Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Religion and Support for Same-Sex Marriage: Findings from a College Student Sample


Existing research shows that Americans’ opinions on same-sex marriage legalization are influenced by religion.1,2 In examining how religion influences attitudes and opinions, much of the research has focused on either religious tradition (i.e., faith denomination) and religiosity (i.e., devoutness or importance of faith to oneself) or on actual individual beliefs of an individual.3 To date, there is an absence of research that focuses on all three domains of religion’s influence on same-sex marriage opinions. Given that research has found young adults to be more likely to support same-sex marriage than older adults,4 authors Walls, Woodford, and Levy aimed to examine which of the three abovementioned components of religion’s influence young adults’ attitudes about the legalization of same-sex marriage.


The sample consisted of 624 undergraduate students in introductory sociology courses at six U.S. colleges and universities.

  • Gender: 70.19% female, 29.81% male
  • Race/Ethnicity: 81.73% White, 6.09% Latino/a, 5,45% African American, 3.53% Asian American, 3.21% other race/ethnicity
  • Religious tradition: 40% Catholic, 33.8% evangelical protestant
  • Mean family income: $70,000
  • Research sites: 5 private universities, 1 public university


The authors ran four regression models to help determine which aspects of religion are predictive of supporting same-sex marriage legalization. The fourth model, which included all demographic and religious variables, was the most predictive. Overall, males, politically conservative persons, and those from larger families were significantly less likely to support same-sex marriage legalization. Racial differences in the final model were not significant with one exception: Asian Americans were less likely to support same-sex marriage than Whites.

In examining religious tradition, Catholics and seculars were more likely to support same-sex marriage than evangelical Protestants. Though none of the religiosity variables were significant, conversely, several of the religious belief variables were significant. Specifically, increased endorsement of social gospel (i.e., working to address problems of the world in line with religious ideology),5 perception of pain and suffering (i.e., individuals bring on their own pain and suffering),6 moral absolutism (i.e., moral authority is fixed),7,8 and anti-universalism (i.e., there is only one true religion) were all associated with a decrease in likelihood of endorsing same-sex marriage legalization. 


The results of this study indicate that qualitative differences may exist between religious tradition and religiosity. Moreover, religiosity may play a smaller role in shaping attitudes around same-sex marriage for this segment of the population than other aspects of religion. The authors caution social movements for the legalization of same-sex marriage not to discount conservative traditions as individual attitudes can vary within congregations. Moreover, tailoring critical dialogue around religious beliefs may be a useful strategy in effectively shifting attitudes toward support for same-sex marriage legalization.

For More Information

To learn about the authors and their work, check out their faculty pages:


Walls, N. E., Woodford, M. R., & Levy, D. L. (2013). Religious tradition, religiosity, or everyday theologies? Unpacking religion’s relationship to support for legalizing same-sex marriage among a college student sample. Review of Religious Research. Advanced online publication. doi: 10.1007/s13644-013-0140-3


1 Herek, G. M. (2006). Legal recognition of same-sex relationships in the United States: A social science perspective. American Psychologist, 61(6), 607-621. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.61.6.607

2 Olson, L. R., Cadge, W., & Harrison, J.T. (2006). Religion and public opinion about same-sex marriage. Social Science Quarterly, 87(2): 340-360. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2006.00384.x

3 Yamane, D. (2007). Beyond belief: Religion and the sociology of religion in America. Social Compass, 54(1), 33-48. doi: 10.1177/0037768607074151

4 Jones, J. M. (2013, May). Same-sex marriage support solidifies above 50% in U.S. Retrieved from

5 Hook, J. N., & Davis, D.E. (2012). Integration, multicultural counseling, and social justice. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 40(2), 102-106.

6 Moksnes, H. (2005). Suffering for justice in Chiapas: Religion and the globalization of ethnic identity. Journal of Peasant Studies, 32(3-4), 584-607. doi: 10.1080/03066150500267040

7 Roof, W. C., & McKinney, W. (1987). American mainline religion: Its changing shape and future. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

8 Wuthnow, R. (1988). The restructuring of American religion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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