Guns, God and acceptable in-laws

  • 12 June 2014
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An unhappy couple attends a wedding
Image caption Liberals and conservatives have different opinions on who constitutes an acceptable spouse for their child

This week, the Pew Research Center released the largest political study in its history on what may be the most important issue in American politics - partisan and ideological polarisation. And we found that the right and left are divided over more than just politics.

Americans differ over what they want in a community, what types of people they want as neighbours and even over whom they would welcome into their families. (The full study is available here.)

In some ways, this last point may be most revealing: are Americans so politically divided that they would not like to see a family member marry someone from a different political party? For the public at large, a future in-law's partisan affiliation would be a minor factor: Just 9% say they'd be unhappy if a relative married a Republican, while about as many - 8% - would be unhappy with a Democratic in-law. Overwhelming majorities say it would not matter.

Yet these figures rise among those who hold consistent ideological attitudes and values: 30% of across-the-board conservatives would have a negative reaction to a relative marrying a Democrat, while 23% of consistent liberals would be bothered by a family member tying the knot with a Republican.

Other factors matter more, however. For the left, gun ownership would be a bigger potential negative than affiliation with the GOP. Nearly a third of across-the-board liberals would be unhappy if someone in their family married a gun owner. By contrast, gun ownership is a potential positive for many on the right: 49% of consistent conservatives say they'd be happy if a relative married someone who owned a firearm.

Media captionA new report by the Pew Research Center reveals that Americans are becoming more politically polarised in recent years

The left and right make up a relatively small slice of the public - only 21% have ideologically consistent views across nearly all issues, but that figure has doubled over the past 20 years.

Among the public at large, the most negative reaction - among eight tested - would be toward a future in-law who did not believe in God. There is a huge divide between left and right over a relative marrying an atheist: it would be a problem for 73% of consistent conservatives but only 24% of consistent liberals.

Yet the gap is about as wide in positive reactions over a prospective in-law who is a "born again" Christian. A majority on the right - 57% - would be pleased if a family member married a born-again Christian; on the left, just 16% would have a positive reaction.

Large majorities of both conservatives (71%) and liberals (85%) say it would not matter if a relative married someone of a different race. Yet while the percentages are small, this would be a bigger potential negative for those on right than the left - 23% of consistent conservatives, compared with just 1% of consistent liberals, would be bothered by this.

On one level, these reactions may not be so surprising. We know that conservatives view religion as more important than do liberals, while liberals are more supportive of gun control than are conservatives. For both sides, these attitudes are a reflection of deeply held political opinions.

On the other hand, if the right and left have such profound differences over the traits and characteristics of potential in-laws, is it any wonder why they disagree so much about what to do in Washington?

Carroll Doherty is the director of political research at the Pew Research Center.