Thursday, August 7, 2008

Catholics, Evangelicals and Abortion

Ed Kilgore has a fascinating essay at Beliefnet about the fact that Evangelicals are foar more pro-Life than Catholics:

There are variable measurements of this phenomenon, but no real doubt about the basics. A September 2007 Pew survey showed white evangelical Protestants agreeing that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases by a 65-31 magin; Catholics favored keeping abortion legal in all or most cases by a 51-44 margin (with no appreciable difference between Hispanic and non-Hispanic Catholics). On a related issue that helps measure the intensity of anti-abortion views, the same poll showed white evangelicals opposing embryonic stem cell research by 57-31, while white non-Hispanic Catholics favored it by 59-32.

Moreover, the evangelical-Catholic gap on abortion looks likely to increase in the future. An April 2004 Pew survey providing generational breakdowns showed that white evangelicals under 35 favored abortion restrictions by more than a two-to-one margin (71% among those under 25), while those over 65 actually (if narrowly) opposed more restrictions. The generational trend lines among white Catholics moved in exactly the opposite direction.


Ed then explores why this should be the case, given the consistent and forceful teachings on abortion by the Catholic hierarchy. He offers some conjectures, but even he is not very satisfied with his answers:

so whence cometh today's white evangelical anti-abortion ferver? One theory is that these folk are radically alienated from contemporary American culture, and view legalized abortion (along with premarital sex, open gay/lesbian lifestyles, and TV/Hollywood "trash culture") as a symbol of a depraved society. This is undoubtedly the view of some well-known evangelical leaders like James Dobson, who often indulges himself in Nazi analogies for the "Holocaust" of abortion. But objective measurements of evangelical cultural alienation are generally ambivalent, and they are famously enthusiastic about adopting contemporary culture in their own liturgical and missionary practices.

Another theory, for which I can offer little other than plausible conjecture, is that the "framing" of the abortion issue--particular its treament as fundamentally a matter of the reproductive rights of women, or of personal privacy--that underlies the pro-choice argument is simply uncompelling to many white evangelicals. Aside from the strongly anti-feminist bias of much of contemporary evangelical teaching, American evangelicals have become strongly averse to the libertarian traditions of church-state separation and protection of individual conscience that once was a central feature of their own belief system. And perhaps an inability to even hear the pro-choice case has reinforced the impact of such secular phenomena as widely available sonogram images of fetal development.

The bottom line is that I don't know, and I'm not sure anyone knows, if Barack Obama or any other pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-feminist politician or party can make significant inroads into the white evangelical vote by minor tweaks in abortion policies or how they are presented. Evangelicals, of course, care about other issues like the war in Iraq, the economy, the environment, and corruption in Washington, that could incline them towards a vote for a Democratic presidential or congresstional candidate. And that's why (along with chronic disappointment with GOP promises to "deliver" on cultural issues like abortion) so many evangelical leaders like Rick Warren are expressing an openness to two-party competition.


Read it all here.

I doubt that the answer lies in religious doctrine. Instead, I think the answer lies more squarely in culture. Abortion is but one of many issues in which many American Roman Catholics quietly disagree with church teachings.

2 comments:

The Wayward Episcopalian said...

It may also be an authority thing. Most evangelical churches seem to be nondemoninational and pastor-driven. The authority figure is right there in front of you every Sunday, and there's generally lots of fellowship so everyone knows what you believe. The ultimate (human) authority for American Catholics, on the other hand, is not the pastor, but the Pope, who lives on the other side of the ocean, and I would imagine it's a lot easier to just sit in the pew once a weeks as a Catholic than as a nondenominational. So perhaps it's just easier to be pro-choice in one pro-life setting than in the other.

Just thinking out loud here.

John Bassett said...

The Roman Catholic Church, for all its faults, is international and its members have a sense of belonging to something that transcends national boundaries.

In contrast, much of modern Evangelical Protestantism sees the United States as a chosen nation in the end time drama. It becomes very important for the chosen nation to have laws which support true religion. Failure to do so could lead to God's rejection of America as he rejected Israel at the time of the Babylonian invasion.

For this reason, abortion and gay marriage must be banned so that the laws of the state mirror the laws of heaven. Only in this way can divine favor be ensured.

Roman Catholics no doubt love America, but few if any believe it to be more chosen than any other one in salvation history. As a result, they can be a little more tolerant of behavior which they may not think moral.