WASHINGTON — The rapid evolution of attitudes toward gay marriage is a wonder to behold. On few issues has public opinion moved as quickly or decisively. Many who are against the formal recognition of homosexual unions are now resigned to the reality they will eventually become commonplace.

The main drivers of this transformation are obvious. Most Americans now know that people they care about are gay or lesbian, and empathy can do wonderful things. Partly because of this, younger Americans overwhelmingly favor same-sex marriage. They will dominate the electorates of the future.

But another factor deserves more notice: steadily increasing numbers of Americans have come to believe that gays and lesbians are not social revolutionaries looking to alter the nature of marriage. Rather, they are seen as simply wanting to be part of an institution that is already open to their straight fellow citizens. This shift in perspective has been essential in normalizing the idea of gay unions.

That finding comes our way courtesy of a series of surveys that have been conducted by Third Way, a policy organization close to moderate Democrats, and the Human Rights Campaign, one of the country’s leading gay rights groups. Overall, their latest poll found that 53 percent of Americans now favor “allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally,” while 40 percent are opposed.

The two organizations have been tracking this question: “Do you think gay couples who want to get married are trying to change the institution of marriage or join it?” In 2009, Americans were closely divided on this: 50 percent said gay couples wanted to join marriage, while 41 percent said these couples wanted to change it.

In the latest survey that the groups will release this week as part of their aptly named “Commitment Campaign,” 58 percent said gays and lesbians wanted to join marriage and only 27 percent said they were looking to change it. This suggests that an increasing number of Americans reject the culture-war frame when it comes to gay marriage, and that fewer and fewer see it as threatening their own values.

The survey was also striking in showing that Americans make careful distinctions around the religious freedom questions raised by granting gays and lesbians access to marriage.

On the one hand, 61 percent of Americans say that churches and clergy members should have the right to refuse to perform a marriage ceremony for a gay or lesbian couple. Only 28 percent said they should not. But when it came to non-religious market transactions related to weddings — involving caterers, florists, restaurants and the like — respondents took a very different view. Substantial majorities said that providers of such services should not be able to withhold them from homosexual couples. The public’s broad sensitivity to the specific rights of religious institutions is quite different from an endorsement of a wholesale right for individuals to discriminate against gays seeking marriage.

Social conservatives especially should take note of where Americans are heading. Because the desire of gays and lesbians to live in publicly committed relationships is seen increasingly as an endorsement of marriage as it has long been understood, there are new opportunities to defend marriage itself. We need to lay down arms in the culture wars and face up to the urgency of strengthening families.

One person who hopes we will take this path is David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values. Once a strong foe of same-sex marriage, Blankenhorn has dropped his opposition and urged that we turn our attention instead to a disturbing development: Well-off Americans are far more likely to be in stable marriages than the less affluent. This creates a damaging social cycle — economic inequality is breeding family instability even as family instability is deepening economic inequality.

We could, of course, replace one divisive fight with another and start arguing about whether the problems family face are caused primarily by personal choices or economic challenges. Instead, we should follow the advice of Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor who is deeply alarmed by the expanding American class divide.

Putnam says we should be able to accept the “red truth” that family structure matters and the “blue truth” that declining economic opportunities are, for so many Americans, worsening family difficulties — a point his colleague, William Julius Wilson, has long been stressing. There is a role for personal responsibility, and also a role for government social policy.

The end of rancor over gay marriage should mark the beginning of an effort to save marriage itself.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.

© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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