Americans who have gay or lesbian friends are twice as likely to say gay marriage should be legal as those who have none.
And more than half of Americans, meanwhile, say homosexuality is not sinful.
Such survey results place evangelicals increasingly in a minority position in American culture over same-sex relationships.
Nashville-based Lifeway Research, in a phone survey of 2,000 Americans on gay marriage, reported that friendship and faith play an influential role in how Americans view the issue.
“When it comes to support for gay marriage, a lot of it depends” on who one’s friends are, said Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research. “Those who have gay or lesbian friends are the most open to gay marriage.”
Regardless of friends, Stetzer said, evangelicals are more likely to consider homosexual behavior sinful.
Currently 37 states allow gay marriage – though ceremonies are on hold in some places, pending appeals. Later this month the Supreme Court will hear arguments that could make same-sex marriage legal nationwide.
Half (50 percent) of Americans agree with the statement, “I believe gay marriage should be legal.” For Americans who have gay or lesbian friends, that number jumps to 6 in 10 (60 percent). Among Americans with no gay or lesbian friends, only a third say gay marriage should be legal.
Among faith groups, Catholics (56 percent) agree more than Protestants (40 percent) that it should be legal but less than the non-religious (73 percent).
Evangelicals, defined as those who identify themselves as a born again, evangelical or fundamentalist Christian, are least likely to support gay marriage. Less than a third (30 percent) say gay marriage should be legal, compared to 38 percent of evangelicals with gay or lesbian friends who say gay marriage should be legal.
“Culture is dramatically shifting on the issue,” Stetzer said.
The study confirmed that Americans have become polarized over the question of gay marriage. A third (36 percent) strongly agree gay marriage should be legal. A third (35 percent) strongly disagree. Few (6 percent) are unsure.
Researchers found similar responses to the statement, “I believe that sex between people of the same gender is sinful, regardless of its legality.” Just under half of Americans agree (46 percent) while the same number disagree. Seven percent are unsure.
Two-thirds of evangelicals say sex between two people of the same gender remains sinful, whether it is legal or not. Among those with gay or lesbian friends, 62 percent of evangelicals agree that it is sinful. More than half of non-evangelicals (54 percent), meanwhile, say sex between people of the same gender is not sinful, with 8 percent unsure.
For comparison, LifeWay Research also conducted an online survey, asking 2,252 Americans, “Do you believe homosexual behavior is a sin?”
In 2014, 3 in 10 (30 percent) answered “yes.” More than half (54 percent) said no.
By contrast, 37 percent said yes in a similar 2012 survey and 44 percent said yes in 2011. About 4 in 10 (43 percent) said homosexual behavior is not a sin in the 2011 survey, along with 45 percent in 2012.
Pastors & same-sex weddings
Even if gay marriage becomes legal nationwide, few Protestant senior pastors are likely to officiate at same-sex weddings. Most see same-sex marriages as wrong, according to a study of 1,000 Protestant senior pastors from LifeWay Research.
Eight in 10 of the senior pastors (80 percent) disagree with the statement, “I see nothing wrong with two people of the same gender getting married.” That includes 74 percent who strongly disagree.
About 1 in 5 Protestant senior pastors (18 percent) agree with the statement, including 1 in 10 (11 percent) who strongly agree.
A 2010 LifeWay Research survey of pastors found similar results. In 2010, 83 percent disagreed.
“Church leaders have traditionally been seen as the champions of all things moral in society,” Stetzer said. “As public perceptions of morality change, pastors find themselves in an increasingly unpopular position.”
The phone survey of Americans was conducted Sept. 19 – Oct. 5, 2014. The calling list was a stratified random sample. Responses were weighted by age, ethnicity and education to more accurately reflect the population. The completed sample is 2,000 surveys. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 2.4 percent. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.
The online survey of adult Americans was conducted Sept. 17-18, 2014. A sample of an online panel demographically reflecting the adult population of the U.S. was invited to participate. Responses were weighted by region, age, ethnicity, gender and income to more accurately reflect the population. The completed sample is 2,252 online surveys. Comparisons are made to the following surveys that used the same methodology: 1,191 surveys Nov. 14-16, 2012, and 2,144 surveys Sept. 23-26, 2011.
The phone survey of Protestant pastors was conducted Sept. 11-18, 2014. The calling list was a stratified random sample drawn from a list of all Protestant churches. Each interview was conducted with the senior pastor, minister or priest of the church called. Responses were weighted by region to more accurately reflect the population. The completed sample is 1,000 surveys. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.1 percent. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Bob Smietana is a former senior writer for Facts & Trends magazine, published by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.)