Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
Next Tuesday, voters in North Carolina will head to the polls to vote on a ballot initiative that would enshrine marriage as a union between a man and a woman in the state constitution. Interestingly, according to the Washington Post, while polls show that primary voters are likely to approve the measure by a substantial 14-point margin (55% to 41%), opposition numbers among black voters, who tend to be less supportive than the general public overall, have been rising and currently stand at 43%. The same article also suggests that this movement may be the result of the work of some black pastors, many of whom are personally opposed to same-sex marriage but wary about changing the state’s constitution. And it appears to be happening in spite of efforts by anti-same-sex marriage groups like the National Organization for Marriage to court black pastors and clergy.
Analysis shows that younger black Millennials (age 18-24) and younger black Protestant Millennials demonstrate more support for same-sex marriage than black Americans overall. Younger black Millennials also draw a clear distinction between same-sex marriage as a policy and the morality of sex between two adults of the same gender. These findings point to potential changes in black Americans’ perspectives on same-sex marriage, which has been a controversial subject ever since the debate over Proposition 8 in California.
Black Americans are, overall, less supportive of same-sex marriage than Americans overall. While Americans are evenly divided on whether gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to marry legally (47% favor, 47% oppose), a solid majority (58%) of black Americans oppose same-sex marriage, and fewer than 4-in-10 (37%) are in favor.
Younger black Millennials are, however, significantly more supportive of same-sex marriage than black Americans overall. Younger black Millennials are 12 points more likely to support same-sex marriage than black Americans overall (49% vs. 37% respectively).
The generational divide is evident among black Protestants as well, which suggests that these differences are not simply a result of lower levels of religious engagement among young black Americans. Only one-third (33%) of black Protestants overall favor same-sex marriage, while 63% are opposed. By contrast, younger black Protestants are evenly divided, with 48% in favor and 48% opposed.
Younger black Protestants also make a distinction between the morality of sex between two adults of the same gender and the legality of same-sex marriage. Only around one-quarter (26%) of younger black Protestant Millennials believe that sex between two adults of the same gender is morally acceptable, while two-thirds (67%) believe it is morally wrong. At the same time, 48% of younger black Protestant Millennials also believe that same-sex marriage should be legal.
Of course, younger black voters aren’t likely to have a particularly significant impact on the ballot initiative’s success or failure: while African-Americans currently constitute 22% of North Carolina’s population, younger Americans, particularly minorities, tend to have low rates of voting compared to other groups, especially during primary and other low-salience elections. But these large generational gaps could herald a potential shift among black Americans and black Protestants, which could influence the future of the same-sex marriage debate in the pews and in the public arena.