The “Religious Issues” of American Politics: How & Why the Fight for Marriage Equality has Run Laps Around the Pro-Choice Movement

Amongst some of the most contentious policy debates in American politics, deeply-held religious issues remain at the top of voters’ minds. For decades, Americans have regarded abortion and same-sex marriage as the forefront of these issues. However, public support for LGBT couples has nearly doubled in the last three decades. And this has been reflected in the increasing support for legal same-sex marriage; since the 1990s, the movement has made strides in success, both in polls and policy. All the while, voters’ views on abortion have remained relatively stagnant over the years, despite both same-sex marriage and abortion being considered traditionally religious-political issues. Why has public opinion and policy on same-sex marriage progressed so much while public opinion and policy on abortion have changed so little?

When Gallup first started polling views on same-sex marriage in 1996, a mere 27% of Americans supported its legality. That same year, President Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which declared that no state should be required to recognize a same-sex marriage performed in another state. DOMA also defined marriage as only between a man and a woman for purposes of Federal law. Today, however, the Respect for Marriage Act has repealed that law to provide statutory authority for same-sex and interracial marriages, and along with it, polling on the issue has jumped dramatically. As of 2022, 71% of Americans say they support same-sex marriage’s legality.

Source: Gallup

Uniquely, the national support for legal same-sex marriage has increased amongst almost all subgroups of the population, even those who have traditionally been the most resistant to gay marriage. Religious affiliation once stood as a dividing line in how Americans viewed the issue, but even some of those barriers have begun to fall. Among religiously unaffiliated voters or religious “nones,” a solid majority have supported same-sex marriage since 2004. As of 2019, 79% of religious nones agreed that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. The approval amongst white mainline Protestants (Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc.) has nearly doubled in the last two decades, jumping from 34% in 2004 to 66% in 2019. 

Similarly, 36% of Catholics supported same-sex marriage in 2004, and today their approval has grown to 61%. White evangelical Protestant attitudes on the issue are still relatively unfavorable compared to other religious groups, with a mere 29% agreeing that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Despite this number, the share of white evangelical Protestants who support same-sex marriage has climbed from its lowest support of 11% in 2004.

Source: Pew Research Center

These drastic attitude changes have corresponded with major policy transformations at all three prongs of government, marking a radical turnaround on a once highly divisive issue in American politics. Following Justice Clarence Thomas’s suggestion that the Court may reconsider the right to marriage equality in his concurrence in Dobbs, Congress promptly moved to codify same-sex marriage in December. Soon after, President Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act into law, requiring states to recognize same-sex marriages from places where they are legal and redefining marriage to include same-sex and interracial couples. Currently, 21 states and territories have no constitutional or statutory ban on same-sex marriage. An essential piece of this legislation is that it reiterates that faith-based organizations don’t have to participate in the celebration or solemnization of unions if they don’t want to. However, the law doesn’t require states to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples, which is already protected under Obergefell. If Obergefell is overruled, it will be more difficult for the federal government to require states to issue same-sex marriage licenses. 

All the while, public support for another deeply held religious issue, legal abortion, has remained relatively stable over the last several years. Though polling on abortion has slightly fluctuated over the previous two decades, when Pew Research started surveying the subject in 1995, 60% of U.S. adults thought that abortion should be allowed in all/most situations. In 2022, public support for the issue has only increased by one percentage point, currently at 61%. Additionally, there are stark differences in public opinion on abortion depending on someone’s religious affiliation. For example, only a quarter of White evangelical Protestants (24%) think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. By contrast, 84% of religiously unaffiliated Americans support legal abortion, as do 66% of Black Protestants, 60% of non-evangelical White Protestants, and 56% of Catholics.

Source: Pew Research Center

Unlike policy on same-sex marriage, abortion policy in the U.S. has undeniably become more restrictive over time. In the late 1960s, states began to liberalize their abortion laws. In 1973, the Supreme Court established the legal right to access abortion nationwide with its landmark decision in Roe v. Wade. Nearly 50 years later, Roe was overturned. Absent any federal standard addressing a right to abortion, states in a post-Dobbs America may choose to ban or protect abortion as they please. Legal abortion is now banned in at least 13 states as laws restricting the procedure took effect following the overturning of Roe. About half of the states are expected to try to implement bans or other gestational limits on abortion as legal battles unfold. In some of these states, abortion remains legal as courts determine whether existing or new bans can take effect. In the rest of the states, abortion is legal but may still be restricted, or access may otherwise be limited. Currently, five states have Constitutional amendments prohibiting state courts from interpreting a right to abortion or requiring state funding of abortion.

There are several theories as to why Americans view these issues differently, despite marriage equality and abortion access both being closely tied to religion. Perhaps the most intriguing hypothesis comes from writer Katha Pollitt, who argues that “outsiders” (i.e., LGBT couples, in this instance) often only get access to social institutions when the institution has become increasingly less valued. She discusses how matrimony is now becoming an age-old conservative and religious institution that has become optional for many Americans, losing much of its social influence. Furthermore, the ability for same-sex couples to marry, she says, poses little threat to the institution of marriage, and religious opponents can still marry opposite-sex partners as they please. If anything, same-sex marriage legalization strengthens matrimony by allowing it to be more welcoming and non-discriminatory. And most importantly, the legalization of same-sex marriage doesn’t cost the government anything— a luxury that legal abortion access doesn’t necessarily have. 

In contrast, reproductive rights call for a much more extreme reclaiming of a woman’s bodily autonomy at the expense of the unborn child. And when it comes down to it, abortion access is fundamentally about sexual freedom— a subject that can be considered a bit touchy for many religious groups. As Pollitt puts it, reproductive freedom replaces the image of women as chaste, self-sacrificing mothers dependent on men with that of women as independent, sexual, and perhaps not so self-sacrificing. Abortion and birth control also allow both women and men to have sexual freedom without consequences or responsibility, which can easily strike a chord with conservative or deeply religious voters.

Another presumption is that the movement for marriage equality has been more successful due to its robust coalition of support, as same-sex marriage is something both men and women want. As a result, the lobbying effort behind marriage equality became undoubtedly more powerful than the campaign for reproductive rights. Beginning in the early 1990s, LGBT advocates utilized state constitutional theories to incrementally expand access to relationship recognition by bringing forth lawsuits in state courts. Simultaneously, those advocates worked to help Americans understand that many LGBTQ people wanted the same stable, legally recognized, and lifelong relationships that many heterosexual people have sought and benefitted from. 

On the other hand, abortion access is inherently a woman’s issue, and despite the select few left-wing, “feminist” men who also support reproductive freedom for women, there is simply not the same kind of manpower behind the movement for abortion access as there is marriage equality. This prevalent misogyny means that reproductive rights are stigmatized and that women generally do not have the same level of lobbying power as men to promote them.

Though political scientists and voters have long-categorized these two issues into the same bracket of “religious issues,” perhaps they are not as similar as previously thought. For pro-choice activists to see the same results that marriage equality activists have seen, they should consider re-framing the narrative and broadening their coalition of support.

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