Same-Sex Marriage? Well, the data say. . .

The most recent Economist has, as usual, a helpful chart summarizing Americans’ attitudes towards same-sex marriage, using Pew Center data from 2008 on.  The data show that, for the first time, a majority of Americans approve of same-sex marriage, with the most significant movement (towards more favorable attitudes) occurring among White Catholics and White “mainstream” Protestants.

In some ways, this is not surprising; progressive Protestants and Catholics have been engaging in a period of institution-building, hosting workshops, writing blogs, holding conferences, even doing mass-emailing, all efforts designed to reach and motivate a liberal and moderate religious constituency. The effort has involved opinion-formation as well as counter-mobilization to speak out and vote on the “values” issues that conservative Protestants seem to have monopolized in public discourse.

In Minnesota, where I live, this liberal-to-moderate religious mobilization has been more notable over the past 2-3 years than it had been previously. The last few times questions have arisen at the Capitol about same-sex marriage or the provision of health and related benefits for same-sex partners, liberal religious leaders have done more speaking out in the media.  And there’s been more organizing to get groups of constituents to go over to St. Paul and make their support known in the fight for legal equality for members of same-sex unions.

What charts like this always make me ponder, as a sociologist, is the underlying Weberian assumption that social policy is directly and straightforwardly related to the aggregation of individual preferences and attitudes. Polling certainly has a place in a democratic society.  But we need to be critical about what polls tell us—in this case, do these attitudes bespeak a willingness to engage in public behaviors (like voting for a political candidate) that would bring policies in line with those attitudes? What about private behaviors (like supporting one’s own child were s/he to form a same-sex union)?

Other questions also arise. In a simple aggregative model, how much is “enough” support to change policy? Is it a simple majority? Could we dispense with politics and just go with polls, having a bureau that oversees the implementation of rigorous sampling procedures and pre-tests all the small variations in question wording that might influence results? If we could just get the polling “right,” would the policy come easily?

There are no quick-and-dirty answers to these kinds of questions, which always arise for me when I see this kind of report in the news-media. Because of this, I find that the Economist consistently proves to be a valuable and thought-provoking news source.

This was originally published at The Immanent Frame