How Fast Is Public Opinion on Same Sex Marriage Changing?

How Fast Is Public Opinion on Same Sex Marriage Changing? October 12, 2010

Yesterday was both Columbus Day and National Coming Out Day, so I saw many tweets linking the two as embarrassing elements of American society, one past and one present.  I’m actually not much of a doomsayer on the latter.  While the recent violence and bullying of GLBT (and suspected GLBT) persons in high schools and colleges is abhorrent, it is minor in comparison to other social evolutions through which America has gone.

The Civil War was, of course, notoriously bloody.  Prohibition was violent in its own way, and the Civil Rights Movement precipitated violent protests and often lawlessness across the country.  By contrast, Women’s Suffrage was a peaceful movement, and so has been the steady march toward gay rights in America.

Conventional wisdom has been that the acceptance by the American populace of gay rights, like marriage, has been steadily marching ahead at 1% per year.  But recent data indicates that the pace might be quickening.  This summer, the Colorado Independent published this graph which shows three decades of polling on same sex marriage (HT: Keith DeRose).  The country is now basically 50-50 on gay marriage:

Last week, Andrew Sullivan posted a graph of Pew polling showing a similar trend, this time by generation:

The uptick in acceptance of same sex marriage is interesting, especially as we approach mid-term elections in which the “family values” crowd doesn’t seem to be getting much traction on this issue.  Cutting taxes, sure; but we’re just not hearing much about a marriage amendment to the Constitution.  I’m assuming that’s because politicians know how to read polls better than they do just about anything else.

My question, as usual, is how will the church respond? Obviously, we’re split on the issue now, just as the country is.  But as the country continues its steady march toward full inclusion of GLBT persons in all aspects and institutions of America, the church will follow suit (with, of course, vocal exceptions).  Some will holler that we’re allowing culture to set the theological agenda for the church, that we’re kowtowing to popular opinion, etc.  But it seems far more likely to me that God is revealing something very important to us about the imago dei: The beauty of the Trinity is the eternal relationality of the Godhead, and in that spirit, the church should be fostering loving, respectful, mature, committed relationships between human beings, be they straight or gay.

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  • Reinhardt

    This is a serious question, not sarcasm. How does one reconcile the B and T in GLBT with the Bible. From my understanding of the GL position, in order to reconcile that with the Bible (for those who try), it must be a monogamous relationship. The premise being that when the Bible speak of homosexuality, it means something different than how we think of GL, but what about BT? Isn’t monogamous B an oxymoron? Just asking?

  • Reinhardt, your question has been answered here before several times by other readers. To be bisexual or transgender does not preclude monogamy.

  • ncrev

    Tony, I appreciate your post, but I would like to prompt you to rethink calling the gay rights movement peaceful. There has been tremendous violence against the LGBT population, and it has often gone unreported. Indeed, the seminal event in the US gay rights movement, the Stonewall uprising of 1969, was in direct response to the continual abuse people were receiving at the hands of police officers. It was also not safe for LGBT folks to gather publicly until relatively recently in our history. I am 52 and remember well that our gay student group in college did not post its meeting locations for fear of violence.

  • Marusha

    The Christian church is full of repentant homosexuals, liars, thiefs, murderers, and adulterers. Christianity is the forgiven sin religion. So to answer your question of “how will the church respond?” is that the door is wide open to those who respond to the gospel. That is to say, when a person sees that they are a sinner in need of salvation, turns away from sin, no longer revels in it and turns toward God and asks for His forgiveness they can be saved. This is because Jesus was the acceptable sacrifice on a cross so that when we repent and put our faith in Him, God sees Jesus’ righteousness instead of our sinfulness.

    The church cannot condone the manifestation of sin but must embrace all who have turned away and been forgiven.

    We must preach the gospel. That is our response.

  • carla jo

    Marusha, I think the sticking point in your position for me is that there is disagreement in the church about what it means to “turn away from sin” in regard to homosexuality.

    In some churches, turning away from sin means that a person must reject their homosexuality and try to live as a straight person. It’s not enough for a gay person to be celibate, it’s their orientation and sexual identity that is seen as sinful.

    In other churches, turning away from sin means that a homosexual person, just like a heterosexual person, rejects a life of promiscuity and strives to build healthy, godly, monogamous relationships. In this case, it is sexual activity outside the bounds of a committed relationship (I would say marriage but that’s not always possible) that is seen as sinful–just as it would be for heterosexuals–and not a person’s orientation.

    I say this not because I think we should be squishy about sin, but because we need to be clear about what we mean when we talk about sin as it relates to homosexuality.

    And I agree with NCREV. There has been tremendous violence against homosexuals in our history and it’s been brutal and ugly and systemic. Hell, there was a brutal attack in NY over the weekend.

  • Marusha

    When I mean sin when it comes to homosexuality, I am talking about the sexual act and lust. It would be wrong for me to tell someone who has that struggle that they must marry someone of the opposite sex. For most of the recovered homosexuals I know, they simply cannot conjure up attraction for the opposite sex and therefore choose a celibate lifestyle. Am I making sense?

    To me, gay marriage is wrong. Instead of turning away from the sin, it is reveling in it.

  • Pat Sexton

    I’m reminded of something a very smart young man told me 15 years ago: whose morals should the church reflect? 21st century North America? 1999 Africa? 18th century Italy? The church moves very slowly because it should and it must.

  • Chris

    Carla Jo,

    You made the comment that “In some churches, turning away from sin means that a person must reject their homosexuality and try to live as a straight person. It’s not enough for a gay person to be celibate, it’s their orientation and sexual identity that is seen as sinful.” but this sounds to me as possibly grossly overstated. I’ve been in a lot of churches and have never heard this view. I suppose possibly in the most hardcore of fundamentalist churches it might be heard, but I think even your standard run of the mill evangelical church would be loathe to claim this as it would elevate their perception of this particular sexual sin over and above other sin. I don’t know of anyone that holds the theological position that there is some kind of hierarchy of sin. It also kind of sounded like you were saying that you thought those particular churches were in fact wrong and that it actually should be “enough for a gay person to be celibate”. Did I misread you there?
    Regarding the accelerating pace of acceptance towards gay marriage, it could in fact be the case, and I think it actually will eventually happen, but let me throw out a couple of things. People make much of the fact that it’s mostly the younger demographic that seems to be more open and it’s the older generation by and large that oppose and so all we have to do is wait things out and it will come about. But this might be assuming too much. It assumes that younger people will for the most part never change their minds on the subject. If you’d have asked me when I was in my early twenties if I was okay with gay marriage I probably would have responded “Why not? What’s the big deal?” But at this point I have to be honest and say I have some reservations. I honestly am not in strident opposition to it, because I don’t know that it’s right to impose my “Christian” ideal on others or on a world that is and has always been hostile to the Christian message, however you want to define that. But many, if not most people as they mature and get older very often become more conservative and change their views on a great many things. What’s the saying?… If you’re young and conservative you’re lacking a heart, but if you’re older and liberal you’re lacking a brain. I don’t strictly hold to that axiom as it’s too simplistic but I do also think there’s a good bit of truth there if only from personal observation. It may happen the other way around too, but I think probably not as much.
    Also, I think Tony your comment that some “will holler that we’re allowing culture to set the theological agenda for the church, that we’re kowtowing to popular opinion, etc.  But it seems far more likely to me that God is revealing something very important to us about the imago dei …” is a bit too flippant. It seems that way to me because I don’t see liberal/emergent theology as driving the trend. If you could wipe away every last scrap or vestige of liberal/emergent theology from the minds and computers of Americans or the world, the move towards gay marriage would still be happening. Gay marriage is a reality in much of secular (read Cartesian/enlightenment/atheistic) Europe. They don’t have any illusions that this has some bearing on or relation to a greater reflection of the imago dei. It’s not Rauschenbush, Harnack, McLaren, or Rollins that is driving this. It’s Cher, Perez Hilton, and Lady Gaga. Emergent is just falling in line.
    Now please don’t take away from what I’ve said that I’m attacking anyones position on this issue, rather I’m just offering up some personal thoughts and observations.

  • Anon

    As far as Bible proof texting goes, there really isn’t much to support anti-trans viewpoints. Relatedly, Iran (a deeply homophobic country rooted in an Abrahamic religious tradition) is quite supportive of men transitioning to women, with Iran performing the second greatest number of gender-reassignment surgeries on earth.

    As to bi folks, Tony is obviously correct: being attracted to people of both sexes does not preclude monogamy (indeed, gay or straight folks are typically attracted to more than one man or woman).

  • “For most of the recovered homosexuals I know, they simply cannot conjure up attraction for the opposite sex and therefore choose a celibate lifestyle.”

    Doesn’t sound very “recovered”, IMHO.

    I’m a gay man who was married in a religious wedding ceremony back in 1997 to my bi husband and in a legal ceremony this past January. When we’re not reveling in sin, we both work hard in our respective careers, raise our sons, keep up our home, take the dogs to the dog park, and otherwise do what other married couples do. Except that we have to constantly worry that a bunch of religious busy-bodies are scheming to involuntarily annul our marriage, which sucks.

    How will the church respond? Most churches will continue preaching against us and teaching their flock that our marriages are worse than anything else. They will continue politicking against our legal marriage rights, even though they aren’t required to perform any marriage rites for anyone they don’t want (gay or otherwise). Other churches like mine will continue welcoming gay people and our families and will affirm our spiritual gifts. And we’ll continue receiving hate mail from church members of the former group.

  • carla jo

    Chris, the following is from the Exodus Ministries website:

    “EXODUS upholds redemption for the homosexual person as the process whereby sin’s power is broken, and the individual is freed to know and experience true identity as discovered in Christ and His Church. That process entails the freedom to grow into heterosexuality.”
    “Exodus affirms reorientation of same sex attraction is possible. This is a process, which begins with motivation to, and self-determination to change based upon a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We facilitate resources for this process through our member ministries, other established networks and the Church. The key outcome of this is measured by a growing capacity to turn away from temptations, a reconciling of ones identity with Jesus Christ, being transformed into His image. This enables growth towards Godly heterosexuality. Exodus recognizes that a lifelong and healthy marriage as well as a Godly single life are good indicators of this transformation.”

    That sounds to me as though it’s not enough for a homosexual person to be celibate, that it is indeed the sexual identity that is the problem, not the sexual activity. And yes, I disagree with that position.

    There are official Exodus ministries at hundreds of evangelical (not “hardcore fundamentalist”) churches around the country.

    As far as a hierarchy, it does seem to me that churches that hold this view tend to be far more concerned about sexuality than, say, gluttony or greed–do fat people need to be skinny before they are considered sufficiently repentant? It is not expressed as a theological view but rather one that comes out in practice. Then again, our practices say a lot about our theology.

  • Alan K


    The graphs are very interesting, but to equate the movement of the Spirit with social trends and attitudes is suspect. As a minister I cannot proclaim statistics, nor can I ever look at the world around me and discern heavenly intent. If I do, I am shaking hands with Arius and have thus become a mythologizer.

    We need a better conversation than what we currently have, which in my mainline denomination boils down to biblicists and neo-Kantians yelling back and forth at one another. You need to ask and have us discuss “What is it that makes marriage real?” THAT would be some Theoblogy.

  • Chris

    Carla Jo, thanks for responding.
    I’m still not sure if I understood whether or not you find celibacy the way to go for homosexuals, so long as their sexual identity can be upheld.
    In terms of the Exodus statement, I guess I didn’t take it quite as sinister as you did. The statement that “Exodus affirms reorientation of same sex attraction is possible.” doesn’t sound like the same thing as saying that reorientation is obligatory. Are you saying that reorientation is *impossible*? I guess some of the problem that I have with this whole issue is that in the minds of both progressives and conservatives the issue of sexual identity is settled. With the level of sexual saturation of every kind bombarding our society, mostly via the popular culture it’s inevitable that people do experiment and people do get confused. I’ve seen it firsthand. But we’re at a point now that you can’t even raise the question of gender confusion. If a young person has one same-sex encounter, the pressure to fall in line and say, that’s it, you’re gay, is unbelievable. Again, I ask if a person is in a struggle with their sexual identity and looks instead to find his identity in Christ and decides that his desire is to live the way that God designed him, without being coerced or manipulated, the shouting voices are so aggressively against it and saying “leave him alone, he must necessarily be either gay or bi”. I understand that depression or suicide is a real concern and must be addressed with extreme sensitivity. But unfortunately my suspicion is that the political forces within the culture are so intense and so strong that it has cemented in the minds of many people that change is actually impossible and in fact completely unnecessary. I don’t know, maybe they are right, but I would at least like the opportunity to pose the question.

  • carla jo

    Chris, I agree with you–I think sexuality is always forming and always changing. And I completely agree that this is particularly true for teenagers–curiosity is not the same as orientation and those of us who believe the church needs to embrace and welcome homosexuals need to be careful not to pressure anyone into “picking” an orientation in an effort to push some agenda or prove our openness.

    I don’t necessarily read Exodus’ materials as sinister, but it does seem clear to me that the goal is to reject homosexual orientation completely. I don’t know if that’s possible, at least for the vast majority of gay people I know. So many of my gay Christian friends have struggled for years to be “healed” of their homosexuality to no avail. Their efforts have been sincere and filled with prayer and therapy and heterosexual relationships and discipleship and every other method of bringing about change they can find and nothing happens. It might very well work for some people, but they seem to be the minority.

    Blanket statements and approaches–on this issue or any issue really–tend to ignore the whole person and instead treat people like a set of problems that need fixing or like props in a big show about acceptance and tolerance. A dear friend of mine, when talking about homosexuality and the church, will say “Which homosexual?” because he recognizes that each person comes to understand their sexual identity through a unique set of experiences and beliefs and that’s where the conversation has to start. Change and repentance will look like something different for each person. I think that’s how it works for all of us.

  • L. Reese Cumming

    “imago dei”? Are we getting a little out of touch with reality – quoting latin for the masses? The only thing these statistics show is a graph of the life cycle (or conclusion) of a culture and its dominance in this world.

    “The beauty of the Trinity is the eternal relationality of the Godhead, and in that spirit, the church should be fostering loving, respectful, mature, committed relationships between human beings, be they straight or gay.” When one constructs a sentence with ambiguous words, doomed to the relative meanings of the intellectual “in” society, one knows that while it sounds good and imitates traditional morals, it is in fact nothing more than a disguise to conceal one’s selfish agenda. (Glad you kept a small ‘c’ on your church.)

    And thanks for letting us all know what God has in store for us next.

  • RJ


    There are many trends in what American culture will accept that should be rejected by Christians. The American culture by and large accepts the notion that it’s fine for people to buy the largest house, most expensive car, etc. they can afford. (Some may add a caveat such as, as long as you are giving something to the poor.) I would guess that far more people accept that notion than accept same sex blessings. I do not think that public opinion on this is any indication of the leadership of the Spirit.

    I also think that the notion that the Spirit is leading the American church to a fresh revelation while leaving the African Church, Asian Church, Middle Eastern Church, and South American Church behind is a bit like the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. It assumes that God has granted a kind of preeminence to the American Church.

    Nothing I have said so far would necessarily mean that the Spirit is not leading the American church in this direction. It all means that we should be very cautious with the assumption that polls of popular opinion in the United States indicate the leadership of the Spirit.

    I find Stanley Grenz’s discussion of the topic of the imago dei and sexuality in Chapter 7 of The Social God and the Relational Self to be very compelling. We need to wrestle with this issue in terms of what a redeemed creation looks like. When the children of God are revealed (ref. Romans 8.18-25) will gender identity be part of the new creation? Does a well developed theology of creation have something to say about sexuality i.e. does the shape of humanity as male and female in a physical, and not merely psychological form have anything to do with what we are to do with our gender? If so, what? Is the potential for procreation an important aspect of what we are blessing in marriage?

    The trajectory of American public opinion could just as easily be a reflection of a growth in gnostic religious sentiment as it is about the Spirit’s movement upon the American church to lead the rest of the world.

  • Chris

    @Carla Joe,

    Very late in responding, been very busy. Hope this thread hasn’t totally died yet.

    You said: “I think sexuality is always forming and always changing.”
    I have real trouble with this statement. I’m glad you said “I think”, and not “it’s the case that”, because I’m hoping that tomorrow I don’t discover that I’ve changed my sexual orientation. But really, this suggests that in our lifetimes our sexuality is this pliable, mercurial thing, given to continual evolutionary refashioning. I think I have to reject this idea if this is what you are saying, but I may have misunderstood.

    You also stated, in reference to the Exodus organization that “it does seem clear to me that the goal is to reject homosexual orientation completely. I don’t know if that’s possible, at least for the vast majority of gay people I know. ”

    A couple of things. First, I only know a little about this organization. I have heard compelling testimonies from people that have declared that they have in fact “changed”, for lack of a better word. I have to take their testimonies at face value. I don’t feel compelled to either deconstruct what is as real an experience as the gay people you say you know, or to call them liars or brainwashed. They appear sincere and genuinely transformed and have found a new identity in Christ, rather than their sexuality. I think if you are fair-minded you have to take that seriously.
    Also, just from perusing the Exodus website I might challenge your assertion somewhat that their goal is to get people to reject their orientation completely. From what I gather there is an overt acknowledgement that this will very likely be an ongoing struggle. Is it an unfair or overly-burdensome struggle? Apparently not for those that claim change. I think for many, it’s easy to be cynical and dismissive of these kinds of testimonies. I choose not to be cynical. I do want to be aware, but not cynical.

    Let me ask this. If it were found that even one person had changed their orientation from gay to straight or vice versa, wouldn’t it mean that the door is in fact open and that a change in one’s orientation is possible? Especially if a persons sexuality is always forming and changing as you suggest. The number of people that can accomplish this (change) seems not germane to the discussion, as it could be argued that any number of people, or most people, or the vast majority of people engage in any number of sins at any time.
    This entire debate has caused me to struggle mightily and to challenge my own presuppositions regarding the “gay = sin” conversation. I honestly can’t say that I think being gay is a “choice.” I might rather use the words “tendency”, or “predisposition”, but regardless, I don’t think very many choose this for themselves, although I do think that because of youthful experimentation and curiosity as you’d mentioned earlier, some may actually become confused and choose.
    I think there are many really good arguments and reasons for believing that homosexuals should not be viewed as any different from anyone else. They certainly should not be treated differently. Anyone that does treat another group differently or as inferior in some way is not exhibiting the love of Christ. Moreover, if some persons or groups are experiencing persecution, Christians should be the first to offer rescue, sanctuary, and acceptance.
    But somehow for me these good arguments don’t answer certain questions. A major question for me that always lingers is a teleological one. In other words is this really what God designed for individual humans? I ask myself, If an alien were to drop onto this planet and begin an examination of human beings, I think that if they examined the eyeballs of a sightless person for example, they would have to conclude that something is not working as it should. Likewise I think that that alien would have to conclude that this particular behavior (homosexuality) departs from its intended purpose or design in a major way, if only from a nuts and bolts perspective. I know that this may be a dry or even simplistic way of looking at humans which can be and usually are very complex. But I find that sometimes the most profound answers are in fact the simple ones, and for now I think I’m choosing to believe that homosexuality is not what God intended for humans. That being said, I don’t elevate homosexuality above other sin and I love all my gay brothers and sisters, and yes I even say my brothers and sisters “in Christ”, because, I think, we all need the Great Physician.

  • carla jo


    I do believe there are people for whom something like Exodus could work, but that’s kind of the point I’m making. Blanket approaches–be they the kind espoused by Exodus or the kind that never challenge people–aren’t helpful. Each person needs to be taken for who they are. That’s what I want from my faith community. I want the church to accept me for who I am and yet believes I am a work in progress. I want my community to walk with me as the Holy Spirit reforms me each day. That reformation won’t look the same for me as it does for you or for anyone else.

    And when I say I think sexuality is always changing, I don’t really mean orientation, but rather understanding and maturity. I have always been a heterosexual woman, but I understand and express that very differently now than I did when I was 20. Like every other part of who I am, my sexuality is affected by who I am, what I experience, and what I learn and discover.

  • Chris

    Thanks Carla Jo, for your patient responses.

  • carla jo

    you too!

  • Reinhardt

    Sorry Tony, I knew it was probably a silly question, but I am really out of the loop when it comes to those issues. I assumed bi and monogamy were mutually exclusive. I do appreciate your candor and tolerance of silly questions. I have never read the comments on the site until a few weeks ago – usually read through Google reader. This is the only blog where I ever post in the comments – and then not very often.

    Although I may disagree with you on some big things, you certainly are a brother in Christ.

    God Bless

  • @L. Reese Cumming Your comment sounds scared and angry. It also sounds vague and imperious, exactly what you accuse Tony’s words (and attitude) to be. Why are you so disgusted with the possibility that God actually loves homosexuals as much as he loves heterosexuals, and that instead of living darkened lives of fear, fear of family response, fear of others mocking them, fear of bullies at school or in the work place, they should be free to live in freedom? Tony’s point is that, like slavery or the suffrage movement, God’s Spirit moves across continents and brings understanding to his church. My worry is that 150 years ago you might have argued that slavery is acceptable because the Scriptures “are very clear” on it.
    @Everyone As a youth pastor and youth worker for over 15 years, I would hope that we could put aside this idea that people choose to be gay. A substitute high school teacher told me last month that she thought kids “just did the gay thing for the attention.” (Which tells you something about some of our high school teachers, sadly) Really? Not on my watch. Attention is a valued commodity during adolescence, but not that attention. It is a one way ticket to a life of total misery.
    As to choosing celibacy, how can someone who is heterosexual actually make that comment? What if your pastor told you that you had to remain single for the rest of your life? The rub here, is that listening to heterosexuals (of which I am one) condemn homosexuals and decide their life choices smells vaguely of slavery and patriarchy to me. “We’ll just let the straight, white people, preferably the males, decide their future. It’s the best for everyone involved.”