Despite longstanding attempts by conservatives to use antigay initiatives as a way to energize “values voters,” Americans are becoming less opposed to marriage equality and increasingly unlikely to base their vote on antigay and antitransgender measures. In fact, a majority of Americans now support extending the rights and responsibilities of marriage to same-sex couples.
This majority includes millions of religious people, forcing conservatives to rethink their campaign strategies and pressuring religious institutions and hierarchies to acknowledge changing attitudes in the pews. The 2012 campaign in particular has seen a dramatic switch. Many political leaders are now proudly proclaiming support for marriage equality, while opponents of the freedom to marry are being forced to recognize the shrinking appeal of their claims.
Gay and transgender rights: A new groundswell of faithful support
For the past several election cycles, conservatives have energized their voting base by parroting a list of “values issues” that included opposition to gay and transgender people, with a particular focus on opposition to marriage equality. In fact, by the time George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, the strategy for garnering “values votes” had reached almost formulaic perfection: Conservative candidates would condemn homosexuality, oppose marriage equality, energize religious conservatives, win the election, and repeat. Antigay rhetoric seemed a guaranteed vote winner, and by 2004, conservatives sponsored ballot initiatives opposing the freedom to marry in swing states like Michigan and Ohio with the goal of bolstering the conservative vote in a difficult re-election campaign. The actual impact of these measures on the 2004 election is still somewhat unclear, but the strategy of attempting to use antigay and antitransgender ballot initiatives to increase conservative turnout is still being used in this year’s election.
But as America surges into a new decade, conservative strategists are finding their tactics stalled by a new reality: Americans’ views on gay and transgender rights and equality have changed.
While state referendums on marriage equality have suffered several defeats over the past few years, recent polling suggests that supporters of same-sex marriage now officially outnumber the opposition in the United States.
So too have laws and policies enacted over the past couple of years begun to reflect America’s growing acceptance of gay and transgender people and issues. For instance, in December 2010 President Barack Obama signed the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, allowing openly gay Americans to serve in the armed forces. Six states and the District of Columbia now have laws that recognize marriages between same-sex couples. And this spring President Obama announced his support for marriage equality, a decision based in part on his faith.
In the midst of this change in hearts and minds, however, many politicians who oppose gay and transgender equality have turned to religious leaders and their communities to take up their agenda. But things have changed in religious communities as well: While many conservative traditions (e.g., many strains of evangelicalism) maintain their opposition to homosexuality, other religious communities have become more open in their support for gay and transgender equality. Since 2008 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have both voted to allow the ordination of gay clergy, and earlier this year the Episcopal Church approved the creation of a rite that allows for the blessing of same-sex unions.
These institutional shifts aren’t flukes; rather, they reflect the beliefs many religious voters hold deeply. More Christians in the United States support marriage equality than oppose it, as do a majority of Catholic voters, despite the hardline opposition of their church hierarchy. A recent survey found 56 percent of Catholics believe sexual relations between two adults of the same gender is not a sin, and nearly three-quarters favor either allowing gay and lesbian people to marry (43 percent) or to form a civil union (31 percent). What’s more, nearly three-quarters of Catholics (73 percent) favor laws that protect gay and lesbian people against discrimination in the workplace, while 63 percent favor allowing them to serve openly in the military.
And faith groups aren’t just casually supporting the gay and transgender community. For many, fighting for gay and transgender equality is a matter of deep faith. Pro-marriage equality groups in Minnesota—which will vote on an anti-marriage equality amendment in November—are running ads that feature straight Catholic Republicans who support marriage equality. A group of Minnesota Catholics even assembled a chorus of more than 300 people to record a YouTube video in which they sing a pro-marriage equality song. In addition, a sweeping coalition of diverse faith leaders from across the state are working to support gay and transgender rights in passionate and often creative ways.
Doug Donley, a Baptist pastor in Minnesota, summed up the view of many faith leaders when he said:
I’ve been a pastor now for 23 years. I’ve officiated at dozens of weddings over my career. Most of them have been opposite-sex marriages, and many have been same-sex marriages. Each time I preside at a wedding, be it gay or straight, my marriage to my wife is enhanced. Love begets love.
Maryland has also seen a groundswell of faith-led support for a pro-marriage equality amendment to be voted on in November. Scores of faith leaders have signed a petition declaring that their faith “calls [them] to affirm marriage equality for loving same-sex couples,” and a group of prominent black clergy recently held a conference urging Maryland voters to support the amendment, aiming to “dispel the myth that all African American pastors are fundamentally opposed to the idea of marriage equality.”
Rev. Al Sharpton, a speaker at the press conference and president of the National Action Network, explained that many faith leaders see the need for gay and transgender equality as grounded in a larger struggle for civil rights:
This is not an issue about gay or straight. This is an issue about civil rights and to take a position to limit the civil rights of anyone is to take a position to limit the civil rights of everyone. You cannot be a part-time civil rights activist. You cannot be for civil rights for African Americans, but not for gays and lesbians.
Granted, there are religious institutions that continue to oppose gay and transgender equality, but they are steadily becoming one voice among many, or, in many cases, even the minority. Supporters of the transgender rights bill passed in Massachusetts last year, for instance, included various faith groups. And with faith-based support for marriage equality growing in Maine, Washington, California, and even the Deep South, gay and transgender activists are beginning to see religious communities as strong allies in the struggle for justice.
In many ways, it was unsurprising that when President Obama came out in support of marriage equality, he referenced his Christian faith. He was speaking to millions of Americans who had undergone—and continue to undergo—a similar journey in which they recognize a deep connection between their faith and their support for gay and transgender equality.
The conservative hunt for “values voters” seems to have overlooked a value that many Americans—be they believers or nonbelievers—treasure more than anything else: equality for all.
Jack Jenkins is a Writer and Researcher with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.