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Liberals Have Won the Culture War

Liberals Have Won the Culture War
Opinion on sex, drugs, and abortion have all moved left over time.

AUG 28, 2023

Anyone remember Pat Buchanan? He was a far-right conservative who ran an insurgent campaign against George H.W. Bush for the Republican nomination in 1992. When Bush announced his desire to run for a second term, it was assumed that he would have no real challenger in his own party. But Buchanan was a bomb thrower and excoriated Bush for being too moderate. America needed a strong voice that didn't want to compromise on core issues.

Buchanan actually had a strong showing during the primary, despite the fact that he was facing an incumbent president. He earned 38% of the votes in New Hampshire, just fifteen points behind Bush. In most early states, Buchanan received 25-30% of the vote and hung around for a lot longer than many would have assumed.

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Once Bush locked up the nomination, he did the traditional party building gesture of inviting his opponent to speak at the Republican National Convention. On August 17th, 1992, he delivered a speech that will be remembered for decades. Buchanan stated,

The agenda that Clinton & Clinton would impose on America -- abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat units -- that's change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America needs.

...[M]y friends, we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.

This was quickly dubbed the Culture War speech and set the tone for electoral politics for the three decades. Buchanan gave that speech right as evangelicalism was hitting its peak in terms of both raw numbers and political influence and it seemed like every discussion was about abortion, homosexuality, pornography, or the role of women in a changing society.

Buchanan and his supporters wanted, at a minimum, to stop the leftward drift that they believed was happening in the United States on social issues. If not push the country in a more conservative direction. Well, I've looked at the data from the General Social Survey and it's clear to me that Christian conservatives failed miserably in this endeavor. On every single social issue, the average American is more liberal today than they were just two decades ago.

I took five social issues that the General Social Survey has been asking about for decades and analyzed their trajectory over time. Here are the five positions:

1. What is your opinion about a married person having sexual relations with someone other than the marriage partner--is it always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all? (% who say not wrong at all.)

2. Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if the woman wants it for any reason? (% saying yes).

3. Homosexual couples should have the right to marry one another. (% saying strongly agree or agree).

4. Which of these statements comes closest to your feelings about pornography laws? There should be laws against the distribution of pornography whatever the age/There should be laws against the distribution of pornography to persons under 18/There should be no laws forbidding the distribution of pornography. (% choosing the first statement).

5. Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal or not? (% saying should be legal).

Here are the results:

Between the early 1970s through the late 2000s, the share of Americans who believed that extramarital sex was wrong actually rose from about 70% in 1972 to just over 80% in 2008. But somewhere around 2012, things began to change, with support dipping a bit each year. In 2018, the share was only 75% and it dropped a full ten percentage points in the 2021 data to 64%. That may have something to do with survey mode, by the way. I wrote about that here.

For legalizing marijuana, support didn't really shift through the early 1990s. It hovered right around 20%, but then things started to change. By 2000, it was above 30%. By 2010, it was north of 40% and had reached majority support by 2014. In the most recent data, 74% of Americans were in favor of legalizing marijuana - a shift of over fifty percentage points since the early 1970s.

It's really interesting to me how support for same-sex marriage runs on a very similar track as marijuana legalization in this data beginning in 2006. In every single year, support for both is less than one percentage point different. In 1988, just 12% of Americans were in favor of same-sex marriage. When the question was asked again in 2006, that share had risen to 35%. It reached a majority by 2014 and in the most recent data it's right around 73%. Although, it does seem to have plateaued when you look at some subgroups.

Approval For Same Sex Marriage Has Stopped Increasing

One of the most interesting trends in public opinion research over the last twenty years is the issue of same-sex marriage. The General Social Survey first asked about it in 1988. 18% of respondents said that "homosexual couples should have the right to marry one another." They didn't ask about it again until 2004, when the share in favor had more than doubled to 37%.

The share of Americans who wanted to make pornography completely illegal was stuck at about forty percent for decades, even into the mid-2000s. But in the last few years, that portion of the sample who favors a ban on porn has noticeably dipped down to 30% in 2010 and then to just 25% in 2021. One has to wonder if the rise of internet pornography has something to do with this.

Finally, abortion. The GSS asks folks if a women should have access to an abortion for any reason. In the early days of the GSS, support for abortion on demand was in the upper thirties. By 1990, it had snuck just above forty percent and stayed in that same range until the late 2000s. Just between 2010 and 2021, the share of Americans who favored abortion for any reason has risen from 43% to 54% - the highest on record.

Abortion Opinion Is Shifting Post Dobbs

There's no doubt that Dobbs is changing the healthcare industry when it comes to access to abortion services. But, what about views of abortion? There's ample reason to hypothesize that folks would react in strong ways (in either direction) to a SCOTUS case the makes abortion nearly illegal in huge swathes of the country.

Okay, so why is this happening? One culprit is a simple one: the United States is becoming a heck of a lot less religious and the nones are socially liberal. That is having a big impact on the overall percentages that were visualized in the graph above. That is definitely happening. But that is not the primary reason for the overall leftward shift on social issues. Instead, even religious people are becoming more left leaning on these types of issues. Here are a few examples.

This is the question about same-sex marriage for six different religious groups created using the RELTRAD typology. I plotted two lines for each tradition: the entire sample and then just folks who were between the ages of 18 and 35 when they took the survey to get a sense of where things may be headed in the future.

In 2004, just 12% of evangelicals were in favor of same-sex marriage. It was 22% of younger evangelicals. By 2021, 35% of evangelicals were in favor, including a majority (56%) of those between the ages of 18 and 35. It seems inevitable that a majority of evangelicals will support same sex marriage in the next two decades.

Mainline support has risen even more quickly. It doubled between 2004 and 2021 (from 33% to 68%). There has also been an increase among Black Protestants from 15% in 2004 to 56% today. Catholic support started higher at 38% and has now ended up at about the same spot as mainline Protestants at 66%.

It's hard to look at these numbers and not be astonished at how fast opinion has moved on this topic, even among religious groups like evangelicals and Catholics where the church's teachings haven't moved at all.

There's also been a stunning rise in the percentage of religious groups who favor the legalization of marijuana.

In 1973, just nine percent of evangelicals favored legalizing marijuana. It was 16% of young evangelicals. In 2018 that share had jumped to 59% of all evangelicals and 70% of younger evangelicals. Today, a majority of every major Christian tradition is in favor of legalized weed including over three quarters of Mainline and Black Protestants. In each case, younger people are slightly more likely to be supportive than the overall sample. It's noteworthy how 1990 was the inflection point on this, by the way. I wrote in this post how that was the point when the nones began to explode:

Four of the Most Dramatic Shifts in American Religion Over the Last 50 Years

One of the true gifts of being a quantitative social scientist in 2023 is that I get to stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before me. A handful of scholars fought hard to get a series of religion questions added to the General Social Survey when it was first fielded in 1972. Then they had to fight to keep those questions on there over the las...

However, I wanted to take a look at one more issue that seems to buck the conventional trend lines just a bit: abortion. I think that abortion stands alone in the culture war. It's definitely in a different class than pornography, or same sex marriage, or marijuana. Here's what I mean:

There hasn't been a clear and dramatic rise in support for abortion. That's coming through in these trend lines for sure. For instance, the overall evangelical sample is in basically the same spot today as it was in the 1970s - between 25% and 30% in favor. The younger evangelicals do seem to be trending leftward, though. From a low of 20% in the mid-2000s to nearly 45% in the most recent data.

I know folks are going to freak out about the young mainline line. Please don't. There are almost no mainline Protestants in the sample under the age of 35 now. For instance, it was 33 in the 2018 wave and 39 in the 2021 version. They can safely be disregarded. But note how the overall line is basically flat since the 1990s? Yeah, no movement overall.

For Black Protestants and Catholics, there has been some peaks and troughs, but it does look like the overall trend line is up in the last couple of years. Now, a majority of Black Protestants favor abortion for any reason. That hasn't been the case in prior years. For Catholics, support is just below fifty percent, which is the highest it's ever been.

Here's my overall read of this data. There's not a group that is less supportive of abortion today than they were at recent points in the past. That doesn't mean that support has gone up across the board. But for many groups it hasn't gone down, either. That's the upshot here: some groups stayed level, some groups are up slightly. But because the overall composition of the United States is shifting toward non-religion, that's why we are seeing the numbers shift at the top level.

Pastors, why can't you convince people to hold to the sexual ethic that your churches have been teaching for decades? How in the world has evangelical support for same sex marriage risen above fifty percent among young adults, when a trademark belief of evangelicalism is a rejection of same-sex relationships?

I can only hazard a guess that culture plays a bigger role in the lives of most Americans than religion. (I say this as a pastor who is becoming painfully aware of his limited amount of influence, by the way). Why aren't religious leaders able to convince people to stick with the clear beliefs of their church tradition?

Malachi 3:6 states, "For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore, you sons of Jacob are not consumed." So why does humanity's view of God shift so quickly?


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