Fifty-three percent of Americans now support same-sex marriage, up from 32 percent a decade ago, according to a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, which said the shift in support is "transforming the American religious landscape."
PRRI found majorities of Jewish Americans (83 percent), white mainline Protestants (62 percent), white Catholics (58 percent) and Hispanic Catholics (56 percent) supporting same-sex marriage. The survey also found 73 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans favor gay marriage.
By contrast, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, nonpartisan research group found 59 percent of black Protestants and 69 percent of white evangelical Protestants oppose same-sex marriage.
But the issue divides Hispanic Protestants, with 46 percent in favor and 49 percent opposed.
PRRI's chief executive officer Robert P. Jones sees the changes as evidence of a national shift, particularly among younger evangelical Protestants, in attitudes on homosexuality overall. Moreover, PRRI's survey suggests that hardline attitudes on the matter may be driving some of those between ages 18 and 33 away from faith altogether.
"A strong majority (58 percent) of Americans, including 7-in-10 (70 percent) (of) Millennials (ages 18 to 33), agree that religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues," PRRI said in a news release. "Notably, nearly one-third of Millennials who left their childhood religion to become unaffiliated say negative teachings about or negative treatment of gay or lesbian people were either a somewhat (17 percent) or very (14 percent) important factor in their decision to leave."
Religion News Service quoted Jones on the speed of the change: “Only the issue of marijuana looks anything like this in terms of rapid movement in favorability,” he said. “But with that one exception, it’s unusual to see this much change in a relatively short amount of time.”
One of the reasons for this rapid shift, says writer Jonathan Cohn at The New Republic, is more than demographics: Citing a study for the group Third Way that also shows more acceptance of same-sex marriage, Cohn credits what he called "contact theory."
"As more people realize that they have a gay neighbor or friend or family member, the reality of that relationship crashes into — and destroys — their stereotypes and preconceptions," he wrote. "There’s some strong evidence of this effect. It’s the fact that people who say they have gay friends or family are more likely to express tolerant attitudes generally and acceptance of same-sex marriage specifically."
Along with increased acceptance comes additional chances for confrontation, and the clash of views over homosexuality has already hit one major evangelical college campus. Some students at Wheaton College in suburban Chicago — dubbed the "Christian Harvard" — protested the Jan. 31 chapel appearance of Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, author of “The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert,” about her journey from atheism and same-sex relationships to Christian faith and a heterosexual marriage and family.
But the protests, says John Stonestreet of the evangelical radio commentary Breakpoint, aren't the whole story: "So is this another one of those 'young Christian Millennials are abandoning traditional morality' stories that it’s been made out to be? Not by a long shot. As Manhattan Declaration Director Eric Teetsel pointed out at the Federalist, while 100 protesters got the attention, '2,000 millennial evangelicals' inside the chapel 'didn’t protest her message ... they gave her a standing ovation.' "