“Viewing God as Masculine Impacts One’s View of Gay Marriage,” reads a headline from The Pacific Standard last week.
The article, written by Tom Jacobs, discusses a fascinating study by sociologist Andrew Whitehead on the relationship between conservative views on gay marriage and a masculine conception of God. The study draws on data from the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey, and was published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
The findings are quite striking:
Those who strongly agree with the statement “I view God as ‘he'” are ten percent less likely to favor same-sex unions than those who strongly disagree. When it comes to same-sex marriage, the difference is even starker. Those who strongly agree are about half as likely to favor same-sex marriage than those who strongly disagree. That such a difference exists is not surprising, but I was taken aback by how pronounced the difference was.
Another thing that initially gave me pause was how low the support of same-sex marriage was overall, though I suspect a new study using more recent data would show more liberal attitudes. The American public has come a long way on this issue since 2007, when the data was collected.[1. Whitehead also notes this: “Finally, these data were gathered in 2007 and attitudes toward same-sex unions have changed significantly since then. For example, in this sample 33.6 percent strongly agree or agree that same-sex marriage should be legal while 48.9 percent favor gay marriage according to the 2012 General Social Survey.]
But for all that this survey can tell us about the correlation between gendered views of God and same-sex marriage, it does not tell us that, as Jacobs claims, “viewing God as masculine impacts one’s view on gay marriage.” All it tells us is that those with a certain view of God are more likely to have a certain view of marriage.
Indeed, Whitehead never makes a definite causal claim:
[D]ue to the cross-sectional nature of the data I cannot determine causal direction. It may be that individuals’ attitudes toward homosexuality change their views toward God’s perceived gender and the proper roles for men and women in society. Nevertheless, past research supports the theoretical progression identified in this study. For most individuals, gender and religious socialization tend to occur much earlier than the crystallization of same-sex union attitudes.
But I think Whitehead overstates his findings too. The counterexample he provides (emphasized) is not the only, or, I would argue, even the most plausible one. The more likely answer, it seems to me, is that these findings are explained by religious affiliation and political orientation.
It could simply be that viewing God as a “he” is a common religious orthodoxy, and those more likely to abandon that view will be more likely to buck traditional religious views as well. 41.5 percent of those who strongly disagree with the statement “God is a ‘he'” reported “none” when asked about religious affiliation. Results from the same survey show that fully 74 percent of religious “nones” either “agree” or “strongly agree” that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. “Nones” were also by far the most liberal major grouping of respondents. Only 18.5 percent of them reported being “conservative” or “leaning conservative” (none report being “extremely conservative”), while a full 51.7 percent reported “leaning liberal” or being “liberal” or “extremely liberal. [2. It’s worth noting here that “nones” are not necessarily “nonreligious.” They may well believe in God, and they may take that belief very seriously. But the mere fact that they are religiously unaffiliated does suggest that they are, on average, less inclined toward orthodoxy. (Hence the higher frequency of rejecting the long-established Western tradition of seeing God as male.) ]
So while use of gender pronouns in describing God may be telling of one’s views on same-sex marriage, I sincerely doubt that the relationship here is causal. Rather, it seems that our stance on both issues is determined by our overall religious and political inclinations.