Regnerus Has a New “Study” Out. Good For Him.

Jim Burroway

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:

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

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.

Ben in Oakland

August 12th, 2014

Congratulations, Jim. A very accurate representation of another hot piece by ANTIGAY Inc.

What’s noticeably missing in Regenerus’s breakdown is a tabulation of non church going Americans. That might tend to show that the bulk of the opposition is in fact conservative Christianity, and nothing else.

Dave H

August 12th, 2014

At least, according to his figures, about 25% of “church-going Christians” now support SSM.

Eric Payne

August 12th, 2014


How long before Regenerus has a “study” that shows gay men are prone to pedophilia…not that gays have much lower life-spans, dying in their late 30s-to-mid 40s, I wonder?

How many “studies” does it require before Markie is shuttled off to Paul Cameronville?


August 12th, 2014

My take: Churchgoing Christians who support SSM are reflective of the public as a whole (their averages are nearly identical to the general population).

Those who do not, are well out of the mainstream.

So, there is nothing in Christianity or devotion itself that leads to opposition to same-sex marriage. Rather, it seems that opposition to same-sex marriage arises from abnormalities unconnected to either.

Seems fine.


August 12th, 2014

I love your final statement.

I would disagree with your assessment of his lack of definition for church-going Christians: “I’ve restricted the analysis to churchgoing Christians—here defined as those who report they attend religious services at least three times a month and who self-identified with some sort of Christian affiliation.” He would have to be rigorous for this definition, at least, since many of his ilk tend to dismiss as non-Christian any self-proclaimed Christians who support SSM. So, he gets over that problem by having a very reasonable (IMO), technical definition.

I find more insidiousness elsewhere: “Because there is no attendance proviso attached to these two groups [i.e. his two Gay and Lesbian groups], the minority of gay and lesbian Christians who are regular churchgoers may also appear in one of the first two columns.” Since the first two columns are, in order, Christians against SSM and Christians who support SSM, he is implying that there might be a significant number of gays and lesbians who also oppose SSM (note that it is not one of the 7 topics shown by itself on the chart). If he surveyed all people the same way, he would have the numbers to parse out exactly how many LGBT people surveyed support or oppose SSM, so it seems odd he wouldn’t trumpet the obviously large numbers of LGBT people who oppose SSM. He should even be able to remove “the minority of gay and lesbian Christians who are regular churchgoers” from those categories, if it is really such an issue (especially if their numbers are too small to warrant their own category, or an attendance proviso for the gay Christians). So the only thing I can think is he wants to imply that there are many gay Christians who oppose SSM, and hopes his readers aren’t smart enough to ask for actual numbers.

There is also: “5. It is sometimes permissible for a married person to have sex with someone other than his/her spouse.” However, on his table, he mentions “infidelity,” although point 5 does not explicitly imply infidelity. This is where seeing his survey questions would be important for interpreting his results. If he asked a statement similar to 5, he might get more people agreeing than if he asked a statement more similar to what was said in the chart.

Jim Burroway

August 12th, 2014

You’re right Nathaniel. He did denfine church-going Christians. I had thought I read that, but then I didn’t see it when I was doing my write-up. I’ve struck out that statement.


August 13th, 2014

The words Regenerus and Study should never be allowed to appear in the same sentence or paragraph.

Ben in Oakland

August 13th, 2014

And yet, elaygee, you did just that! Sounds like….could it possibly be….???!?!?!?


August 13th, 2014

Jim, you provide, as usual, outstanding analysis. I found the same issues. It seems to be a case of ergo hoc propter hoc. His inference is, as you note, “if I believe SSM is OK, then I believe all this other ‘bad’ stuff is also OK.” The converse could be equally as true, “If I have a less uptight attitude towards the sexual activities of consenting adults in general, then I’m likely less uptight about who gets to marry whom.”

The only way to test which POV is correct would be to have had a baseline prior to any state getting SSM, and the views from those states now. You might also be able to use respondents from states that have it as compared to states that don’t. Likely, you wouldn’t see a significant difference (or change) in these percentages with or without same sex marriage. That would be the determination as to whether or not SSM “creates” these “undesirable” views.

Not to mention the fact that he’s making the standard hater’s association of SSM with all things naughty (sexual). Yes, there’s usually sex in marriage, but the whole of point of marriage is the inclusion of a lot of things including sex.

As you also touch on, the way the questions are asked says it all. He asks if these things are OK…not whether or not the respondents engage in them. I’d hope that, if asked, most all Catholic Priests would say child rape isn’t OK, but it doesn’t stop some of them from participating in it.

Again, as you note, actual studies with real statistics tell us that the red states generally view more on-line porn, have higher divorce rates, higher teen pregnancy rates, etc. But Mark knew these things, so I’m sure he crafted his questions to produce the outcome he’s being paid to find.


August 13th, 2014

To be fair, BJohnM, Regnerus did admit that the only way to get at the questions he really wanted to answer was to have been doing this survey for many decades. While we all can see the potential for this blog post to be misused against affirming Christians and marriage equality, he does limit himself here. All any unbiased journalist or lawyer has to do is point out the caveats that Regnerus himself admits. Regnerus may be biased, but he is not very good at keeping his own limitations under his hat. In a sense, he keeps shooting himself in the foot, and then acting surprised when he can’t walk.

Priya Lynn

August 13th, 2014

Nathaniel, Regnerus may have made these caveats in this article but when he’s talking to the media he’ll never bring them up and will be happy to let people make the assumptions the caveats preclude.

Eric Payne

August 13th, 2014

This thread of commentary clearly shows a downside the fight for the Constitutional rights guaranteed us, individually and collectively, has brought to our community.

We’re all starting to sound like a bunch of friggin’ lawyers (with apologies to those among us who are, really, lawyers).


August 18th, 2014

A few additional observations:

– He varies the question wording for no apparent reason. For example, he will ask whether behavior pre-marital cohabitation is “good” but ask whether infidelity or viewing porn is “OK”. Other times, the question is expressed as a declarative statement and the respondent is asked to agree or disagree (e.g., “I support abortion rights.”) What is the point of varying the wording? “Good” is not the same thing as “OK”. “Support” is not the same thing as saying something is “OK”. And agreeing or disagreeing that married couples “should” act in a certain way is different from good, OK, and “support.” The only pattern I can discern is that he used “OK” for the more objectionable conduct and “good” for co-habitation. Perhaps he concluded that he could procure a thumbs up from liberals on cohabitation, but on porn and infidelity, liberals might balk at the word “good”. So you vary the wording to maximize the odds of getting the result you want.

– The numbers on the “I support abortion rights” question are way out of whack with many other polls on this issue. This issue is polled regularly on a national level. The population average is not 37.8%. Further, everyone who follows polling on that question knows that the vast majority of respondents fall somewhere in the middle: they support the right to access to abortion under some circumstances and subject to some limitations. The issue then becomes what circumstances and limitations does this large segment of the population support. By mentioning “abortion rights” with no clarification or definition, he is either muddling the question to the point where it is useless or he has obtained a severe outlier result. Because if “abortion rights” means any kind of right, however limited, the response should be in the 80% range.

– Assuming for the sake of argument that the numbers for LGBs are accurate, I think they make a great case for why LGBs should not only be allowed, but should be encouraged, to marry. For the entirety of this country’s history, LGBs have been treated as wild dogs. We were kept outside, avoided, ignored, and, when noticed at all, punished severely. You give a man no option for love, commitment, and a relationship embedded in his community, and leave him only tea rooms and seedy bars and piers as options, then – absent luck or extraordinary individual character – that’s where he likely will wind up. What society encourages it gets more of, and what it discourages or penalizes, it gets less of. As LGBs have begun to come in from the cold, as the penalties for being in a stable, open relationship waned and societal encouragement slowly increased, their attitudes and values have changed dramatically. Check out the comparative study of LGB attitudes on relationships in 1975 and 2000. It is night and day, and that was even before a single state had marriage equality. That study shows dramatically that there is no such fixed thing as a “gay attitude” or a “gay view”. Our attitudes and views change as conditions change. And change can continue for the better as SSM becomes a reality.

Priya Lynn

August 19th, 2014

Great analysis Will!

Ben in Oakland

August 19th, 2014

Priya and Nathaniel,

With his original study, he played the game out of both sides of his ass. I have quotations from him in my files where he admits he did not study what he claimed to have studied when he was asked about gay parents.

This improper goose is a propagandist.

Straigh Grandmother

August 23rd, 2014

Thank you Jim and ALL the commentors, I have bookmarked this article and added it to my Regnerus file.

It is disturbing how the right wingers immediately threw this out in the bloggosphere and cited it over and over as a ‘Study.’ It’s not a study, it’s a blog article.

I listened to him being interviewed on I think it was a Catholic Radio show after his blog article was published. I remember 2 things of his radio interview. The first is that he is having problems getting his “study” published, which kind of accounts for why he has decided instead to blog about it, and the second was his comment was more or less I’m a victim. The two comments go together and plays right into the right wing Victim Mentality.

I’m going to make a prediction. Regnerus is going to continue to press hard for his new “study” to be published prior to one of our Marriage cases making it into the Supreme Court. If he can’t get it published in at least a mid tier Journal he will get it published in a low tier one simply to have it available to be used in Court.

I believe I am right in this, that most academics don’t go around blogging about their as yet unpublished study if they have a real chance of it getting legitimately published. Nevertheless Regnerus bloggs hoping against hope that the lawyers for the Haters will make some use of the article.


August 25th, 2014

You are right, SG. releasing data before publishing is bad. Most journals won’t publish anything already published. Most don’t even want you in review at another journal when you submit to theirs.

However, this “study” doesn’t really have anything to do with marriage. I’m not following the conservative hype, but I’m not sure how this could be used as evidence that same-sex couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry. While it says all sorts of “nasty” things about the “heathens” who aren’t uptight about sex, it doesn’t say anything about the goodness or badness of marriage. In fact in throws one conservative trope right out the door: the assumption that gay Christians do not exist. They can hand-wave it all they want, dismissing them as CINOs, but right there in black-and-white is a category for self-identified gay Christians.

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