WASHINGTON — The acceptance of same-sex marriage by black American Protestants has risen by about a third in the past year, data from the Pew Research Center revealed this week.
However, both a Pew official and a leading black evangelical scholar agree that the numbers may not tell the whole story.
Pew has been tracking public opinion on same-sex marriage since 2001, and, in its most recent survey, "the sharpest change has occurred among black Protestants, only 32 (percent) of whom favored same-sex marriage in our aggregated 2013 polling. A survey we conducted last month found that figure has now risen to 43 (percent)."
Support from other groups varies, with roughly six in 10 (Roman) Catholics and white mainline Protestants expressing support for same-sex marriage, while a solid majority of the religiously unaffiliated have supported gay marriage since 2001, according to Pew. In February, 77 percent of those who don't belong to a faith said they support same-sex marriage.
Numbers invade debates
The question of how many Americans support or accept same-sex marriage is figuring into national and local debates over whether to legalize such marriages. Supporters of same-sex marriage often cite growing public acceptance to lend credence to their campaigns, which have come amid state legislatures and federal courts favoring legalization of gay marriage.
But recent court rulings and new state laws legalizing gay marriage may or may not represent a shift among more devout black Protestants, said Carl Ellis Jr., an historian of the Black church and an assistant professor of theology at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas.
To Ellis, the new number "doesn't sound reasonable," he said. "If you count the so-called Protestants that do not believe in the authority of scripture, then maybe so," he added. "But among those who take the Bible seriously, I haven't seen any change."
Gregory Smith, director of U.S. religion surveys for Pew, said this latest national survey took in 3,338 people nationwide, including 235 who self-identified as black Protestants.
Smith said that survey participants are asked a question that offers 14 different potential responses, including Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and others. "People who identify themselves as Protestant are the ones we refer to as Protestant," he explained, "So black Protestants in our data are simply those people who self-identify as Protestant and as non-Hispanic blacks by race and ethnicity."
He said participants aren't asked about their theology or adherence to biblical doctrines.
However, Smith said the survey found lower acceptance of same-sex marriage among those who attend worship services at least once a week, at 34 percent, compared with a 65 percent acceptance among those who are less-frequent church attenders. "My experience would suggest those kinds of divisions would also hold within religious groups," including black Protestants, he said.
White evangelical support 'flat'
Smith said he could not offer a specific theory about the relatively "flat" numbers for white evangelical acceptance of same-sex marriage, which remained at 23 percent for this year and last, after a fairly steady rise from 13 percent in 2001.
Apart from the Pew study, however, rumblings of changing attitudes about homosexuality have surfaced among younger evangelicals, some of whom demonstrated prior to a Wheaton College chapel appearance by a speaker who said she had forsaken homosexuality after a Christian conversion.
Increased support apart from that of black Protestants, Smith explained, represents "a long-term trend (of) lots of religious groups becoming more accepting of same-sex marriage over the longer term of the past 13 years. Approval among those claiming no religion has gone from 61 percent to 77 percent, while among white mainline Protestants, it's risen from 38 percent to 62 percent."
Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., a Pentecostal who is senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md., credits President Barack Obama's 2012 support for same-sex marriage, announced during that year's campaign, with swaying many minds in the African-American community.
That endorsement was "the one major issue that President Obama had a huge impact, in my humble opinion, on the African-American community, especially with the silence of the black church," Jackson said. "Unlike California in 2008 where 70 percent of African-American community was against gay marriage and they voted that way, in 2012, there was not the beating of the drum by black leadership."
Ellis said black congregations that are more liberal theologically might continue to support same-sex marriage. "It just depends on folks who don't take the Bible seriously go along with whatever's out there; they have no rudder," he said.