Young evangelicals’ surprising opposition to same-sex marriage: blip or something real?

There is a curious phenomenon showing up in survey data. And it may flip our understanding of public opinion toward same-sex marriage on its head.

Young evangelicals may be bucking the culture and standing against same-sex marriage. They are out of step with other young adults and much more in line with older evangelicals.

The 2012 American National Election Study asked 5,914 people their position on same-sex marriage. The large sample size gives us the ability to look at age differences among subgroups. There were over 1,200 evangelicals, which is more than the total number of people in most national surveys.

The ANES gave people three options: did they support same-sex marriage, civil unions (but not “marriage”), or no recognition of same-sex relationships? Overall, younger people were much more in favor of marriage equality than older Americans were.

Evangelicals are one group in the USA who remain doggedly against same-sex marriage. Even as Americans as a whole and other religious groups have moved toward acceptance of same-sex marriage (at least as a legal arrangement), evangelicals have remained opposed.

What is curious, however, is the difference in age cohorts. The graph shows two groups of Americans: evangelicals and everyone else. Among non-evangelicals, there is support for same-sex marriage, particularly among younger adults. A majority of those under 40 support same-sex marriage. Younger evangelicals, too, are more supportive of same-sex marriage than are older evangelicals with one major exception.

Fewer than one-in-four college-age evangelicals support same-sex marriage. Non-evangelicals the same age are three times more likely to hold this position. These younger evangelicals take a position much more like their parents than other Americans their age.

The graph takes into account sample size (the dashed lines show the 95 percent confidence interval, which is based on the margin of error). Still, the data should be taken with caution. We need to see what other surveys find. This could be a blip (for lack of a better term) or something real. It’s too soon to say with certainty.

But if it is real, then it suggests that evangelicals may be changing how their youth view marriage and sexuality. The age cohort in the study came to age after same-sex marriage started making advances. As a result, the 17-21 year old adults grew up in the time in which opposition to same-sex marriage became a defining issue among evangelicals, a line in the sand between those seen as holding Biblical truth and those acquiescing to cultural changes. Add to this the possibility of defection. Younger adults raised as evangelicals may have left because of differences over this issue.

Whatever the reason, it’s something we need to keep an eye on and study more.