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Why culture war issues like same-sex marriage are missing from the presidential election
A majority of Americans support LGBT nondiscrimination laws and oppose religious liberty protections that would enable faithful small business owners to refuse service to gay and lesbian couples, according to a new survey. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
The share of Americans who support same-sex marriage continues to grow, and fewer adults see a conflict between the practice and their faith, according to a new report on LGBT issues from Public Religion Research Institute.

"Only 41 percent of Americans say same-sex marriage goes against their religious beliefs. That's down 10 percentage points from just 2013," said Robert Jones, CEO of PRRI, in a Wednesday press call. The survey, which was conducted by phone from Aug. 10-16, analyzes responses from 2,014 U.S. adults. It had a 2.6 percentage point margin of error.

Overall, 62 percent of U.S. adults favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, compared to 30 percent who believe marriage should be between one man and one woman. Once a key aspect of the American culture war, same-sex marriage is nearly a non-issue in the 2016 presidential election.

"I think this poll shows that, even among Republicans, this issue is really losing its power," Jones said.

Although the leading presidential candidates haven't engaged culture war issues, the battles over LGBT rights versus religious freedom show no signs of abating in courtrooms, state legislatures or on college campuses. But PRRI's study showed that even in those ongoing conflicts, majorities of religious Americans favor LGBT nondiscrimination laws over religious objectors.

"With the exception of white evangelical Protestants, majorities of every major religious group including 68 percent of white mainline Protestants, 68 percent of black Protestants, 63 percent of Catholics, 77 percent of non-Christian religious Americans and 74 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans oppose allowing small business owners to deny service to gay and lesbian individuals on the basis of religious beliefs," PRRI reported.

Shifting culture war

The U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states last year and public support is swinging in the LGBT community's favor, which largely explains why same-sex marriage has faded into the background of this election season.

However, it's notable that voters are actually prepared to penalize politicians who oppose weddings for gay and lesbian couples, Jones noted. More than 4 in 10 Americans (44 percent) say they would definitely not vote for a candidate who opposes same-sex marriage, while only 20 percent said they definitely would.

It could also become a liability for a politician to build his or her campaign around support for religious liberty protections, particularly if they appear to harm the LGBT community, according to PRRI.

The survey showed that "more than 7 in 10 Americans (72 percent) favor laws that would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations and housing. Fewer than one-quarter (23 percent) of Americans oppose such laws."

Additionally, nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults (63 percent) oppose allowing a small business owner to refuse to provide products or services to gay or lesbian people even if doing so violates their religious beliefs, the study noted.

Earlier surveys showed a more equal split between support for religious business owners and the LGBT community. In a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, 49 percent of U.S. adults said small business owners should be required to provide services to all customers, while 47 percent said they should be allowed to refuse services to same-sex couples for religious reasons.

Although Republicans and members of conservative religious groups are more likely than other Americans to support religious liberty protections for supporters of traditional marriage, even these groups are notably divided, Jones said.

Fifty-two percent of Republicans and 49 percent of white evangelical Protestants favor religiously based service refusals, while 42 percent and 45 percent, respectively, oppose them, PRRI reported.

"This is not something that has a broad base of support even among some conservative groups," Jones said, noting that "Big Tent Republicans" may need to avoid the subject of religious liberty protections in order to appeal to a broad audience of voters.

What happens next?

The unpopularity of supporting religious liberty protections and opposing same-sex marriage could at least partly be explained by the rise of Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, said David Gushee, distinguished professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University.

"If Ted Cruz were the nominee, you could be sure that every week there would be some messaging to the effect of, 'I would protect religious liberty,'" he noted. "I think the coalition that came around Donald Trump to get him the nomination and support is not a culture wars-focused coalition. It's (focused on) something different, including economic nationalism and trade and jobs."

In terms of voting trends, focusing on economic policy is a good strategy, because financial issues are among the top reasons people head to the polls, Jones said.

"When we've asked people in previous polls to rank the importance of issues, same-sex marriage and abortion always ranked towards the bottom. People are much more likely to be driven to vote by economics," he said.

This campaign season, battles over the rights of traditional marriage supporters and the LGBT community have shifted to legislatures and the legal system, as people on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate try to shore up their rights.

Americans may be losing patience with this approach, as well, according to a recent LifeWay Research survey. Although 6 in 10 people agreed that religious liberty is on the decline in the U.S., more than 4 in 10 (43 percent) say that Christians complain too much.

Even if politicians shy away from same-sex marriage and religious liberty debates, faith leaders need to engage them, Gushee said, noting that they have an opportunity to encourage compromise and understanding.

"I think people who disagree should seek reasonable religious liberty accommodations, speak of their (opponents') perspectives with appropriate respect and keep the dialogue going," he said.
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