Christians becoming objectively more liberal, but not more likely to call themselves liberal
Part of the religious right's decline in the United States can be ascribed to increasing secularism, but it may also be due to changing views among Christians on policy issues long associated with the religious right. One way to consider this possibility is to see whether Christians are any more or less likely to likely to consider themselves "liberal" Christians. Fortunately, we can use the GSS to consider this question, as for decades it has asked religious respondents whether they consider themselves liberals, moderates, or fundamentalists. The above figure shows these trends for since the 1970s. What we see is that there has actually been fairly little change. The fundamentalists were growing during the 1970s and 1980s, but that reversed in the subsequent decades, and now we are just about where we started.
If we look at specific issues, however, we see a very different picture.
On some questions, it appears that Christians have become even more likely to be biblical literalists. The percentage of Christians that “definitely” believe in hell actually increased between 1991 and 2008 – the first and last years that question was asked. In 1991, about 55 percent of Christians definitely believed in hell; in 2008, that number was about 60 percent. We see a similar increase in the belief in heaven, from about 68 percent to about 73 percent. We see an even more impressive increase in the percentage of Christians who definitely believe in religious miracles – rising from about 48 percent to about 64 percent over this same time period.
On other questions, especially those pertaining to sexuality, we have seen dramatic shifts in a more liberal direction.
In 1972, more than 39 percent of Christians stated that sex before marriage was always wrong. In 2014, that number dropped to a little under 25 percent. Similarly, the percentage of Christians who said sex before marriage was “not wrong at all” more than doubled. A little less than one quarter of Christians held this position in 1972; slightly more than half held this position in 2014. Attitudes toward homosexual sex have seen an even more dramatic change. In 1973, more than three-quarters (about 77 percent) of American Christians believed that sexual relations between people of the same sex were “always wrong.” In 2014, less than half of all Christians held this view (about 48 percent). We have also seen a similar, but less substantial, change in Christians’ attitudes toward pornography. In 1973, about 44 percent of Christians felt that pornography should be illegal. In 2014, this number was down to about 39 percent. When considering Americans changing attitudes about toward sex, it is important to note that the trend is not exclusively due to rising secularism. Christians are also increasingly likely to hold liberal views on this issue.
There are other sexuality issues where we see less change in attitudes among Christians. Although American Christians have become less likely to disapprove of premarital sex, their views toward infidelity have not become more relaxed. In fact, a greater number of American Christians said that it is always wrong for a married person to have sex with someone other than their spouse in 2014 than in 1973 – 85 percent compared to 74 percent.
Thinking about issues that directly pertain to public policy, we also see a strong continuity among Christians in their thinking about abortion. The degree to which beliefs about this issue have held steady is perhaps surprising, given that this issue has motivated the Christian right more than any other. Given the intensity of the rhetoric devoted to this issue, coming from both sides, we should have expected one side or another to gain some ground. This subject touches on so many issues of critical importance to Christians – sexual morality, the sanctity of life, the role of religion in government. Yet here, at least among Christians, the battle lines have been fairly static since the 1980s. We saw a big jump in support for unrestricted access to abortion, followed by general stability. When asked whether women should be allowed to get an abortion for any reason, about 37 percent of Christians in 1980 agreed; in 2014, this number was still 37 percent. Once again, however, there was interesting movement between the two time periods. Throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s, the view that women should be able to access abortion for any reason increased steadily, reaching its highest point in 1992, when 42 percent of American Christians supported the right to an abortion in all cases. This number then began to drop. On this issue, it appears that those holding the more traditionalist view had been gaining ground over the last two decades – only seeing a reversal over the last few years.
In the early 21st century, abortion was arguably overtaken as the most intensely debated social issue in the United States. Gay marriage was, for at least a decade, perhaps the most contentious domestic policy issue in America. The rapid change in attitudes on this subject is truly remarkable. The Pew Research Center, which has long tracked opinions on this issue, notes that 57 percent of the public opposed same-sex marriage in 2001.[i] By 2015, 57 percent supported same-sex marriage. Among Millenials, that number is now 73 percent. A Supreme Court decision ultimately made gay marriage the law of the land, but in this case the Court and public opinion are in general agreement. I am not aware of any social issue in American history where opinion changed so dramatically, so quickly. Whereas the nation was seriously discussing an amendment to the Constitution to ban gay marriage just a decade ago, we are now debating whether private businesses (bakeries, for example) have the right not to serve gay weddings due to their religious objections.
Although we know that the overall public has been shifting in their attitudes toward gay marriage, what has been the trend among American Christians? The GSS only began asking about attitudes toward gay marriage on every survey beginning in 2004. It asked this question once before that, in 1988. Throughout the 1990s, one the lengthiest, most exhaustive surveys of public opinion did not even bother to ask about gay marriage – the issue had such little salience. When we compare Christian attitudes on this subject in 1988 and 2014, we see a truly remarkable shift. In the former year, fewer than ten percent of Christians either agreed or strongly agreed that gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry someone of the same sex. In 2014, it was just about fifty percent. We are now very close to the point where a majority of Christians support gay marriage. On this issue, the traditionalists have not just been losing, they have been losing badly. Most of this change furthermore occurred just over the past decade – as recently as 2004, barely one quarter of Christians agreed homosexuals should be able to marry.
We have also seen a major shift in how Christians view the role of women in society. Specifically, we have seen a major change in attitudes toward women in the work place. In 1972, the GSS asked respondents the following question: “Do you approve or disapprove of a married woman earning money in business or industry if she has a husband capable of supporting her?” Unsurprisingly, as the United States had already experienced a major revolution in its attitudes toward women, a majority of Christian respondents approved of women continuing to work after getting married, even if it was not financially necessary. However, a sizable minority of Christians (about 34 percent) continued to espouse the idea that women should remain at home, if possible. By 2014, this percentage had dropped significantly further, down to less than 20 percent.
From these data, an interesting conclusion emerges. Although Christians, on average, do not consider themselves to be more liberal or moderate in their views than was case just a few decades ago, their attitudes on some specific questions have clearly evolved a great deal – usually moving in a more liberal direction. How can we explain this? Part of the explanation may be found in broader cultural trends. When people think about where they stand on the ideological or philosophical spectrum, they do not consider themselves in a vacuum. They look at where they stand in the broader social context. Four decades ago, someone who felt that homosexuals should be able to have a state-recognized civil union, but perhaps not a marriage, would have been viewed as a radical. We now seem to be approaching a situation where anyone who disapproves of full marriage equality is viewed as a hopeless, bigoted reactionary. In other words, one can find themselves at a different point on the ideological spectrum simply by staying in one place. If the rate of societal change is fast enough, you could find yourself moving in a conservative direction compared to the rest of society, even if you are personally moving in a more liberal direction.
[i] Pew Research Center, “Changing Attitudes on Same-Sex Marriage.” June 8, 2015 accessed June 23, 2015, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/06/08/graphics-slideshow-changing-attitudes-on-gay-marriage/