Will a New Generation of Young People Leave Religion Over Abortion?
Even As Many Churches Cheer the Overturn of Roe, Pitfalls Remain
An effort to amend the Kansas state constitution protecting abortion rights has failed in dramatic fashion, garnering only 41 percent of the vote in a deeply red state. The outcome will surely reverberate across the political world, but abortion may have an equally large impact on America’s religious landscape.
The move to repeal the Kansas state constitution protecting abortion rights was rejected by voters, but it enjoyed strong support from the Archdiocese of Kansas City. The New Yorker documents how the Catholic Church became heavily involved in the effort, despite reservations from many in the pews.
“The main financial backer of Value Them Both is the Catholic Church, which has contributed more than four million dollars. Much of the funding has come from the Archdiocese of Kansas City, led by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, who has said that abortion “entices and encourages women to attack an essential part of their femininity.” Naumann has made clear that he favors legislation that will ban abortion—“protect every unborn child,” as he puts it—and he believes that Biden, a pro-choice Catholic churchgoer who carries a rosary, should not take communion.”
Before Dobbs, abortion was not an issue that was regularly discussed in church. An analysis of nearly 50,000 sermons across more than 6,000 churches by the Pew Research Center found that less than 1 in 5 mentioned the word “abortion” over the eight-week period of the study.
But that all may be about to change as the battle over abortion ramps up in many states and local jurisdictions. The issue has become more salient for voters, and religious leaders appear ready to take sides on an issue that divides many congregations.
Echoes of Same-sex marriage?
In some ways, the debate over abortion rights echoes another salient cultural question: same-sex marriage. There’s little doubt that religious activism in opposition to same-sex marriage has alienated many younger members. One in three millennials who left their formative religion said that mistreatment of gay and lesbian people was the primary reason. In focus groups I conducted in the early 2010s, many of the young Christians I spoke with talked about the need to hide their religious identity or qualify their religious commitments so their friends would not think they were bigots. “I’m a Christian, but I’m not THAT kind of Christian.”
Conservative Christian opposition to gay rights has led many young people to conclude that Christianity is fundamentally hostile to gay and lesbian people. More than half (51 percent) of young adults say “anti-gay” describes present-day Christianity well.
Might we see the same story unfold over abortion? Do churches risk alienating young people by supporting laws restricting, or eliminating, access to abortion?
I think it’s possible. I’ve written previously that Gen Z is far more liberal on abortion than millennials were at the same age. Pew found that nearly three
-quarters (74 percent) of young adults believe abortion should be legal in at least some cases. What’s more, as readers of this newsletter know, there’s a widening gender gap between young women and men—44% of young women today are liberal compared to just 25% of young men.
Not coincidentally, they are also less religious. Although women have historically been more religious than men, Ryan Burge writing for Christianity Today notes that young women are now less religious than their male counterparts.
The Catholic Case
The abortion issue may be particularly complicated for the Catholic Church. As Pew’s Greg Smith recently noted, “The Catholic Church in the United States has long been one of the foremost opponents of legal abortion, teaching that human life is sacred ‘from conception to natural death,’” but Catholics still have a nuanced view about the issue. Unlike the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and many evangelical Christian denominations, whose members overwhelmingly oppose abortion, Catholics are far more supportive of abortion rights—even if they express moral reservations.
Even pro-choice Christians who belong to churches that oppose abortion have managed to compartmentalize their disagreement. Eighty-one percent of Catholics believe it’s possible to disagree with the Church’s position on abortion and still be a “good Catholic.” This posture may be less tenable if congregations and churches become more actively involved in the issue.
The risk for the Church is palpable. The Catholic Church is already facing declining credibility and trust among its members, and aggressive activism on abortion may only make the problem worse. A recent Gallup poll found that the number of Catholics who believe clergy are honest and ethical has plunged to less than one in three (31 percent).
Another risk for churches that become embroiled in abortion politics is that it overshadows the everyday work of bringing people together, offering solace and support, and serving their communities. Religious congregations do a lot for local communities and the people in them. If political advocacy becomes the most visible work that churches do, then their political positions will become an indelible part of their identity. At a time of such political polarization and fractious politics, most Americans want less of this in their places of worship. Nearly half of young adults (47 percent) say churches are too involved in politics and most Americans want churches to keep out of political matters. The overturn of Roe makes this more difficult, but ultimately more necessary.
In the end, I think the abortion issue will push the less religious further away from religion; in some cases transforming religious apathy into animosity. Most religiously unaffiliated Americans are not anti-religious, but they are fairly liberal, and overwhelming support abortion rights. If secular Americans come to believe religion is primarily serving conservative political goals, their opposition to any type of religious expression in public spaces will certainly grow.
The New Yorker article notes that many Catholics were bothered by the strong push to ban abortion. In an interview with the New Yorker, Colleen Boeding, a 73-year-old Catholic said she opposed the Church getting involved. “That’s a lot of money. It could have done a lot of good someplace,” she said.