The Pew Forum just released a fascinating new poll on religion in public life. Among the headlines: 72 percent of Americans say the influence of religion on politics is declining, and the vast majority of these people say that’s a bad thing. Most Americans do not want churches to endorse candidates for office, though support for the idea is growing, rising from 24 percent in August 2010 to 32 percent today. By a wide margin, Americans are more likely to see the Republican party (47 percent) as friendly to religion than they are the Democrats (29 percent), but it is noteworthy that less than half of Americans see the GOP as religion friendly.
The proportion of Americans who perceive the Obama administration as “unfriendly” to religion has jumped from 17 percent in 2009 to 29 percent today. Among Americans who are Republican or lean Republican, the proportion who now view Obama’s administration as hostile to religion has jumped 22 points, from 32 percent to 54 percent. But even among Democrats there has been a 4-percentage-point increase in those who perceive hostility to religion, and among black Protestants the increase is 7 percentage points.
To me the most surprising news in the poll is that 36 percent of American voters actually list “Birth Control” as among their top concerns. Between a stagnant paycheck, rising debt, and the Islamic State, don’t we have enough things to terrify us without making stuff up?
But the poll was also remarkable for showing a rather dramatic drop in support for gay marriage in one year, after years of uninterrupted rises. Do you favor “allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally” is an imperfect question, but it does allow tracking across time. Overall support for gay marriage dropped from 54 percent to 49 percent.
A Salon writer, Gabriel Arana, was quick to dismiss the poll: “It seems pretty likely support for gay marriage is leveling off; you simply can’t expect it to jump 10 percentage points every two years. But it’s unlikely that the trend line is dipping. Individual poll results matter less than they do in the aggregate, and this is the only one thus far showing support for marriage equality dropping. It may very well be an outlier.”
It may well be an outlier, but here is why I suspect not:
White Evangelical support for gay marriage dropped 4 percentage points, from 22 percent to 18 percent; Catholic support dropped 9 percentage points, from 61 percent to 52 percent. (White mainline Protestant opinion was virtually unchanged, rising from 56 percent support to 57 percent support.) Unaffiliated support for gay marriage continued its rise — from 71 percent to 76 percent in just one year.
But something happened over the last year to give traditional Christians second thoughts about what gay marriage would mean. What could that be?
The most likely candidate is A&E’s decision to suspend Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson, after he expressed, rather colorfully, rather standard orthodox Christian views on gay sex.
The Duck Dynasty incident was not, of course, alone. In the spring of 2014, 65,000 people signed their names to a petition stating that Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich must either recant his opposition to gay marriage or be fired. The firestorm caused him to step down. The Eich case is salient for gay-marriage opponents because he had done nothing to deserve a public tarring and feathering except contribute once to the Prop 8 campaign in California. And yet his position alone was clearly reason enough for many gay-marriage advocates to say he should be fired. And according to Breitbart this continues to have a stigmatizing and silencing effect in Silicon Valley.
Mozilla’s statement on his forced retirement was particularly telling:
Mozilla believes both in equality and freedom of speech. Equality is necessary for meaningful speech. And you need free speech to fight for equality. Figuring out how to stand for both at the same time can be hard.
Our organizational culture reflects diversity and inclusiveness. We welcome contributions from everyone regardless of age, culture, ethnicity, gender, gender-identity, language, race, sexual orientation, geographical location and religious views. Mozilla supports equality for all.
We have employees with a wide diversity of views. Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public. This is meant to distinguish Mozilla from most organizations and hold us to a higher standard.
Translation: The purpose of free speech is to promote equality. We morally superior beings understand the tension and pat ourselves on the back for embracing both values. Except for opponents of Prop 8 — they do not deserve tolerance or equality.
Other cases have not received the same widespread attention as Duck Dynasty and Mozilla, but they are beginning to mount, raising fears that gay marriage means tolerance for thee and persecution for me.
We saw this kind of polling effect once before, back in 2009, after Carrie Prejean became the object of widespread public hatred (including calls for her to lose her Miss California crown) simply for saying, in response to a question at the Miss USA pageant, that she believed in opposite-sex marriage. I dubbed it the Carrie Effect: “Gay marriage advocates are no longer persuading people they are right on marriage; they are suppressing the expression of opposing opinions by raising the cost of speaking up in favor of marriage, while at the same time attempting to make Americans believe that gay marriage won’t have any consequences. Carrie’s ordeal made the first process visible and the second idea hard to swallow.”
The Pew poll shows that 50 percent of white Evangelicals now perceive that there is “a lot” of discrimination against Evangelical Christians. Thirty-four percent of Evangelical Christians say it has become more difficult to be an Evangelical in the U.S. in recent years, while just 8 percent say it has become easier — almost the exact reverse of what people with no religious affiliation say about being a non-religious person (8 percent say it has become more difficult, 31 percent that it has become easier to have no religion). Fifty percent of all Americans say homosexual behavior is a sin, back up from 45 percent in May 2013.
Salon may be right — this polling result may well be temporary or an outlier. But if my analysis is right, the future depends on two things: whether gay-marriage advocates continue to press the idea that supporters of the Christian and traditional understanding of marriage should be treated as bigots in the public square — and whether stories of the oppression of opponents of gay marriage “break through” the media blockade.
That will in turn depend in part on whether political champions of supporters of classic marriage emerge to make oppression visible.
I am not necessarily either optimistic or pessimistic, but I would say this: In previous articles and essays I have discussed the political effects of the GOP’s decision to silence itself on so-called “social issues.” If your goal is simply winning elections, this mute strategy, while I think it demonstrably unwise, could be arguable.
What is not arguable is that if you are one of the people who actually care about these issues — for whom protecting life, marriage, and religious liberty is not a political strategy but a reason for being in politics — the candidates’ silence will hurt your cause. You donate to or otherwise support candidates who adopt a mute strategy at your own peril.
In a culture war, the single most effective thing you can do is persuade your opponents to stop talking. When only one side speaks, the polls will move, and its victory will become inevitable.
— Maggie Gallagher, a senior fellow at the American Principles Project, writes at MaggieGallagher.com.