Saturday, August 1, 2009

Catholics and Support for Gay Marriage: Evidence for a Correlation

An interesting report about the correlation between the proportion of Catholics in a state and that state’s support of gay marriage has been making the rounds. Michael Bayly picked up this story a few days ago at his outstanding Wild Reed blog. I first became aware of the story through a hat tip from a good reader of this blog, Jim McCrea, to whom I need to give credit for bringing it to my attention. And today Joe Sudbay at America Blog is reporting on the story as well, as is the Washington Post.

The story originates with Mark Silk at Trinity College's Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. Several days ago at his Spiritual Politics blog, Mark Silk noted that a new study by Jeffrey Lax and Justin Phillips soon to appear in the American Political Science Review ranks states according to public support for same-sex marriage and civil unions.

When the data presented in the Lax-Phillips study are combined with data from the 2008 Trinity ARIS survey, it becomes evident that six of the eight states in which 50% or more of the public supports gay marriage are the states with the highest proportion of Catholics. Conversely, in the eight states most opposed to gay marriage, six of the seven have the lowest proportion of Catholics in their population.

Mark Silk concludes, “In other words, support for same-sex marriage is directly related to the proportion of Catholics in a given state.”

After this story began to draw attention, Mark Silk posted a follow-up, in which he seeks to provide some explanations for the correlation between Catholics and support for gay marriage. As he notes, Cathy Grossman at USA Today’s Faith and Reason blog picks up on his story and concludes that, for many U.S. Catholics, what the Catholic church teaches about social justice outweighs what the magisterium wants to say about gay people and gay lives.

Mark Silk also notes that the history of Catholics in New England may predispose Catholics of that region not to impose their views on others, now that they are in the majority. Catholics, who now dominate many New England states demographically, arrived in that region as a minority—an often unwelcome minority in a region historically dominated by Anglo Protestants hostile to Catholicism. Silk thinks these historic experiences have sensitized Catholics to the damage a majority can do when it tries to impose its specific religious views on a minority of the population.

As he also notes, marriage is a powerful symbol in Catholicism, one Catholics have traditionally been ready to extend to institutions beyond male-female marriage itself. Catholics speak of the church as the bride of Christ; religious women take vows to marry Christ and they wear a wedding ring to symbolize that commitment; and bishops are thought to be married to the diocese they lead.

Silk maintains that a religious group in which the symbol of marriage plays such a central role may be more apt to recognize the harm inflicted on a targeted minority, when the sacred symbol is reserved for everyone except that minority, than might be the case with religious groups that do not use the symbol of marriage so intently and widely. And here, I think, Cathy Grossman’s analysis is on target: Catholics in the U.S. may, indeed, often put the social justice teachings of the church ahead of its sexual teachings.

For many American Catholics, it is increasingly impossible to justify the repression of a sexual minority on natural-law grounds, while arguing (also on natural-law grounds) that God makes every human being equal, with an irreducible sacred worth. And that the most fundamental Christian obligation is to recognize and cherish the sacred worth of every human being, because we all originate in the same God.

As I’ve argued repeatedly on this blog, to the extent that the Catholic church—through its institutional leaders, at least—continues to invest heavily in homophobic campaigns to repeal same-sex marriage rights in places like California or Maine, or to prevent same-sex marriage in other places, to that extent it will undermine something many Catholics and non-Catholics alike regard as perhaps the most important contribution of Catholic teaching to the public sphere. This is the strong tradition of social teachings in the Catholic church.

It is impossible to convince people to cherish and do justice, when we do not cherish and do justice ourselves.