The U.S. Supreme Court hears two important cases this week on the on same-sex marriage, an issue that a new poll says young Americans support in ever larger numbers.
Some of that shift in national polling is due to the increasing impact 18 to 32 year olds, known as the millennial generation, have on American politics. Among that age group, support for same-sex marriage is at an all-time high of 70 percent, according to the latest Pew Research poll.
Michael Dimock, director of Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, tells Don Gonyea, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that the pace at which millennials back gay marriage has rarely been matched.
"You saw radical transformations in American attitudes about race in the '60s, '70s and '80s," Dimock says, "this isn't inherently unprecedented, but for the past decade or so this is certainly one of the biggest shifts we've seen."
That shift also extends to young conservatives and those that identify as Republicans, Dimock says, a group whose support for same-sex marriage has nearly doubled in the past 10 years.
"The trajectory is happening across party lines [and] across religious lines," he says.
There's no denying, however, that the issue of same-sex marriage is still divisive, Dimock says. As it stands, 44 percent of Americans still oppose same-sex marriage compared to the 49 percent in favor, hardly a public consensus, he says.
Even among young people, Dimock says the debate is not over despite the high percentage supporting the issue.
"The issue of marriage is still a stumbling block for some people even in this generation; it's a minority, but it is still a stumbling block," he says.
Same-Sex Marriage And Young Conservatives
Common among conservatives are views like those of 24-year-old Allison Howard.
"I think we need to keep the debate open," Howard says. "I just don't think we need the Supreme Court to step in next week and decide for all 50 states what marriage is."
Howard, a communications director for the group Concerned Women for America, says how she was raised shaped her views on same-sex marriage.
"How I was raised, my belief, my worldview and ... two millennia of history has shown the importance of marriage between a man and a woman," she says.
Eric Teetsel agrees. Teetsel is the 29-year-old executive director of the Manhattan Declaration, an organization founded in 2009 by conservative activist Chuck Colson to tackle the issues of "life, marriage and religious freedom."
Teetsel tells NPR's Gonyea that he was disappointed to see so many young people come out in support of same-sex marriage at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference.
"Those of us who understand the meaning of marriage and why it matters simply have to do a better job of educating everyone ... on these issues," Teetsel says.
Teetsel says he's also disappointed by the position that Republicans just need to stop belaboring the issue and focus on issues on which they can gain ground.
"It's just unprincipled," he says. "You don't hear us talking about backing away from other core principles that aren't necessarily popular. ... to change your principles in order to win voters over is the kind of thing that we view negatively in American politics."
An Impending Shift
Shifting views, even among Republicans, create practical political challenges for leaders of the GOP looking at how the issue will affect voters.
"If we are to build a big-tent party, and we are to start winning elections, what we have to stop being is exclusive," says Ana Navarro, a veteran Republican strategist who supports same-sex marriage. "We have to stop telling Republicans that they don't pass a litmus test because we may disagree on one or two or three issues. We have to have much more diversity of thought and much more tolerance within the Republican Party."
Navarro says the Republican Party simply cannot close its eyes to an inevitable shift.
"At some point, it's going to be an irrelevant question, because it's going to happen whether we like it or not," she says.
The shift in attitudes toward same-sex marriage has been steady and fast. But whether that movement will eventually lead to any kind of policy shift within the Republican Party remains an open question.
And as the debate within the GOP is grows louder, party leaders say they hope it is respectful and not divisive.
DON GONYEA, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.
On the show today, why Goldman Sachs has bet millions on reducing teen crime in New York City. But first, this week, the U.S. Supreme Court hears two important cases on the issue of gay marriage. Polls show a dramatic shift among Americans toward supporting same-sex marriage, young people even more so, 70 percent of them, in fact. But...
MICHAEL DIMOCK: The issue of marriage is still a stumbling block for some people, even in this generation. It's a minority, but it is still a stumbling block.
GONYEA: That's Michael Dimock of Pew Research. Our cover story today: young conservatives and gay marriage. We start at a recent gathering of conservative activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference known as CPAC.
GUY BENSON: In all seriousness, I was really shocked that Chris Christie was excluded from CPAC this year. I had no idea he was gay.
GONYEA: That was emcee Guy Benson of the website townhall.com. Given that young voters nationally support same-sex marriage by a large majority, I was interested in how young attendees at CPAC view the issue. They were indeed talking about it. And even though polls show that only one in four young conservatives support gay marriage, that minority view was very present and very vocal at the event. Even at CPAC, you hear this.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: If two men want to get married, if two women want to get married, if they're happy together, let them do it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's starting not to become a religious argument or like a marriage argument. It's starting to just become a general who-cares argument.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A lot of young people were turned off by the anti-gay rhetoric.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It's pretty easy waking up and facing the reality. And the reality is the country has changed.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: It's just like civil rights. We had small rumblings of it. And then once it started to become a big issue, we had people rethinking their positions. Now, we have prominent politicians coming out in favor of it. I think the division on gay marriage within the Republican Party's going to shrink.
GONYEA: The influence that 18- to 32-year-olds have on American politics is growing. They're known as the millennial generation. And in the past 10 years, their support for gay marriage has had an impact on overall national polling on the issue.
Pew Research released its latest national survey on the topic last week. Michael Dimock says the pace of the movement toward backing gay marriage has rarely been matched.
DIMOCK: You saw radical transformations in American attitudes about race in the '60s, '70s and '80s. This isn't inherently unprecedented. But for the past decade or so, this is certainly one of the biggest shifts we've seen.
GONYEA: And if we see support for same-sex marriage rising from 50 percent to 70 percent among millennials, over 10 years...
GONYEA: ...say, we look at the conservatives within that group. They still oppose it by a large margin, but are they, too, starting to move toward...
DIMOCK: Yes, yes. The trend really exists in all different groups. When we talked to young people 10 years ago who identified as Republican, you had somewhere in the teens saying, you know, they supported gay marriage. Now, it's up closer to 30 percent of those young Republicans. So the trajectory is happening across party lines, across religious lines.
GONYEA: When I talk to millenials, when I talk to young voters who are not in favor of same-sex marriage, they often say to me, look, it's only 49 percent nationally. There's been movement in the polls, sure, but this isn't a settled issue yet. Are we getting ahead of ourselves when we talk about it and look at these numbers?
DIMOCK: In some sense, we are getting ahead of ourselves. This is still a divisive issue in the American public. Forty-nine percent favor gay marriage, but 44 percent oppose making it legal. That's hardly a public consensus. And while this has been a dramatic change over the last decade, it's only a percentage point or two more every year because these younger generations are more supportive. This won't be a public consensus at that rate for a long time if that trend continues.
GONYEA: But what about the 70 percent among millennials who do support same-sex marriage?
GONYEA: That's starting to feel like a settled issue.
DIMOCK: To some extent, it is. But the point is that you have a quarter of young people who don't think gay marriage should be made legal. They overwhelmingly support equal rights. They overwhelmingly think that gays and lesbians should have workplace rights, even rights as couples. But the issue of marriage is still a stumbling block for some people, even in this generation. It's a minority, but it is still a stumbling block.
GONYEA: Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
We heard earlier in this segment the voices of young conservatives who are either supportive or at least ambivalent about same-sex marriage. But among conservatives, even young conservatives, that's very much still a minority opinion. Far more common among conservatives are views like those of 24-year-old Allison Howard.
ALLISON HOWARD: I think we need to keep the debate open. I just don't think we need the Supreme Court to step in next week and decide for all 50 states what marriage is.
GONYEA: Howard is communications director for the group Concerned Women for America. And when it comes to the issue of gay marriage...
HOWARD: How I was raised, my belief, my worldview - and, you know, two millennia of history has shown the importance of marriage between a man and a woman.
GONYEA: Twenty-nine-year-old Eric Teetsel agrees. Teetsel is the executive director of the Manhattan Declaration, an organization founded in 2009 by conservative icon Chuck Colson to tackle the issues of, quote, "life, marriage and religious freedom." Like Howard, Teetsel identifies as a Christian but is quick to point out that his views are founded on more than his faith.
You were at CPAC last week, the big Conservative Political Action Conference. I was there as well. What was your reaction to seeing so many young conservatives come out in support of gay marriage?
ERIC TEETSEL: I had two primary reactions. The first was disappointment. The second was a sense of purpose, honestly. My side, those of us who understand the meaning of marriage and why it matters simply have to do a better job of educating everyone, including those on our side, so to speak, on these issues.
GONYEA: But you must surely hear from your peers who say, guy, come on.
TEETSEL: I do.
GONYEA: It's a settled issue, they probably tell you.
TEETSEL: They do. Yeah, it's kind of a bizarre form of peer pressure actually. I often hear, you're on the wrong side of history. And I'm not really sure what to make of that idea. History is yet to be written.
GONYEA: As a person who has a view opposing same-sex marriage but also as one who's involved in the Republican Party, how do you react when you hear people say - and I hear this a lot - the party should just quit talking about this. We should just downplay this and talk about things we can agree with.
TEETSEL: I'm a Christian first and a conservative second and a Republican third, or maybe much further down the line. It is disappointing to hear people in this party that I do associated myself with, say, things like that because it's just unprincipled. You don't hear us talking about backing away from other core principles that aren't necessarily popular. And you could look at public views on government spending and see that it turns out the American public loves big government programs like Social Security and Medicare. And yet the Republican Party has not fully embraced expansion of such programs because as a matter of principle, they believe in limited government. I think the same has to apply to the family.
GONYEA: I'm wondering if you've ever been accused of being a homophobe or how you feel about being perceived that way by some people.
TEETSEL: I have, absolutely, usually on Twitter. And it's certainly not fun. My duty as a person of faith is to show love to my neighbor. And the challenge for me as a person of faith is to show that, indeed, there is no disconnect between truth and love. That if we love someone, then we should point them in the direction of what is true and good. And so that's what I try to do. You can't always please folks. And I've had to accept that some people are simply not going to like me because of my views on this issue, and that's OK.
GONYEA: A political question. The issue has the potential to drive young people away from the Republican Party. How do you feel about that?
TEETSEL: Two responses to that. One, I don't believe that there is a mass of young people yearning to vote for Republicans who are stopped only because of the marriage issue. I don't think there's any data to support the idea that if Republicans only get over this marriage thing, all of a sudden 18- to 29-year-olds are just going to flock to the party. And there are hosts of other issues that concern young people where the GOP is not aligned correctly.
Secondly, I would say, we can't align our principles with the will of the people and be taken seriously. Principles are principles. And to change your principles in order to win voters over is the kind of thing that we view negatively in American politics. We have words for people who do that.
GONYEA: Eric Teetsel, executive director of the Manhattan Declaration, shifting views even among Republicans create practical political changes for leaders of the GOP looking at how the issue will impact voters.
Ana Navarro is a veteran Republican strategist who supports same-sex marriage.
ANA NAVARRO: If we are to build a big-tent party, and we are to start winning elections, what we have to stop being is exclusive. We have to stop telling Republicans that they don't pass a litmus test because we may disagree on one or two or three issues. We have to have much more diversity of thought and much more tolerance within the Republican Party.
GONYEA: Navarro says the Republican Party simply cannot close its eyes to an inevitable shift.
NAVARRO: The Republican Party really should not be caught on the wrong side of history. It should not be caught on the wrong side of love. At some point, it's going to be an irrelevant question because it's going to happen whether we like it or not.
GONYEA: The shift in attitudes toward gay marriage has been steady and fast. But whether that movement will eventually lead to any kind of policy shift within the Republican Party remains an open question. But the debate within the GOP is getting louder. Party leaders say they hope it is respectful and not divisive. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.