August 12th, 2014
I’m putting the word “study” in quotes because a blog post for the Witherspoon Institute doesn’t count as a published study, despite the Official Looking Chart that goes with it. In this blog post, Mark Regnerus says he created something called a Religion In America survey and found that churchgoing Christians
(he doesn’t define what that means) who support marriage equality, when compared to churchgoing Christians who oppose it, are more likely to be open to saying that pornography is okay, premarital cohabitation is okay, no strings attached sex is okay, divorce is okay even if you have kids (for that question, he gives everyone an easy out for an abusive relationship), marriage infidelity is okay sometimes, polyamory is okay, and abortion is okay.
Regnerus’s implication is that all of these are Very Bad Things, and that people who support same-sex marriage are more likely to shrug their shoulders when asked about a range of Very Bad Things than those who oppose same-sex marriage. Gay and Lesbian Christians (notice here he drops “Churchgoing” — is this yet another apples to horse meat comparison that he’s so fond of?) are even more likely to say meh to those Very Bad Things. And for Gay and Lesbian non-Christians, the numbers are off the charts. Speaking of charts, he handily provides this one that others can pull out and repost, shorn of all context and the few caveats he bothers to throw in:
Like I said, this isn’t a study. It doesn’t have any of the hallmarks of a study, not even like those you’ll find in his deliberately flawed study that a low-ranked journal bent over backwards to publish for political reasons. He calls this Religion In America survey “a population-based sample, meaning that its results are nationally representative,” but he doesn’t describe how it came about. For a real study, you can’t just say that and leave it at that. He also doesn’t provide any of the standard tests to show which comparisons are statistically relevant in his chart. Even the lowest ranking journals would reject a study outright if it doesn’t include that critical information. And as I said, he doesn’t define some of his subpopulation categories, and we’ve already seen how he has exploited those definitions to force the results he wants to get. We have ample grounds to question whether he’s up to that old trick again. So until he publishes these results with at least a thin veneer of rigor, there really isn’t much to see here.
But let’s leave all of those methodological questions aside for the moment. And let’s be super-charitable and take it further: let’s accept, just for the sake of argument, that we are looking at a real-life version of the mythological Perfect Study, and that Regnerus has managed to precisely measure people’s attitudes toward some Very Bad Things. What does it tell us?
Regnerus has his take:
Churchgoing Christians who support same-sex marriage look very much like the country as a whole—the population average (visible in the third column). That answers my original question. What would a pro-SSM Christian sexual morality look like? The national average—the norm—that’s what.
…I’m not suggesting any “slippery slope” sort of argument here, implying that a shift in one attitude will prompt lock-step adjustments in others. In reality, our moral systems concerning sex and sexuality tend rather to resemble personalized “tool kits” reflecting distinctive visions of the purpose of sex and significant relationships (and their proper timing), the meaning of things like marriage and gender roles, and basic ideas about rights, goods, and privacy. Americans construct them in quite distinct combinations, often cafeteria-style. Instead, the results might be better interpreted as a simple story of social learning from quite different reference groups — those sets of people we use as a standard of comparison for ourselves, regardless of whether we identify as a member of that group. Indeed, attitude shifts in this domain are probably far more about reference groups than about any sort of individual “evolution” or rational construction of personal values.
He says he’s not making a “slippery slope” argument, but the blog post’s title, “Tracking Christian Sexual Morality in a Same-Sex Marriage Future,” does precisely that. And by taking approval or disapproval of same-sex marriage as the controlling variable, he implies that approval of marriage equality will lead to increased acceptance of a host of other Very Bad Things. It’s reminiscent of what The Weekly Standard’s Stanley Kurtz tried to claim in 2004 when he said that Registered Partnerships in Scandinavia (there was no same-sex marriage at the time) had already led to more divorces, fewer marriages and more out-of-wedlock children, while ignoring the fact that those trends were well in place long before the idea of recognizing same-sex relationships came along. In other words, same-sex marriage (or registered partnerships) was not a controlling variable for those other trends, and there’s no reason to believe it’s a controlling variable for Regnerus’s Very Bad Things here.
Regnerus disavows the “slippery slope” argument, but by using attitudes about same-sex marriage as the controlling variable, it’s going to be hard for other opponents of same-sex marriage to see him saying anything differently. And the argument that he does make — that people get their ideas from the people around them — merely explains how such a slippery slope scenario might work. So let’s not fool ourselves here: he is making the very argument he disavows, which he’s done before. When he published that so-called “gay parenting study” in 2012, he peppered it with a host of caveats:
The NFSS is not a longitudinal study, and therefore cannot attempt to broach questions of causation. … It does not evaluate the offspring of gay marriages, since the vast majority of its respondents came of age prior to the legalization of gay marriage in several states … American courts are finding arguments against gay marriage decreasingly persuasive. This study is intended to neither undermine nor affirm any legal rights concerning such.
But when Regnerus spoke to the press, he resolutely abandoned all of those caveats. My prediction: he’ll do the same with the slipper slope argument. My reaction: good luck with that. Marriage equality opponents have been flailing that dead horse for more than a decade, and there is zero evidence that it has moved the needle one iota in their direction.
So, to recap, Regnerus’s interprests his chart this way: if more and more people, including church-going Christians, continue to come around to supporting marriage equality, then more and more people, including church-going Christians, are going to begin supporting all of those other Very Bad Things. Support gay marriage, and you’re probably going to wind up supporting polygamy. Or anything-goes sex. Or the breakdown of the family through divorce. Or unlimited abortion. And so on.
I guess that’s one way to look at the results — if those results are actually legit. As I said, it’s impossible to assess that from his blog post, but also as I said, I’m willing to close my eyes for the moment and consider what these numbers might mean anyway. And so with all of my caveats firmly stated, it seems that there is a far more logical explanation for his findings:
Those who oppose marriage equality are much more likely to be the kinds of busybodies with Deeply Held Beliefs about how other people should live their lives. They may say they they oppose pre-marital sex, extra-martial sex, no-strings sex, and getting divorced despite having children — for other people — but they will wind up doing those many of those Very Bad Things themselves at rates rather similar to, and in some cases (divorce, for example) higher than many other people, despite what they may say in a survey.
Conversely, those who support marriage equality are more likely to have a healthier, more laissez-faire attitude toward how other people order their lives, and they tend to be much less judgmental of other people. And gays and lesbians, who have experienced a lifetime of busybodies giving them unrealistic, unsolicited edicts in how to order their lives, are the most reluctant of all to turn around and do the same to others. And what about the Population Average? Well, nobody likes a busybody.
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Part 5: A Candid Explanation For "Change"
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