Opposition to gay marriage is more widespread in Tennessee than nearly anywhere else in the country, high even compared to other states in the South, a look at Middle Tennessee State University poll findings suggests.
Nationwide, 43 percent of Americans oppose legalizing gay marriage, while 48 percent support the move, according to polling done throughout 2012 by the Pew Center for the People and the Press. That’s a steep decline in opposition compared to the 51 percent nationwide who opposed legalizing gay marriage in 2008 and the 60 percent who opposed it nationwide in 2004.
Last fall’s MTSU Poll of registered voters in Tennessee, however, found 61 percent opposed to legalizing gay marriage and only 24 percent in favor, with the remaining 15 percent unsure, a level of opposition significantly higher than even the 56 percent opposition Pew reported to be typical of the South Central region that includes Tennessee as well as Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas.
“It’s unusual for Tennessee opinion to diverge this sharply from national norms,” said Ken Blake, Ph.D., director of the MTSU Poll. “Throughout the MTSU Poll’s nearly 15-year history, we’ve often found Tennesseans holding moderately conservative views compared to the rest of the nation, particularly on social issues. But this is an exceptionally large difference.”
Opposition to legalizing gay marriage hasn’t increased in Tennessee, Blake said. Rather, it has held steady at around 60 percent while opposition elsewhere in the nation has declined, he said.
One factor behind the steady opposition in Tennessee may be the state’s high numbers of evangelical Christians, who accounted for nearly one in four registered voters in the Fall 2012 poll and 68 percent of whom oppose allowing same-sex couples to marry legally. Among the state’s evangelical voters, whites are more opposed than minorities are, and among white evangelicals, Republicans are more opposed than Democrats or — barely — independents.
“It may be that, more so than many issues, attitudes in Tennessee toward same-sex marriage are tied to evangelical religious convictions that aren’t going to budge unless evangelical leaders signal that a change is OK,” Blake said. “That’s not likely to happen any time soon, although some prominent evangelical leaders backed away from characterizing the Mormon faith as a cult when it became clear that Mitt Romney, a Mormon, would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee.”
Conducted by telephone Oct. 16-21, 2012, with 609 registered, likely Tennessee voters chosen at random, the poll had an error margin of plus-or-minus four percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence.