Many evangelicals oppose U.S. ban on gay marriage

Poll shows about half prefer that state laws address the issue

April 14, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - As President Bush reaches out to his conservative Christian base by supporting a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, a poll released yesterday shows that more than half of the nation's white evangelicals oppose such a measure.

According to the survey, 52 percent would prefer to rely on state laws to prevent gays from marrying rather than altering the U.S. Constitution. In addition, only 48 percent of white evangelicals said a candidate's support for gay marriage would disqualify him from receiving their votes.

The findings, in one of the most comprehensive polls of evangelicals in years, don't rule out the issue of gay marriage as a potent tool to get out the conservative Christian vote for Bush in November.

But they suggest that white evangelicals, a key constituency that overwhelmingly opposes same-sex marriage, are more complex and share more mainstream positions than some political analysts believe.

"Their concerns are multidimensional," said Anna Greenberg, vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research Inc. in Washington, which conducted the poll for Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, a PBS television show, and U.S. News & World Report. "Evangelicals are just not that different than the rest of America."

The survey of 1,610 respondents was done between March 16 and April 4. It has an overall margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points. The survey will be highlighted in a four-part series, "America's Evangelicals," whose weekly segments will be broadcast on PBS stations beginning this weekend.

Maryland Public Television will air the program at 7:30 a.m. Sunday.

Political analysts and scholars are especially interested in evangelicals because they're deeply engaged in their communities and make up the core of the president's electoral support. In 2000, evangelicals accounted for 35 to 40 percent of Bush's votes and are to the GOP what African-Americans have traditionally been to the Democrats.

After the 2000 race, Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist, said 4 million religious conservatives had failed to go to the polls and pledged that the administration would rally them in 2004. In potential swing states, such as West Virginia, gay marriage is one of the top issues Bush operatives are raising in hopes of energizing evangelicals.

Their opposition to an amendment banning gay marriage surprised analysts, who said it demonstrated that so-called moral issues do not necessarily trump all others among religious conservatives.

John Green, a professor of political science at the University of Akron and a leading authority on evangelicals, attributed their opposition to a strong belief in federalism and a reluctance - shared with many Americans - to tamper with the Constitution.

The poll also found that only 36 percent of white evangelicals listed moral values as a top concern - surprisingly low, given the role that religion is thought to play in shaping their political beliefs and priorities.

About a quarter of white evangelicals identified the economy as a top concern, compared with 31 percent in the general population.

The survey defined evangelicals roughly as whites over 18 who described themselves as "born-again," fundamentalist, evangelical, charismatic or pentacostal. The definition did not include Roman Catholics, Orthodox or Mormons.

Under the survey's definition, pollsters estimate that 23 percent of U.S. adults - or about 50 million people - are evangelical. Although individual beliefs vary, most evangelicals view the Bible as the inerrant word of God and regard spreading the faith as a core mission in their lives.

The poll also revealed that the popular image of evangelicals lags well behind the demographic reality. Three decades ago, evangelicals were markedly poorer, less educated and more likely to live in the rural South than the general population. Today, according to the poll, their education level has improved, they're spread more broadly around the country, and they're more integrated into the professions.

For example, 31 percent of white evangelicals live in the deep South, compared with 28 percent of the general population. About 22 percent of evangelicals hold four-year college degrees, compared with 27 percent nationwide.

Green attributed the discrepancy between image and reality to a lack of understanding by national opinion makers and poor public relations by evangelical leaders.

In stating a preference for president, nearly 70 percent of white evangelicals said they had "warm" feelings about Bush, while only 23 percent felt the same way about Sen. John Kerry, the expected Democratic nominee.

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