In supporting same-sex marriage, Buddhists are #1 (sort of)

In supporting same-sex marriage, Buddhists are #1 (sort of) April 29, 2015

Today the Supreme Court heard arguments about gay marriage, and so, in a timely update on the climate of same-sex marriage acceptance across religions, the Public Religion Research Institute posted an article last week creatively titled Attitudes on Same-sex Marriage by Religious Affiliation and Denominational Family.

The outcome of the study was that, “The most supportive major religious groups are Buddhists (84 percent), Jews (77 percent), and Americans who select “Other religion” (75 percent); additionally, more than three-quarters (77 percent) of the religiously unaffiliated also support same-sex marriage.”

This isn’t terribly surprising for two reasons. First, Buddhism historically has very little to say about marriage as an institution, usually regarding it as a state matter. To sum up a 2012 article I wrote on Buddhism and Gay Marriage, Buddhism’s long history is one of a fair degree of acceptance and, more importantly, cultural malleability. In terms of acceptance, we can take a case from the Vinaya, purportedly recalling events from the Buddha’s life:

In the Vinaya, there is reference to a monk in whom the sexual characteristics of a woman appeared, and a nun in whom the sexual characteristics of a man appeared.  In both cases, the Buddha appears to accept this and simply say that the ex-monk nun should follow the rules of the nuns, and the ex-nun monk should follow the rules of the monks. (Harvey, p.412)

However, it’s not always so simple. Pandakas, a complex category that would generally fit in to what we today call ‘intersex’, were barred from entering monastic life throughout most of Buddhist history. And while many Asian cultures appear quite liberal regarding people outside the heteronormative mainstream there are still legal and social barriers to full gender equality (Thailand is discussed here).

The second reason that this isn’t surprising is that the survey, part of the larger “American Values Atlas” was done bilingually (English and Spanish), thus leaving out huge numbers of Asian immigrant Buddhists. This is important because convert (and now second generation) Buddhists in the U.S. tend to bring with them liberal political positions, while many Asian Buddhists — many here after fleeing Communist regimes — hold more conservative views. As a Tricycle article in 2008 explained:

When we look at the wider picture, the chorus of convert Buddhist support for liberals looks less like a religious position, and more like a class and ethnicity one.  Most convert Buddhists already supported a liberal political orientation before they became involved with Buddhism, and convert Buddhism draws heavily from a section of the educated, white, middle-to-upper class demographic that supports liberal candidates regardless of whether the individual believers are Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or agnostic.  Naturally such people are attracted to elements of Buddhism that seem to resonate with liberal values, but it is worth asking how much of this is an inherent liberal bias within Buddhism, and how much is the process of picking and choosing which selects only compatible parts of Buddhism and leaves aside other, central practices and views that are less supportive of liberal positions.

So, while it’s nice to see Buddhism listed as the “most supportive”, a more inclusive survey might have led to different results.

buddhists and unitarian universalists at a gay pride parade
“Buddhists – for Peace (southern maine pride – gay pride 2007)” photo by flickr user Sam T C.C. (cropped from original)

Another noteworthy part of the survey is one of the smaller groups in the poll, one apparently not worthy of the title “major religions”: Unitarian Universalism (UU). The UU scored a full 10 points higher than the Buddhists (94% in favor of same-sex marriage).

The article does note that the small sample size here should lead one to caution, which is correct. And the UU’s uniting article of faith is, perhaps paradoxically, that religion is a private affair and that each person is responsible for what they believe. Despite that, the Unitarian Universalist Association has a long and powerfully pro-LGBTQ history and equally strong support of marriage equality.

Happily enough, it is a Unitarian Universalist group just behind the SGI Buddhists in the photo above.

So while English and Spanish speaking Buddhists ranked first in the survey, we should remember that the polling missed a significant number of Buddhists, and we should give credit where it is (albeit cautiously also) due, to the Unitarian Universalists.

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  • Jeff Wilson

    Hi Justin, thanks for highlighting this. I was the author of the Tricycle post on politics that you cite, not sure why my name has dropped off of it in the archives. You’ll probably find this research article by me of interest:

    Jeff Wilson, “All Beings are Equally Embraced by Amida Buddha: Jodo Shinshu Buddhism and Same-Sex Marriage in the United States.” Journal of Global Buddhism, vol 13 (2012): 31-59
    http://www.globalbuddhism.org/jgb/index.php/jgb/article/view/125

    I’ve written two similar articles documenting the history of Unitarian Universalist same-sex marriages going back to the 1950s. But the Journal of Unitarian Universalist History doesn’t have those issues online, so there’s no link to offer.

    You may wish to note this upcoming program, of which I am a participant:
    Embraced by the Heart of Amida Buddha: The LGBTQ Community and Shin Buddhism, June 27, NYC
    http://events.r20.constantcontact.com/register/event?oeidk=a07eask6xxf7222843b&llr=7khxescab

    Same-sex marriage is very rare in Buddhist Asia. There is a Rinzai temple in Kyoto that has recently begun offering it. The priest there studied in the USA for years and observed how the Buddhist community there has accepted LGBTQ persons, which led him to begin offering the service in Japan. We should also note that due to how Buddhism is historically structured in Japan, he has a clear economic incentive to offer such services, since they attract attention and money for his temple, through his fee for the ceremony and partnership with local hotels. Not meant as a dig at him, but rather to point to the fact that LGBTQ gains are not tied merely to “theology,” “morals,” or even “politics,” but also arise from economic and other social factors not directly related to religiousity per se:
    http://dot429.com/articles/5097-japan-offers-a-29-999-gay-wedding-package-in-an-ancient-buddhist-temple

    • justinwhitaker

      Hi Jeff,

      Huge thanks for the comments and links! I’m glad to see more scholarly work on Jodo Shinshu especially, as I know it is very poorly understood for such a large and complex school of Buddhism. I’m also thrilled to see a fellow Buddhism scholar covering UUism, which is a new-ish world to me but completely fascinating. And yea, economics has no doubt played at least some role in nearly all of Buddhist history (as with other religions), and it’s interesting to see where and how the economic ‘tipping point’ is turning toward offering same-sex marriage ceremonies. As a commenter on my FB page noted, it would be interested to poll clergy from across the US — and, I suppose, Canada 😉 — to see what their attitudes are and whether they would offer such a ceremony.

  • Conicher

    I personally believe it is a long stretch to argue that the Buddha would not have considered sex between persons of the same sex sexual misconduct. This is a man who also said a women could never be a Buddha. So,, while it would be nice, it probably isn’t so. However, it would be consistent with his teaching for neither Monks or lay followers to judge or be anything but loving and kind to all persons whatever their sexual preferences.