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.
Following the release of PRRI’s Ohio Values Survey, editor MacKenzie Babb sat down with affiliated scholar Paul Djupe, professor of political science at Denison University in Ohio, to get his take on the results.
Were you surprised by any of the report’s findings?
Given that a majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage, I figured Ohioans would be right on board. We always say in elections that as Ohio goes, so goes the nation, so I was surprised that Ohio was lagging a bit. Certainly within five to ten years, there’s going to be a clear majority of Ohioans in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, just by generational replacement alone. It’s going to come, it’s just coming a bit behind the rest of the nation. The trend across the rest of the country is moving at lightning speed, so we talk about Ohio lagging but it’s lagging on a train that’s moving very fast down the tracks.
Are the religious patterns we see nationally also evident in Ohio, or are they somewhat different?
Nationally, Catholics are one of the most supportive religious groups of gay rights and same-sex marriage, but in Ohio, less than a majority of Catholics are supportive of same-sex marriage. I was kind of curious as to why this might be. In comparing what Catholics look like in Ohio according to this poll with the results of another PRRI poll that included Catholics across the country, I found that Ohio Catholics look very much like the nation in terms of their religiosity. They’re a little bit more likely to be white than the rest of the nation, but they’re also about five percent more Democratic. But one thing that stood out to me is that you’re more likely to find Ohio Catholics in rural and especially suburban areas, while Catholics in other parts of the country are much more likely to be urban. So, Ohio Catholics are just a little bit more insulated and perhaps isolated from the kind of diverse experiences that have led a majority of the rest of society to support same-sex marriage.
What does this tell us about how Americans come to their views on issues like same-sex marriage?
The difference in support between Catholics in Ohio and Catholics nationally comes down to the experiences people are having. That’s a really important take since most of the dialogue on this issue focuses on religion as the sort of major divider between those who support and those who oppose, and this study suggests that’s not the case. It makes it a really different conversation once you focus on social exposure instead of thinking [people’s views] are rooted in some foundational doctrine that’s never going to change.
Was there anything else that stood out in the report?
This misunderstanding that Ohioans and probably the rest of Americans have about whether it’s legal to discriminate against gays and lesbians. There is not a clear understanding that in many places it’s still legal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and that there’s no law that bans this yet, but they clearly think that it’s not OK.
What effect do you think public opinion will have on the politics of this issue?
On this issue, we’re seeing more action on the state level than the federal level, so it’s going to be important to keep an eye on what’s happening locally. Given the strong support for discrimination protections, it seems likely that it will eventually become federal law, but the fact that people already think it’s illegal may complicate matters. I would say there’s a good chance it’s going to take a while to see action at the national level.