Religious media consumption increases opposition to same-sex marriage, studies find

Two new studies suggest that religious media outlets in the United States shape their viewers’ attitudes about same-sex relationships.

A longitudinal study published in Sexuality & Culture found that frequently watching or listening to religious media on the television or radio in 2006 predicted increased opposition to same-sex marriage in 2012. (However, this was not true of religious internet-based media.) A second study, to be published in the journal Social Currents, confirmed that religious media had an independent effect on people’s attitudes toward same-sex relationships.

Samuel Perry of the University of Oklahoma is the corresponding author of both studies. He was interviewed about his research by PsyPost.

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Perry: I’ve always been interested in how religion shapes our views about what the “ideal” family looks like. Dozens of studies have shown, for example, that people who are either more religious or more theologically conservative tend to be opposed to same-sex romantic and family relationships. Most scholars attribute this consistent finding to either families or religious communities reinforcing moral boundaries around “God’s standard” for marriage and family through socialization and everyday interaction. But we’re influenced by society in lots of other ways too beyond just families, friends, and churches. Since religious groups, and particularly evangelical Christians, have been making strategic use of various media like books, TV, and radio for the past few decades, I began to wonder if certain types of religious media could also be a mechanisms through which religious communities shape consumers attitudes toward same-sex relationships.

So I began to play around with a variety of surveys that had measures of religious media use along with measures about Americans’ attitudes toward same-sex romantic and family relationships. These included the General Social Survey, the Portraits of American Life Study, and the Baylor Religion Survey. As I’d suspected, it seemed that the connection between consuming religious media and opposing same-sex relationships was particularly strong.

But there was this problem. How can we increase our confidence that we’re not just looking at a selection effect? That is, how can we know that the relationships we’re observing aren’t simply due to the fact that people who consume religious media are already more likely to oppose same-sex relationships? There’s really no way to be certain about this unless we conduct a formal experiment where we randomly assign persons to a treatment (exposure to religious media) and a control (no exposure) and do a pre-test and re-test of attitudes. As an alternative to conducting these experiments, I decided to use two different approaches in different studies.

In the study published in Sexuality & Culture, we used longitudinal data from the 2006 and 2012 waves of the Portraits of american Life Study. We used a technique where we predicted the effect of Americans’ religious media use (TV, radio, and internet) in 2006 on their attitudes toward same-sex marriage in 2012, while holding their previous attitudes toward same-sex marriage at 2006 constant. We also controlled for a variety of other religious and sociodemographic characteristics as well as intimate contact with gays and lesbians. The effect was still robust for religious TV and radio. This suggests to us that earlier religious media use does seem to predict later opposition to same-sex marriage, and that this effect is not simply due to those folks already being more opposed to same-sex relationships.

In the second study, forthcoming in Social Currents, my colleague and I use data from three surveys (the 1998 General Social Survey, the 2005 Baylor Religion Survey, and the 2012 Portraits of American Life Study) and we examine the effects of religious media use on Americans attitudes toward various same-sex romantic and family relationships. This time we use propensity score matching to simulate random assignment to the “treatment” (religious media exposure) and we find essentially the same thing. Persons who are exposed to various forms of religious media are more likely to oppose same-sex romantic and family relationships, and this finding was consistent for each of the three surveys and with different measures of religious media.

What should the average person take away from your study?

Our findings suggest that religious media can shape consumers’ attitudes in different ways. Some religious media are more explicit in their message. Take, for example, someone who listens to a Focus on the Family radio show every day or the 700 Club with Pat Robertson. Persons who take in that sort of religious media are likely to get very explicit messages about family formation and sexuality, and thus, religious media can end up shaping their views about same-sex relationships quite directly.

However, we also found that there might also be an effect of certain religious media where one might not get explicit messages about sexuality (e.g., devotional Christian books, for example). In this case, religious media can end up shaping Americans’ attitudes toward same-sex relationships by simply connecting them with a religious subculture that tends to be opposed to such relationships. In other words, the effect can be more subtle and indirect. And, of course, all of the religious influences work in conjunction with one another.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

The primary caveat is that we did not conduct randomized experiments here. We were analyzing secondary survey data. While we feel like our analytic techniques allow us to be confident about there being an independent and directional effect of religious media use on opposition to same-sex relationships, causation has not been demonstrated strictly speaking. That needs to be kept in mind until people can replicate our findings with experiments.

The first study, “Longitudinal Effects of Religious Media on Opposition to Same-Sex Marriage,” was co-authored by Kara J. Snawder.

The forthcoming study, “Seeing is Believing: Religious Media Consumption and Public Opinion toward Same-Sex Relationships,” was co-authored by Landon Schnabel.