August 5th, 2010
12:07 PM ET
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.
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