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On November 5, 2017 a man walked into a Baptist Church in rural Texas and opened fire on the congregants in the middle of a service. Twenty-six people were killed, about half of them children. Only a week prior, another senseless mass murder had captured the nation’s attention when a man drove a truck through a bike path in New York City, killing eight people.
And just one month earlier a gunman had open fired on a crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas. Mass shootings in particular and gun deaths in general have historically been much higher in the U.S. than in other wealthy nations.
Many Americans feel that it is normal to be able to obtain firearms so effortlessly. A lot of residents, including myself, grew up with family and friends who had guns, albeit mostly rifles for hunting. The environment in which we are raised and live our lives has a powerful role in influencing what we feel is normal. But, cross-national data show how different the United States is from other countries.
In my recent book, Cross-National Public Opinion about Homosexuality: Examining Attitudes across the Globe, I investigate another issue where people’s views across the world differ considerably. While Americans are relatively supportive of homosexuality, just 10 years ago the majority of Americans opposed same-sex marriage. Currently, LGBT relations are criminalized in over 70 nations and in ten countries they can be punished with death. Additionally, there are many nations including Poland, South Korea and Israel, where only a minority of people feel that homosexuality is acceptable.
Why are there such dramatic differences? My book shows that a big part of the divide in acceptance of homosexuality is related to the degree of economic development, democratic governance, the dominant religion, and religious engagement. The way these forces shape attitudes interact in complex ways with a nation’s unique history and where countries are geographically located. Regardless of personal attributes, the characteristics of the environments in which people live shape their feelings about a host of issues.
The interesting thing about contextual forces is that we often do not know they are there. It’s only when we look at cross-national data that we can see how similar or different we are.
Despite these disagreements, Americans are relatively liberal compared to countries across the world, where the consequences for gay or transgender citizens are far more dire.
In Europe and here in the Americas, only a minority of people believe that homosexuality is never justified. The percentage increases in places like Russia, India and China. In Africa, the Middle East and parts of Southeast Asia, attitudes become even more conservative.
Why are there such big differences in public opinion about homosexuality? My book, Cross-National Public Opinion about Homosexuality, shows that a key part of the answer comes in understanding how national characteristics shape individuals’ attitudes.
Within countries, a similar set of demographic characteristics tend to influence how people feel about homosexuality. For example, women tend to be more liberal than men. Older people tend to be more conservative than younger ones. Muslims are more likely to disapprove of homosexuality than Catholics, Jews and mainline Protestants.
Just like people, countries too have particular characteristics that can sway residents’ attitudes about homosexuality. I have analyzed data from over 80 nations from the last three waves of the World Values Survey, the oldest noncommercial, cross-national examination of individuals’ attitudes, values and beliefs over time. It is the only academic survey to include people from both very rich and poor countries, in all of the world’s major cultural zones. It now has surveys from almost 400,000 respondents.
My analysis shows that differences in attitudes between nations can largely be explained by three factors: economic development, democracy and religion.
Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands are some of the richest nations in the world. They are also some of the most tolerant. In sharp contrast, countries like Uganda and Nigeria are quite poor and the vast majority of residents disapprove.
How does the amount of money a country has shape attitudes? In very poor countries, people are likely to be more concerned about basic survival. Parents may worry about how to obtain clean water and food for their children. Residents may feel that if they stick together and work closely with friends, family and community members, they will lead a more predictable and stable life. In this way, social scientists have found that a group mentality may develop, encouraging people to think in similar ways and discouraging individual differences.
Because of the focus on group loyalty and tradition, many residents from poorer countries are likely to view homosexuality as highly problematic. It violates traditional sensibilities. Many people may feel that LGBTQ individuals should conform to dominant heterosexual and traditional family norms.
Conversely, residents from richer nations are less dependent on the group and less concerned about basic survival. They have more freedom to choose their partners and lifestyle. Even in relatively rich countries like the United States, some people will still find homosexuality problematic. But, many will also be supportive.
Regardless of how much money they make, most people living in poorer countries are likely to be affected by cultural norms that focus on survival and group loyalty, leading to more disapproval.
Freedom of speech
The type of government also matters. People living in more democratic countries tend to be more supportive of homosexuality.
Democracy increases tolerance by exposing residents to new perspectives. Democracy also encourages people to respect individuals’ rights, regardless of whether they personally like the people being protected.
Freedom of speech also allows residents to protest and not be arrested. When residents feel that they can freely express their ideas, they become even more inclined to speak up for themselves and others. This leads to more tolerance.
Dominant religious views
The final factor shaping individuals’ attitudes is religion. Countries dominated by Islam, Eastern Orthodoxy and those that have a mixture of conservative and mainline Protestant faiths are more likely to disapprove.
In contrast, nations dominated by mainline Protestant religions and Catholicism – such as Sweden, Spain and the United Kingdom – are much more liberal.
Why are people from Muslim majority nations so opposed to homosexuality? Both Islam and conservative Protestant faiths generate high levels of religious belief. Most religious texts say that homosexuality is problematic. More religious people are more likely to take these religious precepts seriously. When a large proportion of people are highly dedicated to their religion, everyone within the country tends to develop more conservative views.
In these countries, the media are likely to reflect dominant religious views. Schools and businesses are more likely to support religious perspectives that disapprove of homosexuality. The government may censor the media so that they do not violate religious sensibilities. They may also restrict nonprofit organizations and human rights groups that promote views inconsistent with conservative religious values. Religious friends and family members are likely to reinforce anti-homosexual views.
Finally, there may not be any gay bars or other places to meet people with friendlier attitudes in these countries. Likewise, there may be limited internet access where residents could get more information about gay men and lesbians. In these countries most people are likely to disapprove, regardless of whether or not they are personally religious.
Are most nations becoming more liberal?
In 1996, there were only six nations that allowed for civil union or marriage. Seventeen years later, 43 nations allowed for it.
However, there has also been an increase in the number of nations that have a constitution or legal ban on homosexuality, indicating that there seems to have been a small backlash. These actions could be a reaction against the liberal legislation put in place in other countries.
As people across the world develop more liberal attitudes, many still disagree. Countries that are highly opposed to homosexuality tend to put in place policies and laws that reflect this disapproval.
While religion, economic development and democracy have a major role in shaping attitudes, the march toward greater liberalization is less straightforward than these factors alone would suggest.
Nations are embedded in a global context. Many countries located in Europe and North America were the first to become wealthy and democratic. Because they were the leaders, they were not subject to the pressure that currently up-and-coming countries now face from more powerful countries that led the way for gay rights.
Eighty percent of the countries I examined are becoming more liberal. However, we can’t assume that these changes will always be linear or simple. While we’ve seen a general trend toward more liberal views regarding homosexuality, there are likely to be hiccups along the way that affect how these different socioeconomic and cultural influences take shape nationally and across the world.
Like many academics, I was surprised at how well Donald Trump did early in the presidential election, securing the Republican nomination and at times rivaling Hillary Clinton in the polls. Part of the reason I was so surprised is because almost everyone I know and spend time with is a staunch democrat, socialist, or even communist. For many academics most of our friends are very liberal left-leaning highly educated people. For me it is even more extreme because I am childless and live in Manhattan. So the thought of millions of Trump enthusiasts has been hard to fathom.
That a social scientist like myself, trained to avoid generalizing from personal experience, is nonetheless taken aback by the Trump phenomenon is a testament to the power of context. Simply put, those with whom we interact have a powerful role in shaping our views. And our friendship groups tend not to be very diverse, so it’s easy to find ourselves in an echo chamber soundproofed from the voices of the outside world. This is especially true for people at opposite ends of the educational spectrum, whose friendship networks tend to be particularly homogeneous.
The media coverage of the presidential election provides repeated reminders of the deep cultural divides within our country. When we regularly see our fellow citizens cheering on a candidate who we find outrageous or worse, it is easy to forget all the subjects on which most of us agree, and how this agreement is fostered by the cultural and structural context we share as residents of the United States. For example, the issue of gay rights, a wedge issue in past elections, has faded from view in the current election. Opposition to same-sex marriage has narrowed over the last two decades and this year Republicans nominated someone who appears only now to oppose same-sex marriage out of political expediency. Meanwhile, there are nations where a person can be put to death for being gay. As great as the cultural differences among our fellow citizens, the differences between nations are vaster still, especially on key issues like gay rights.
In my forthcoming book, Cross-National Public Opinion about Homosexuality: Examining Attitudes across the Globe, I show just how vast the differences are across nations on this important issue. What accounts for such dramatic differences across nations? The book shows that much of the variation in attitudes about homosexuality can be traced back to differences in the degree of economic development, democratic governance and religious fervor. The book also shows how these factors interact in complex ways with a nation’s unique history and geographic location to produce divergent cultural and structural climates.
The interesting thing about contextual forces, whether they are operating within friendship groups, regions, or nations, is that we often do not know they are there. It takes something like a divisive national election or stories about the denial of civil rights to remind us of the different worlds in which we live.
Amy Adamczyk is Professor of Sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.