SALT LAKE CITY — Everything you think you know about religion and abortion is wrong.
Well, maybe not wrong. But almost certainly incomplete, according to experts on religion and politics.
Religious beliefs do influence abortion views, but so do other factors.
Many faith leaders do oppose abortion rights, but their views don't tell you everything about the people in their pews.
Conservative lawmakers do often credit God with inspiring new regulations, but they're also pressured by their party to pass such laws.
In general, religion's role in the contemporary abortion debate is more complicated than it may, at first, appear.
"It's not that religion is absent from the debate," said Daniel Williams, a history professor at the University of West Georgia. It's that the debate is also "very much partisan and political."
That nuance is difficult to talk about, including in faith communities. There's so much conflict surrounding abortion rights that we miss opportunities to understand the issues better, said the Rev. Bromleigh McCleneghan, a United Church of Christ pastor.
"I think it's really difficult to find spaces in congregational life to have these conversations, even though if there's anywhere we should be able to have them, it's in churches," she said.
American views on abortion are relatively stable. Since 1976, the percentage of U.S. adults who say abortion should be legal in all circumstances or illegal in all circumstances has moved only a few percentage points, according to Gallup.
However, the key influences on those views — and on abortion policies nationwide — have shifted, scholars said. Political affiliation has become more significant over time, and many Americans have stopped taking moral cues from religious communities.
"One of the biggest predictors today is party identification. Over time, Republicans have become less supportive of abortion and Democrats more supportive," said Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University.
The widening gap between the parties can be explained, in part, by religion, Williams said. Amid the rise of the Religious Right, conservative faith leaders successfully convinced Republican politicians to turn abortion opposition into a rallying point.
The Democratic Party responded by making support for abortion rights one of its defining features. Twenty-five years ago, around one-third of Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives were considered abortion opponents, Williams said. That's far from the case today.
"In the 1970s and early 1980s, religion played a more important role than political party in predicting how a politician would vote on abortion," he said. In 2019, it's much riskier to break with the party line.
Amid these political changes, church attendance dropped and the percentage of Americans who don't affiliate with a faith group surged. Religion remains a key factor in the abortion debate, "but it's not the only thing that matters," said Andrew Lewis, an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.
That was evident in a 2009 Pew Research Center survey on what drives people's attitudes about abortion. It showed that only around one-third of Americans (32 percent) cite religion as the primary influence on their views.
"Roughly 1-in-5 cite their education (21 percent) and 1-in-7 point to their personal experience (14 percent)," Pew reported.
Those figures notably changed when researchers sorted Americans by their abortion views. "More than half of those who say abortion should be illegal (53 percent) cite religious beliefs as the primary influence on their views, compared with only 11 percent among supporters of legal abortion," the survey showed.
Scholars don't deny that religious beliefs go a long way toward explaining conservative religious voters' opposition to abortion and, in turn, the Republican Party's support for strict regulations. However, they said the nature of the abortion debate has become more political in recent decades.
"A lot of people assume that anti-abortion legislation is motivated primarily by religion, and I'm not convinced that's true," Williams said. "If you look at the religious affiliations of the people who are behind recent restrictive abortion bans in Georgia and Alabama, their religious affiliations don't match up with what you'd assume."
Religious conservatives have shifted their political goals at least in part because of their involvement in the Republican Party, he added.
Catholics and others used to call for an amendment to the Constitution that would outlaw abortion nationwide. Now, they support a more pragmatic approach, favoring laws that could eventually prompt the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade and enable individual states to control abortion policy, Williams said.
It's not surprising that political forces shape how people of faith approach the abortion debate, scholars said. Religious traditions may offer general moral guidance about the procedure, but few detail what the right policy would look like.
"While the Bible has things to say that pertain to this debate, it's not as clear (on abortion) as some other moral issues," Lewis said.
Official statements from faith groups often acknowledge a moral gray area. While they typically condemn elective abortions, many say abortion should be an option in the case of rape or incest or when carrying a pregnancy to term threatens the mother's life.
The statement from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints explains that "even these rare exceptions do not justify abortion automatically. Abortion is a most serious matter and should be considered only after the persons involved have consulted with their local church leaders and feel through personal prayer that their decision is correct."
It also notes that Latter-day Saint leaders have not "favored or opposed legislative proposals or public demonstrations concerning abortion."
Most mainline Protestant denominations want to preserve space for individual members to be guided by their own conscience, said Diana Butler Bass, an Episcopalian scholar and author.
"The guiding theme is that every individual has a moral conscience," she said. "Men and women are full moral agents culpable for their own choices and actions, and their consciences should be in no way impeded by the state in these matters."
The Catholic Church is one of the only faith groups to say abortion is always wrong, according to Pew Research Center's overview of official positions. In the U.S., Catholic leaders have been prominent advocates for stricter abortion regulations for decades.
Although their denominational statements on abortion leave room for exceptions, evangelical Christian leaders increasingly join with Catholics to oppose abortion rights. They've emerged as the face of the "pro-life movement" in the 21st century, Williams said.
"The pro-life movement started out as a politically liberal Catholic movement rooted in human rights. It's become a politically conservative and primarily evangelical movement," he said.
Official statements are a good starting point for understanding how different people of faith view abortion. However, they don't come close to telling the whole story, Wilcox said.
"Within every religious tradition there is a wide variety of opinions," he said.
For example, 18 percent of Episcopalians, 30 percent of Presbyterians and 38 percent of Methodists believe abortion should be illegal in "all or most cases," despite their churches' more liberal teachings, according to Pew Research Center.
Additionally, nearly half of Catholics (48 percent) say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, which clearly contradicts church teaching.
In this sense, abortion views are like views on a number of other ethical issues, Wilcox said. People of faith routinely ignore policy guidance.
"The Catholic Church teaches that the death penalty is not God's will, but (white) Catholics support the death penalty about as much as other whites," he said.
Official policies are easy to ignore when you don't hear about them very often. Only 29 percent of recent churchgoers said they'd heard faith leaders preach on abortion when Pew asked what's talked about in churches in 2016.
"I've been part of my (Catholic) community in New Jersey for almost seven years and we've never had abortion talked about in a homily," said Charles Camosy, an associate professor of theology at Fordham University.
As the abortion debate has become more political, it's become harder to address it from the pulpit, said the Rev. McCleneghan, who is an associate pastor at Union Church of Hinsdale in Hinsdale, Illinois.
"Abortion has become such a partisan issue," she said. "Talking about it at all feels like you're preaching politics."
It's unfortunate that the relationship between religion and abortion is rarely talked about in a nuanced way, whether in faith communities or society at large, according to the Rev. McCleneghan and others.
Amid ongoing confusion on religious teachings, politicians can blame religion for unpopular policies, Camosy said.
"Religion is a red herring," he said. "We ignore that religious people hold very different points of view."
And people of faith can overlook the broader meaning of being "pro-life," Bass said.
"Any woman who gets pregnant should trust that she is loved and that the life she carries will be loved and cherished by society," she said.
We're missing opportunities to work together to craft better abortion-related policies, Bass added. Many people of faith who support abortion rights still want to build a world where abortion is very rare.
"One of the things I always say to people is that I'm both pro-choice and pro-life. I think that's not an uncommon position for people who are liberal people of faith," she said.57 comments on this story
Bass recalled a sermon she heard around 30 years ago from an Episcopal bishop. He described walking alongside women who put their lives at risk to carry a pregnancy to term as well as a woman who had an abortion.
His words helped Bass see the moral complexity of the abortion in new ways, and they continue to shape her approach to the abortion debate.
"I was in my late 20s when I heard that sermon and I've never forgotten it," she said.
We need more sermons like that today, the Rev. McCleneghan said.
"I think churches are so scared of upsetting people that we miss out on what could be gained," she said.