Digging into the complexities of religion and abortion — and how politics influences views

“Everything you think you know about religion and abortion is wrong.”

Wait, what!?

That’s the compelling way that Kelsey Dallas, national religion reporter for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, leads into an in-depth piece published today.

It’s certainly a timely subject, as regular GetReligion readers know. Just last week, we commented on the lack of religion in many of the initial stories on Alabama’s new law banning abortion in almost all cases. (Some later stories delved deeper into the God angle.)

Here’s what I always appreciate about Dallas: Her stories contain a nice mixture of expert analysis and helpful data. That’s certainly the case with her latest piece.

After grabbing the reader’s attention with that “Everything you think you know about religion and abortion is wrong” lede, Dallas clarifies the statement just a bit before moving into the meat of her material:

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."

Among the fascinating context offered by the Deseret News is this:

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.

Later in the piece, Dallas notes:

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.

Here’s where — if there had been space — the article might have noted that views often diverge between Catholics who regularly attend Mass (they are more likely to oppose abortion) and more casual Catholics.

Catherine Hadro, host of EWTN’s “Pro-Life Weekly” hit on that in a recent CNN interview when Brian Stelter mentioned that roughly half of Catholics support abortion rights.

“I think EWTN viewers are particularly loyal Catholics and are attending Mass regularly and know that they need to prioritize life,” Hadro told him. (The same interview contains some fascinating discussion of the labels that media organizations use to describe abortion opponents and supporters.)

Back to Dallas’ piece: Overall, it’s exceptional and worth your time.

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