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On 'gay marriage' poll results, be skeptical

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
WASHINGTON (BP)--If three new major polls are to be believed, then most Americans now support "gay marriage" -- a mere two years after Maine voters prohibited it and three years after Californians did the same.

Is America in the midst of a dramatic moral revolution? Or is it possible, as some suggest, that participants in the poll simply feel compelled to give the politically correct answer? Or, perhaps, is the answer to both questions, "yes"?

It is difficult to write off the polls as biased. All three of the polls -- Gallup, CNN and ABC News/Washington Post -- previously showed significant opposition to "gay marriage," with virtually identical questions. For instance:

-- Gallup, which now shows Americans supporting "gay marriage" by a margin of 53-45 percent, had U.S. adults opposing it in 2009, 57-40 percent.

-- CNN, which shows the margin of support at 51-47 percent, had opposition at 54-44 percent in 2009.

-- ABC News/Washington Post has support at 53-44 percent but reflected widespread opposition in 2006, 58-36 percent.

But it is also difficult to take the polls at face value, because "gay marriage" has been on the ballot in 31 states -- including 11 in the past five years -- and has lost every time. It hasn't just been staunch conservative states. Colorado and Wisconsin in 2006, California in 2008 and Maine in 2009 all voted to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

So what's going on?

It seems more likely that nationwide opinion on "gay marriage" is moving some, but not at such a rapid pace, and certainly not at such a speed to equal majority support. There's good reason to believe this, and the explanation begins with the polling method.

All three polls were done using live callers, the traditional method whereby a person interviews someone else over the phone. In recent years -- in states where it's been on the ballot -- those types of polls typically have underreported opposition to "gay marriage," sometimes significantly. By contrast, polls that use an automated system -- whereby people hear a pre-recorded message and press keypad buttons to reflect their beliefs -- typically show higher opposition to "gay marriage." In Maine and California, live-caller surveys showed support for "gay marriage" while the automated polls were the closest to predicting the outcome of the respective measures. It appears there is a large percentage of people who actually oppose redefining marriage but are afraid to say so to a stranger on the phone.


"I think the vigorous negative campaign to shame people into silence, starting with Carrie Prejean and now continuing with Peter Vidmar and Paul Clement, combined with the relative silence of conservative media in dealing with this issue, is starting to affect polls, although it is not affecting actual elections," Maggie Gallagher, founder of the National Organization for Marriage, told Baptist Press. Prejean was the Miss USA runner-up who publicly affirmed her believes in traditional marriage. Vidmar was pressured out of a role with the U.S. Olympic Committee for his opposition to "gay marriage," while Clement is the high-profile attorney representing the House in its defense of the Defense of Marriage Act. "... They are successfully shutting down this debate, and making people afraid to say what they think, more than they are changing hearts and minds at this point."

New polling in Minnesota -- which will vote on a constitutional amendment next year defining marriage as between a man and a woman -- supports Gallagher. A Star-Tribune poll in May that used live callers showed 55 percent of residents oppose the amendment and only 39 percent support it. But days later a SurveyUSA poll -- an automated survey -- showed the opposite, with 51 percent of voters supporting it and 40 percent opposing it. Another automated survey, by Public Policy Polling, showed a near-deadlock, with 47 percent opposing it and 46 percent supporting it.

An identical trend was seen in 2009 in Maine, which was deciding whether to repeal a law that legalized "gay marriage." Two pre-election polls by Pan Atlantic SMS Group using live callers showed that voters wanted to keep the law: 52-43 percent in the first poll and 53-42 percent in the second poll. But two automated Public Policy Polling polls showed it either tied or voters rejecting the law (51-47 percent). In the end, Maine voters did reject the law, 53-47 percent.


"We are social creatures who are inclined to answer in the way that we believe will be perceived as 'right' by the one who asks us," R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., told BP. "When a survey is conducted by a human being asking a question about same-sex marriage or homosexuality or just about anything else, respondents are very likely to contextualize their response and anticipate whether or not it will be met with agreement or disagreement."

But it's not just questions about "gay marriage" that might lead a person to give a less-than-honest answer, Mohler said. Christians who are asked about the exclusivity of the Gospel might feel pressured to do the same, he said.

"The social context has always been there. The different is that we now have an entire apparatus of the media, of opinion instruments, an entertainment complex, that together creates this universe of right thinking and what's politically correct," Mohler said. "And to stand outside of that is to take a social risk. That is not a new reality. It's just newly exaggerated."

The live caller-automated polling dynamic is seen on sex surveys, too. The Centers for Disease Control released data in March showing that 29 percent of women and 27 percent of men ages 15-24 reported never having had sex, according to The News York Times. That data, collected via a computer, was an increase from the previous poll, which used live interviewers and showed about 23 percent of those ages 15-24 having had sex. The takeaway? Young people in the live interviewer survey felt compelled to lie about their sex lives, although they were virgins.


There has not been an automated nationwide poll about "gay marriage" this year, but there have been some automated statewide polls in addition to the one in Minnesota. Public Policy Polling surveyed voters in Maine and Washington state, showing a near-deadlock on the issue, with Mainers backing "gay marriage" 47-45 percent and Washingtonians supporting it, 48-46. Conservatives commentators ask, rhetorically: Is the nation as a whole more liberal on the issue than Maine and Washington state?

Glenn T. Stanton, the director for family formation studies at Focus on the Family, said the live-caller interviews are swayed by the cultural rhetoric.

"I think a lot of the support is really governed by this nasty accusation of bigotry," Stanton said. "When you lay out the choice -- be a bigot or cave? -- the choice for some people is tough. Politically and rhetorically, it's very, very smart for ."

Even if the major polls are skewed, conservatives have plenty of reasons to be concerned. For starters, the conservative position is now culturally taboo in many circles. But also, nearly every survey on the issue -- live-caller and automated -- shows that younger voters are more likely to back "gay marriage." The question is whether they'll maintain those beliefs as they age. Stanton, who often visits college campuses to discuss and debate the issue, says he has trouble finding students who can give a logical answer as to why "same-sex marriage is a good idea."

"Young people are generationally very idealistic" and often change their beliefs as they marry and have kids, Stanton said.


"I am not real concerned," he said.

"Gay marriage" has gained polling traction, Stanton said, in part because of a widespread belief it's solely a private matter.

"The other side has positioned it that way, largely with the question of 'How does my same-sex marriage impact you?' That has been very persuasive," Stanton said. "To which I will answer, 'OK, you tell me, how does my chopping a few trees down on my property in the Amazon impact you in any way? How does my pouring my old motor oil in a hole in my backyard impact you in any way?' We understand in the environmental scenery that small behaviors have a large global impact, but we can't understand that in the family environment, but it's absolutely true."

The impact of "gay marriage" on religious liberty and what is taught in public schools are two key issues, Stanton said.

"In Massachusetts, the Catholic Church has had to get out of the adoption business because Massachusetts wouldn't say, 'We're going to tolerate you only placing kids in opposite-sex homes.' They said, 'If you don't give kids to same-sex homes, then you're discriminating.' So they had to shut down what they were doing," Stanton said.

"... It has been called rhetorically, hate speech to say that children do best raised by their own mother and father. Think about that, and then the implications of that. The gay activists have struck quite a coup, and I think they knew exactly what they were doing."

Homosexual activists, Mohler said, have plenty of willing accomplices in the culture at large.


"Living in America today means being bombarded by messages from popular culture, scripts from the television screen, images from Hollywood, surveys from the academy, legal arguments coming from the judiciary -- all of which are seeking to drive a fundamental moral revolution," Mohler said. "And we're watching that revolution take place before our eyes at lightning speed. The American public is not driving this as much as they being driven."

Bob Stith, the Southern Baptist national strategist for gender issues and the representative of the denomination's Task Force on Ministry to Homosexuals, said "gay marriage" is not the instrument of the breakdown of the home, but a byproduct of it. The church, he said, must take the lead in "rebuilding" the foundation.

"The issue of gay marriage is only the latest crack in this foundation," Stith said. "Many of our churches rarely if ever offer intensive training for married couples. Fewer still begin this process with our young people. If we do not begin to address the breakdown in our homes, gay marriage will succeed but it will be a result of the failure of the home and not the cause of it."

Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. The Southern Baptist Convention has a ministry to homosexuals. Find more information at

Copyright (c) 2011 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press

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