Culture wars: Why gay marriage and abortion have been ‘decoupled’

Public opinion on abortion has held constant for 30 years. But on gay marriage, acceptance has grown dramatically in just 10 years – most notably among young evangelical Protestants.

Tony Gutierrez/AP
Governor Rick Perry addresses a large audience in attendance at the National Right To Life Convention, Thursday in Grapevine, Texas. The Republican has called a second special legislative session beginning July 1, allowing the GOP-controlled statehouse another crack at passing restrictions opponents say could shutter nearly all the abortion clinics across the state.

The contrasting images on the news this week could not have been more stark: On the steps of the Supreme Court, supporters of gay marriage celebrated two victories – and a new sense of momentum.

But in Texas, abortion rights were under siege in the state legislature, as Gov. Rick Perry (R) sought to join the wave of states imposing sweeping restrictions on the procedure. The effort failed, with a dramatic filibuster, but he’ll try again Monday.

What’s going on?

The “values” issues that used to move in lock step in American opinion have been “decoupled,” say experts on public attitudes. Public opinion on abortion has held remarkably constant in the last 30 years. But on gay marriage, acceptance has grown dramatically in just 10 years – most notably among young evangelical Protestants.

“Gay rights and abortion were the heart of the culture war debate for years, and we talked about them synonymously,” says Daniel Cox, research director at the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in Washington. “That’s changing.”

For now, there’s little overlap between states that have legalized gay marriage or may get there in the next few years (all of them Democratic or battleground states) and states that are cracking down on abortion (most of them solidly Republican). These divergent social trends are producing a nation that is, more than ever, a cultural patchwork.

But that could change, at least on gay marriage, given the generational differences in opinion. A March poll by PRRI shows nearly a 40-point generation gap between Millennials (age 18 to 29) and seniors (65 and older) on the issue of same-sex marriage. Seventy-two percent of Millennials favor it, compared with 36 percent of seniors.

Even among white Millennial evangelical Protestants, a majority – 52 percent -- support gay marriage. Among all white evangelicals, 24 percent favor the right to same-sex marriage. So on this issue, Mr. Cox points out, young white evangelical Protestants more closely resemble those in their age cohort than their coreligionists.

“It often comes down to personal experience,” says Cox. “Young people are more likely to have friends or family who are gay or lesbian, and that has a profound impact on attitudes about that issue – it trumps ideology and theology.”

Of course, Americans of all ages have grown more comfortable with homosexuality, as gays and lesbians have become more open about their identity, and about pressing for the same rights as heterosexual couples and families.

It’s no accident that conservatives with gay family members have been among the first prominent Republicans to endorse the right to same-sex marriage, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio.

Societal experience with gay marriage in the 10 years since Massachusetts became the first state to legalize it has also helped build support.

“There was a traditional argument that the law had to defend marriage or terrible things would happen,” says John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “Apparently, really terrible things haven’t happened.”

Hollywood has also helped, with sympathetic depictions of gay relationships and families that are now commonplace.

Defenders of traditional marriage say that gay relationships are unnatural – or sinful, in the eyes of some – and should not be granted societal sanction. Children need a mother and father, they say.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council in Washington, suggests it’s too soon to conclude that same-sex marriage won’t be harmful to society.

“As the American people are given time to experience the actual consequences of redefining marriage, the public debate and opposition to the redefinition of natural marriage will undoubtedly intensify,” Mr. Perkins says.

Time will tell. But there’s no doubt that it’s easier to argue the downside to abortion, which sets up a “clash of absolutes,” as legal scholar Laurence Tribe puts it – the woman’s rights versus the rights of the fetus, which grow as a pregnancy progresses.

“With abortion, there seems to be evident harm,” says Mr. Green. “Even people who are prochoice and don’t believe life begins at conception recognize there’s a consequence to abortion.”

And so while it’s possible to foresee a day when gay marriage is largely uncontroversial, the same can’t be said for abortion. That element of the culture war appears to be here to stay.

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