Quick: What pronoun do you instinctively use when referring to God?
An esoteric question? Not at all. In fact, you just revealed quite a bit about yourself—including your likely view of gay marriage.
In a recently published paper, Clemson University sociologist Andrew Whitehead reports that people who view God as a “he” view gay unions, and gay marriage in particular, far less favorably than those who do not. What’s more, this holds true even after taking into account their image of God and beliefs about the proper relationship between men and women.
“Those who view God as a ‘he’ are signaling an underlying gendered view of reality that directs them to oppose relationships that contradict traditional gendered roles,” Whitehead writes in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. “Because gay unions cannot symbolize this gendered reality, they are deemed inappropriate.”
"Those who view God as a ‘he’ are signaling an underlying gendered view of reality that directs them to oppose relationships that contradict traditional gendered roles."
Whitehead analyzed data from the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey, a random sample of 1,648 American citizens. Participants were presented with two statements: “Homosexuals should be allowed to marry” and “Homosexuals should be allowed civil unions,” and asked to respond on a scale ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”
They were similarly asked to rate their level of agreement with the notion that God is a “he.” (This question was prefaced with the phrase “based on your personal understanding.”)
In other answers, participants gave detailed information regarding their socioeconomic status and religious beliefs, including whether they view God as angry, and whether they believe the deity takes an active role in worldly affairs. In addition, they responded to four statements that together reveal whether they hold traditional views of gender roles. These included “It is God’s will that women care for children” and “A husband should earn a larger salary than his wife.”
After crunching the numbers, Whitehead found that “viewing God as a ‘he’ is significantly and negatively associated with support for same-sex marriage, net of all the other effects of the model, including various images of God and other traditional gender-role beliefs.”
Specifically, he writes, “each increase in agreement that God is a ‘he’ decreases the odds that respondents will support same-sex marriage by 28 percent.”
The same dynamic was found for civil unions, although at a less-intense level, with each increase in agreement that God is masculine decreasing the odds of support by 23 percent.
“As attitudes toward same-sex unions continue to liberalize in the wider culture,” he writes, “continued resistance to that liberalization could be found among those who maintain a view that God is gendered masculine.
“(They) may be a group particularly resistant to liberalization because viewing God as masculine may exist as an integral part of their overall gendered world view that extends beyond same-sex marriage issues,” he adds. “No longer viewing God as a ‘he’ would not only mean a shift in attitudes towards same-sex unions, but also in how their own marriages, societies, or religious groups are ordered.”
Of course, many of us grew up with the image of a white-bearded God the Father. This research suggests carrying that understanding into adulthood has a surprisingly large impact on how we view this world, and how open we are to societal change.