Jun 21, 2004

From the Archives

Public Divided On Marriage Amendment

The Southern Baptist Convention recently adopted a resolution supporting the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment.  Senate Republicans expect to open floor debate on the issue in mid-July. Television talk shows and political pundits can’t seem to get enough of the issue. But a new nationwide survey conducted by The Barna Group, of Ventura, California, indicates that more than one-third of all adults are not even aware of the amendment. The survey of 1618 adults revealed that 37% of voting-age citizens have never heard of the amendment.

The people groups most likely to be unfamiliar with the existence of the proposed amendment are women (40% unaware), adults under the age of 40 (41%), parents of children under 18 (42%), residents of the South (42%), non-whites (51%), adults not registered to vote (51%), and individuals aligned with a non-Christian faith (45%).

Several population segments were acutely aware of the amendment. Those included gay and lesbian adults (94% aware), evangelicals (89%), Republicans (77%), conservatives (77%), people likely to vote in the November election (76%), college graduates (75%), and residents of California (75%).

There Is No Majority

When the amendment was described to adults, regardless of their prior awareness, opinions were nearly evenly divided. In total, 46% favored the amendment while 44% opposed it and the remaining 10% had no opinion. When people’s opinions were examined by the intensity of their opinion, 35% strongly favored the amendment, 11% possessed moderate support, 31% were strongly opposed and 13% were somewhat opposed.

The strongest support for the amendment came from evangelicals (83%), conservatives (58%), Republicans (56%), Protestants (49%), and non-evangelical born again Christians (47%). At the other end of the spectrum, the segments most fervently opposed to the amendment were liberals (55%), atheists and agnostics (51%), and college graduates (43%).

Among the 37% who were previously unaware of the amendment, upon hearing a description of the amendment 37% said they supported such a change to the Constitution, 45% opposed it, and 18% remained undecided.

The survey also showed that the adults most likely to vote in November favored the amendment by a comfortable margin, 52% to 43%. That margin may not be enough, however, to persuade two-thirds of the members in each house of the Congress to pass the proposal, and then to generate passage in three-quarters of the states.

People Don’t Want Gay Clergy

A similar division of public opinion is nowhere to be found, though, when it comes to the marital leanings of the clergy. By greater than a two-to-one margin, the public is opposed to ordaining practicing homosexuals as clergy. Less than one-quarter of adults (24%) support ordaining ministers who are actively gay, compared to 60% who oppose the idea. One-sixth of the public (16%) was not sure how they felt on this issue.

Generational differences were apparent on this matter. Among Baby Busters (ages 21 to 38) 52% opposed ordaining practicing homosexuals, compared to 63% opposition from Baby Boomers (ages 39 to 57) and 70% of Elders (ages 58 and older).

No segment was more uniformly opposed to gay ordination than evangelicals. Just 2% supported this practice. Among non-evangelical born again Christians, 11% favored ordaining practicing homosexuals. Catholics were nearly twice as comfortable with the idea as Protestants (28% versus 16%, respectively).

There was a substantial degree of inconsistency between people’s support for the Federal Marriage Amendment and its acceptance of ordaining active homosexuals. One out of every eight supporters of the marriage amendment (13%) favored ordaining practicing homosexuals. In a similar vein, almost half of the adults who opposed the amendment also opposed ordaining clergy who were actively gay (42%).

One of the unexpected survey outcomes was discovering that 12% of homosexuals and lesbians opposed ordaining gay clergy and another one-quarter (25%) were not sure how they felt about this matter. That left a surprisingly small majority of gay adults – 64% – in favor of ordaining homosexuals.

Political Points to Score

The survey showed that President Bush has more to gain from supporting the amendment and opposing the ordination of gay clergy than Senator Kerry does by opposing the former and supporting the latter.

Among people likely to vote in the election and who support the President, 54% strongly favor the marriage amendment and 17% strongly oppose it – a gap of 37 percentage points. Among Mr. Kerry’s supporters, a plurality (43%) strongly opposes the amendment and 20% are strongly in favor – a gap of 23 points. Among the undecided voters, 35% strongly support the amendment and 32% strongly oppose it – a difference that is not statistically significant.

Although neither candidate is likely to mention his views on the ordination of gay clergy, 65% of the President’s likely supporters in the November election strongly oppose the ordination of gay clergy while just 4% strongly support it. Among Mr. Kerry’s supporters, on the other hand, only 18% strongly favor gay ordinations while nearly twice as many (33%) strongly oppose it.

Loudest Voices Represent Small Niches

The most vocal constituencies in this battle represent relatively small segments of the population. For instance, the homosexual niche constitutes just 4% of the adult population, of whom 78% oppose the FMA. At the opposite end of the ideological continuum are Christian evangelicals, a group that is 7% of the population, 83% of whom strongly favor the amendment.

Similarly, conservative Republicans are only 15% of the national electorate, but 66% strongly favor the amendment. Likewise, conservative born again Christians – most, but not all of whom are Republican – are 18% of the population, and 72% of them strongly support the amendment. A counterpart niche is liberal Democrats, who number just 7% of the adult population, and among whom 64% strongly oppose the amendment.

Why Positions Seem Lukewarm

Although few Americans are homosexual, and most adults believe that marriage is a relationship between a man and woman, many Americans believe that this is a “gray area” of morality that is best left without tight legal definitions. George Barna, who directed the study, noted that even many born again Christians are not convinced that their definition of marriage should be codified into law.

“Evangelicals are strongly supportive of the marriage amendment, but only about half of the larger group of born again Christians – those who are not evangelical – strongly favor such an amendment,” the researcher and author explained. “Atheists and agnostics, who reject the Bible as truth, contend that there is no moral legitimacy to defining marriage as the amendment would do. The remaining half of the population – comprised of notional Christians and people associated with non-Christian faiths – lean toward letting people make their own choices, without any legal limitations or parameters.

“This issue is reminiscent of the battle over abortion.” Barna continued. “Millions of adults say they would never get an abortion, they would not want their children to have an abortion, and they believe that abortion is morally wrong – but that the decision ought to be left up to each individual as to what is right or wrong for them. In the same manner, millions of people now indicate that they are not gay and many even claim to be repulsed by homosexuality, yet they contend that moral and lifestyle choices such as homosexual marriage should be left in the hands of each individual. This is classic relativism – a philosophy that has taken the nation by storm in the last quarter century and is now restructuring every aspect of American society. The consequence is that many people are personally opposed to such behavior but feel compelled to allow that behavior to take place legally because they also contend that there are no moral absolutes.”

Research Source and Methodology

The data in this report are based on a nationwide survey conducted by The Barna Group among 1,618 randomly selected adults during the last week of May. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±2.4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. In total, there were 1260 registered voters in the sample, which has a maximum margin of sampling error of ±2.9 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

People in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of those individuals coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. population. The data were subjected to statistical weighting procedures to calibrate the survey base to national demographic proportions. The survey data were collected through a combination of telephone and online surveys. Households selected for inclusion in the telephone sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals.

“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.” Being classified as “born again” is not dependent upon church involvement or denominational affiliation.

“Evangelicals” are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In addition to meeting the born again criteria, evangelicals also meet seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; contending that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not determined by church attendance or denominational affiliation. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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