The emotionally charged issue of gay marriage has been in the public eye for some time, even before President George W. Bush called upon Congress to pass a Federal Marriage Amendment (defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman) and the Senate and House proposed legislation.
A new Gallup Youth Survey* finds that 63% of U.S. teenagers (aged 13 to 17) disapprove of marriages between homosexuals and 36% approve. Teens' opinions on this issue appear to be in line with what Gallup finds among American adults, a majority of whom do not believe that gay marriages should be legal.
When asked how they would feel if a homosexual couple was married in the church they attend most often, teens' responses are similar: 61% would disapprove or strongly disapprove, and 38% would approve or strongly approve.
Boys and girls express different views on this issue, with girls generally somewhat more accepting of gay marriage than are boys; 57% of girls disapprove of gay marriages and 43% approve, while 70% of boys disapprove and 30% approve. The same is true when it comes to ceremonies in their own churches: 66% of boys and 54% of girls would disapprove or strongly disapprove of such a ceremony, while 32% of boys and 44% of girls would approve.
Striking Difference Between Protestant and Catholic Youth
Overall, Protestant teens disapprove of homosexual marriage by more than a 3-to-1 margin: 76% disapprove and 24% approve. Catholic youth, however, appear to be nearly evenly divided: 52% approve and 48% disapprove. Results on the second question are similar: 71% of Protestant teens would disapprove of a gay couple marrying in their churches and 26% would approve, while 52% of Catholic teens would approve and 48% would disapprove.
I see several possible explanations for the difference of opinion between Protestant teens and Catholic teens on this issue:
1. Conservative, evangelical Protestant churches are attracting teens.
Evangelical Christians are among the most outspoken opponents of gay marriage. A February 2004 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 67% of white evangelical Protestant voters are strongly opposed to gay marriage.
Since the 1970s, youth ministries in mainline Protestant churches have been declining, while participation in evangelical churches' youth ministries have been on an upswing. Part of the attraction has been the direct, unified message of "salvation through Jesus Christ" that permeates evangelical youth ministry. But another big part is the "packaging" of these ministries: high-energy music and events, hands-on activities, and emphasis on a sense of belonging.
2. Catholic youth are less connected to their churches than are Protestant youth.
Although the Catholic Church officially opposes gay marriage, many Catholic teens do not necessarily adopt the same values as their church. "There is a disconnect between the ‘official' Catholic world and Catholic youth," says the Rev. Bill Hanson, pastor of St. Gerard Majella Catholic Church in Port Jefferson Station, N.Y. "A lot of Catholic youth are not in the mainstream of Catholic culture." According to Hanson, the ultra-conservative wing of the Catholic Church "is not appealing to youth -- it doesn't attract youth in large numbers."
Catholic churches are also not retaining youth after confirmation, which Hanson says is an indicator of a larger issue. "Several studies the Catholic Church has done indicate that up to 75% of families with children enrolled in Catholic schools do not attend Mass on Sundays. They have an interest in Catholic education, but not Catholic spiritual values."
The latest Gallup Youth Survey figures support the idea that Protestant teens are more likely to be involved in church activities: 60% of Protestant teens say they've attended church in the last seven days, compared with 47% of Catholic teens. And Protestant teens are almost twice as likely as Catholic teens to say they've participated in religious activities other than church or synagogue services -- such as youth group meetings, religion classes, or choir rehearsals -- in the past seven days.
The issue of gay marriage is not going to go away anytime soon. The proponents of the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage have indicated they are prepared for a long fight -- one that will likely last until today's teens are well into adulthood. The issue may be a good barometer for gauging how teens -- particularly those actively involved with evangelical Protestant congregations -- reconcile the traditional values espoused by their churches with other perspectives they encounter on college campuses, in the media, and so on.
The challenge for religious leaders is to find effective ways to communicate the values of their faith communities to the youth of those communities. Adolescence is a time of searching, wrestling with identity, and exploring different value sets. Religious leaders need to translate their communities' values into language that today's teens can understand, and thereby enable them to make informed decisions about which values they decide to keep for life.
*The Gallup Youth Survey is conducted via an Internet methodology provided by Knowledge Networks, using an online research panel that is designed to be representative of the entire U.S. population. The current questionnaire was completed by 439 respondents, aged 13 to 17, Aug. 8-19, 2004. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.