by Nicole Neroulias
Coverage of same-sex marriage often pits conservative Christians against liberals and atheists. While there is certainly some fire behind this smoke, several factors predict which side Americans take on this debate – and religion is only part of the puzzle.
Media outlets have rushed to conduct polls on gay marriage, as North Carolina voters affirmed its one-man, one-woman definition earlier this month, President Obama declared his support for marriage equality and states like Maine and Washington are expected to weigh in on their laws in November. As a journalist, I prefer to consult academics and public opinion experts who have been analyzing controversial faith-related issues over time, such as the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Public Religion Research Institute. These findings tend to be more nuanced, with years of data to back up their conclusions.
I asked PRRI research director Daniel Cox to isolate various demographic characteristics – not just whether you're an evangelical Christian, a frequent church-goer and believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible – to reveal what else plays into approval or rejection of gay marriage. Based on 2011 data, he reports that political affiliation, age, education level and gender are also strong predictors: Democrats, people under 30, college graduates and women are generally more accepting of same-sex couples. And across the board, people who have close friends or relatives who are gay are more OK with their tying the knot.
Makes sense. In Washington, both Republicans who voted in favor of the gay marriage bill in the state's House of Representatives emotionally spoke about gay family members. Democrats from conservative parts of the state also cited gay friends and family, or like President Obama, noted that their children – the generation gap at work – have friends with same-sex parents and don't see the problem.
Of course, religion has a strong influence on this debate, along with generation, gender, geography and political leanings. And all these factors are interrelated; young people, Democrats, urban residents and people who aren't in conservative Christian families are also more likely to know someone who is gay. In this day and age, it's hard to block out progressive points of view, even if you restrict yourself to right-wing media and a faith-based social life. Mitt Romney's campaign didn't foresee a problem hiring Richard Grenell, who is openly gay, as a foreign policy expert. (Grenell didn't last, but it shows how much has changed that his sexual orientation was considered a “non-issue” by a Mormon Republican candidate in the first place.)
Which brings me to the other problem with oversimplified coverage of this debate: Despite what their leaders say, rank-and-file Catholics, Mormons and evangelical Christians aren't in lockstep against homosexuality. It's easy for Christians on either side of the divide to pick and choose Bible passages to suit their needs – similar to the slavery debate in in history books. Black Christians are additionally conflicted, torn between conservative social values, empathy for minorities seeking equal rights and allegiance to the first African-American president.
In my own reporting on Washington state's Referendum 74 effort to suspend the new gay marriage law so that voters can reject it in November, I've found Catholics like Barbara Guzzo and Mormons like Scott Holley who are just fine with same-sex marriage as a civil right and who are horrified that their faith communities have been tarred as universally intolerant. Washington's evangelicals have been quieter so far, but I've met several who privately admit they don't personally approve of homosexual behavior but wouldn't deny equal civil rights to citizens of other faiths and don't consider the issue a high enough priority to help circulate the Referendum 74 petitions.
In other words, among and between their denominations and sects, Christians, Jews, Muslims and other religious groups are deeply divided on this issue. Just like families. Just like friends. Just like Americans.
GetReligion's Terry Mattingly weighed in recently on a North Carolina gay marriage article that glossed over the state's internally divided churches and voices from the religious left in favor of a simpler “us vs. them” frame. That absence, along with Mattingly's complaint that his blog post elicited far fewer than the site's usual number of comments, illustrates two problems: Most journalists don't have the time/space/knowledge to delve into these angles and they're not likely to get as many hits/comments if the article doesn't simplify the conflict into a clear “us vs. them” mentality.
Nevertheless, the gay marriage debate isn't going away anytime soon, so reporters should remember that it's not (just) about religion– it's about personal relationships, politics, gender, geography and age. We do a disservice to our readers and their faith communities if we dumb it down to a battle between ultra-conservative Christians and the godless world.
Nicole Neroulias is an award-winning religion reporter and Seattle-based correspondent for Reuters. A graduate of Cornell University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she has previously written for the New York Times, Religion News Service and other media outlets. Follow her on Twitter: @BeliefBeat.