A survey released today in California reveals change in voters' attitudes toward marriage for gay and lesbian couples. Less than two years after Proposition 8 restricted marriage to heterosexual couples, only one person in five now says that Proposition 8 was a "good thing" for California, and 51 percent would vote to allow same-sex couples to marry.
Conducted by Public Religion Research, the poll took special note of voters' religious affiliations and attitudes. According to their findings, religiously unaffiliated voters, Latino Catholics, white mainline Protestants, and white Catholics are most supportive of same-sex marriage; while black Protestants, white evangelicals, and most especially Latino Protestants are most opposed. The biggest shift of religious support for same-sex marriage came among Latino Catholics, where many respondents said that their opinion had changed since Proposition 8 passed. Across all religious categories, ethnic minorities and young voters (both white and minority) moved to become "more supportive" of marriage for homosexual Californians.
Particularly striking, however, are the theological dimensions of the poll. If Californians voted again tomorrow on same-sex marriage, they would vote in favor of same-sex marriage by a margin of 51%-45% -- an almost mirror reversal of the 2008 vote of 52%-48% percent against same-sex marriage. Interestingly enough, the new margin of 51 percent matches the fact that 51 percent of Californians now believe that sexual orientation is not a moral choice; instead it is an innate characteristic determined by birth. Only 41 percent think that sexual orientation is something other than biological.
This has long been the crux of the theological argument regarding homosexuality. If homosexuality is biological (i.e., an inherited trait like eye or skin color), then there is no moral or legal basis upon which to discriminate. Indeed, if homosexuality is merely part of the broad range of human diversity, then religious people are compelled to understand it as an aspect of God's creation, to be treated with the same grace, mercy, and justice that all creation requires.
If, on the other had, homosexuality is not biological and is instead a choice, then it falls into the area of morality. In this perspective, acting on same-sex inclinations is inherently sinful in the same way that any misdirected human impulse is sinful (stealing, lying, adultery). And religious communities are compelled to resist sin.
In recent decades, medical, scientific, and therapeutic understandings of homosexuality have shifted rather decisively toward homosexuality-as-biological, even though no single gene or genetic trigger has been fully and finally discovered as the originating source of homosexuality (as no single gene determining heterosexuality has even been discovered!). Ethicists have quietly followed the scientific lead. Most now argue that "sexuality" itself is a moral category -- that humans display a variety of sexual dispositions (straight, gay or lesbian, mixed, bisexual, transgendered, etc.), each of which involves moral choice. For example, a heterosexual person has a biological disposition toward the opposite sex, yet that straight person must still choose how to exercise his or her sexuality -- Monogamy? Marriage? Respect toward partner? Reproduction? Rearing of children? Indeed, "straightness" is biological, but it entails an almost limitless set of moral choices when it comes to its expression. That is, of course, where religion comes in. Everyone understands that heterosexual people make stupid, hurtful, ugly, violent, illegal, immoral, and evil choices regarding their sexuality on a regular basis. Religious communities should help people make healthy, faithful, and respectful moral decisions regarding the exercise of their sexuality.
And that is, of course, exactly what is happening in the discussion of homosexuality. As science and medical shifted "gayness" into the category of human biology, most serious ethicists no longer assume that all homosexuality is immoral -- they only regard it as human. Indeed, the discussion around homosexuality is like that of any other sort of sexual ethics: What expressions of homosexual identity are moral, good, and life giving? Some certainly argue that the only healthy expression is celibacy (who, however, other than the Roman Catholic hierarchy argues that for straight people?). But for others, the range of moral questions resembles those addressed to heterosexual people: How do monogamy, marriage, respect for partner, reproduction, and childrearing work out for couples who just happen to be in the "homosexual" category? This should be, of course, where religion comes in. It is not the job of religious communities to legally deny marriage to homosexual couples; it is their job to make sure that homosexual people make healthy, faithful, and respectful moral decisions regarding the exercise of their sexuality.
At this point, some religious person always shouts, "I don't care about scientists or a bunch of secular ethicists! The Bible says ... " Well, the California survey found the electorate almost equally divided in their views of the Bible (or other "holy book"): 30 percent believe that scripture is the literal word of God; 27 percent believe it to be God's word, yet not literal; and 33 percent believe the Bible was written by "men and is not the word of God." While the literalists strongly oppose same-sex marriage, the "written by men" folks strongly support it. Thus, the theological swing group is in the middle -- those who take the Bible seriously but not literally -- and they appear to be moving in the direction of legalizing same-sex marriage. Progressive and mainline clergy seem to be having an impact on ways in which the Bible is interpreted: Californians who heard "positive messages from the clergy" about gay and lesbian people overwhelming supported either same-sex marriage (60 percent) or civil unions (22 percent).
Finally, Californians strongly agree that the Golden Rule -- to treat others as we want to be treated--applies to the issue of same-sex marriage. Some 58 percent said, "We should apply the Golden Rule to gay and lesbian couples who are in long-term committed relationships and allow them the same opportunity to get married as everyone else."
Thanks, California, for the reminder that the Golden State remembers the Golden Rule -- and that religion can help open minds and not just close them.