Culture’s last stand? Strong majorities support open military service for gays

Co-authored by Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox A long-awaited Pentagon report released Tuesday has concluded that allowing gay and … Continued

Co-authored by Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox

A long-awaited Pentagon report released Tuesday has concluded that allowing gay and lesbian Americans to serve openly in the military is unlikely to hinder the ability of U.S. troops to carry out their duties. As part of the report, the military sent surveys to over 400,000 personnel. Fully 7-in-10 of those responding said that openly serving gay and lesbian soldiers would have little or no effect on their units. This finding is particularly important, since the Clinton-era justification for the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law in 1993 was the assertion that gay and lesbian service members “would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.” On this point, current military personnel–69% of whom reported working with someone they thought was gay or lesbian–have dealt what would seem to be a mortal blow to the central justification for the law.

Rank and file Americans largely agree with their fellow citizens in the military. The Pew Research Center also released yesterday findings showing that nearly 6-in-10 (58%) Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian people to serve openly in the military. This level of support has been stable since 2005, up slightly from smaller majority support of 52% when Pew first asked the question in 1994 shortly after the passage of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law.

At least if measured by the numbers, supporters of open military service for gay and lesbian Americans have largely driven opponents from the field. It remains to be seen, however, what the current lame duck congress is willing to do with what would seem to be a clear mandate from both military and civilian Americans.

Perhaps the most important finding–one with key future implications–is the lopsided way the battle lines are currently drawn. Of the nearly 30 different demographic groups analyzed in the Pew report, none have a majority and only 2 have a plurality opposing open military service for gay and lesbian people: Republicans and white evangelical Protestants. (Together, accounting for the significant overlap between these groups, they account for slightly more than one-third of Americans).

Inasmuch as gay and lesbian rights in the military are part of the so-called “culture wars,” these two hunkered down demographic groups may be waging what could be called “culture’s last stand”–a fight manned by an outnumbered coalition cut off from most other groups in the country in their beliefs on this issue.

The attitude gaps between these two groups and other Americans are stunning. Only about one-third (34%) of white evangelicals and 40% of Republicans support open military service by gay and lesbian Americans, rates that are far below general public support (58%). When compared to groups at the other end of the spectrum, the gaps are 30 points or more: a 37-point religion gap between white evangelicals and the religiously unaffiliated (34% vs. 71% support), and a 30-point partisan gap between Republicans and Democrats (40% vs. 70% support).

The extent to which white evangelical Protestants and Republicans are isolated on these issues becomes clearer when they are compared to groups with which they often find common cause. For example, white evangelicals can often tap white Catholics for reinforcements on the cultural issue ramparts, but not on this one; two-thirds (66%) of white Catholics favor allowing gay and lesbian people to serve openly in the military, a level of support 32 points higher than white evangelicals. And on the political front, more than 6-in-10 (62%) political independents favor open military service regardless of sexual orientation, a level of support 22 points higher than Republicans.

The battle lines on this debate may be a harbinger of things to come on a range of issues related to rights for gay and lesbian Americans. In Public Religion Research Institute’s (PRRI) recent analysis of more than 20 years of polling on gay and lesbian issues by the Pew Research Center, we found a slow but steady uptick in support both for social acceptance of homosexuality and a range of rights for gay and lesbian people. On many issues pertaining to individual rights, the public opinion battle is all but over. For example, PRRI’s American Values Survey found that nearly 7-in-10 (68%) Americans currently support laws that would protect gay and lesbian people from workplace discrimination.

But there are continued skirmishes along these battle lines related to the rights of gay and lesbian Americans on issues related to families, children, and especially marriage. While a majority (53%) of the American public supports allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt children, 70% of white evangelicals and 57% of Republicans are opposed. Nearly two-thirds of the American public supports either allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry (37%) or form civil unions (27%). In contrast, an overwhelming majority (58%) of white evangelicals and a plurality (41%) of Republicans say there should be no legal recognition of gay couples’ relationships.

There is evidence that the ranks of supporters on these issues are swelling. Over the last two years (fall 2008 – fall 2010), PRRI found an 8-point increase in support for same-sex marriage and a 7-point increase in support for allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt children. More importantly, significant numbers of younger evangelicals and Republicans are abandoning their posts on this issue. A majority of younger white evangelicals (under age 40) support either same-sex marriage (16%) or civil unions (36%), compared to 6-in-10 older white evangelicals (age 40 and older) who say there should be no legal recognition of gay couples’ relationships. Similarly, more than 6-in-10 younger Republicans support either same-sex marriage (29%) or civil unions (33%), while older Republicans are more evenly divided: half support either same-sex marriage (16%) or civil unions (34%), compared to 47% who say there should be no legal recognition.

The dispatch from the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” battlefront, while certainly not conclusive about the war itself, is an important bellwether. It’s message: if trends continue, future battles will follow the contours of this last stand, and the days of these groups holding the hill are likely numbered.


Robert P. Jones Dr. Robert P. Jones is the CEO of Public Religion Research Institute and a leading scholar and commentator on religion, values, and public life.
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