate politics in California. Tell the mormons to go back to Salt Lake and stay out of California politics!

    September 20, 2010 at 2:25 pm |
  6. Ranger

    I'd also like to remind everyone:
    Traditional Marriage = a contract between one man and another man for the use and possession of his daughters.
    Traditional Marriage = one man and however many wives he can afford to buy.

    August 10, 2010 at 9:51 pm |
    • NL

      Excellent point, Ranger!
      Might I also point out the racial boundaries that were part of Traditional Marriage, and the much, much younger Traditional marriageable age?

      August 11, 2010 at 12:41 am |
    • ybs

      I've 50,000 pences! Life is just not what it used to be! Why did we flush the old testament? :)

      When will we flush the new testament? :)

      October 22, 2010 at 8:07 am |
  7. Joy

    I do not believe it is natural for humans to have sex with the same gender. I love my best friend (another girl) but I sure wouldn't want to sleep with her. However, I DO BELIEVE everyone has the right to choose for themselves. In other words, you live your life and I'll live mine. Just don't force me to watch you. I don't kiss and make out in public with my husband. Why should I be forced to see you doing it on the cover of newspapers, magazines or websites such as CNN?

    August 8, 2010 at 10:05 am |
  8. David

    Let secular society have their civil unions; families of whatever sort are worth encouraging.
    As for the church, the debate will continue. I am not sure that so much would be lost of the sacramental in reframing marriage. After all, where we are going there is no giving in marriage.

    August 8, 2010 at 5:20 am |
  9. Brooklyn

    Is there something wrong with NOT being ok with gay marriage because of our obedience to Scripture? I understand two people of the same sex may have feelings for each other, but feelings don't make something legitimately right or wrong. Last time I checked, it was Hitler's 'feelings' about the Jews that started the Holocaust.

    But, seriously. All of you claim "Americans want this" or, "Americans want that". Where are your sources? Californians, stats or not, voted as a majority to not legalize gay marriage. Don't get me wrong - I love gay people for who they are, and I don't consider myself better than anyone, but I do believe their sexual lives are in the wrong.

    Speaking of such matters, many of you claim to be Christians, but you don't really follow what the Bible says. Go ahead, point the finger to issues like slavery and women's rights in the Bible. But anyone with a thorough understanding of theology understands there are moral commandments, which ring true today, and societal commandments for Israel, which serve as a beacon for history and God's holiness and how much we need Christ today. Of course, many of you will get angry at this very comment. When was the last time so many of you read a book? How many do you read a year? Or do you spend more time listening to CNN and FOX?

    Last time I read anything, it analyzed how babylon and the Mongolian Empire fell when they became too metropolitan and started letting everything and anything become permissible in their empire.

    There is a line. I love America as my home country, but I feel we are starting to get close to that line. We cannot allow everything to be 'right' and okay simply because a certain group wants their cake and eat it, too. There are moral absolutes. There is a God who created those morals, and it's important we stay listening to Him and not ourselves.

    August 8, 2010 at 1:40 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.