Catholics, evangelicals play key role in health care debate

March 2, 2010

Religion counts in the politics of abortion. And some religious groups have far more clout than others in the debate.

The issue of public funding of abortion perhaps more than ever holds the potential to tip the political balance with the prospects for comprehensive health care reform nearing life support.

That makes the Catholic Church and evangelical groups key players in the conversation.

With good reason. Research shows their most committed members, the people they have the most influence over and are most likely to mobilize, are among the strongest supporters of restrictions on legal abortion.

In contrast, the public policy arms of many mainline Protestant churches generally oppose almost all restrictions on abortion, but many of their most committed members hold differing views.

Consistent messages from church leaders and their most faithful members on an issue they say is tied to their religious beliefs makes politicians take notice, some scholars say.

It is not just about the responsibility to be sensitive to the moral concerns of a significant part of their constituency, said John Green, a political scientist and a senior researcher for the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Some lawmakers, he said, also will ask themselves the practical political question: “How much trouble am I going to get in if I ignore these people? ”

Religion matters

Americans in general are divided on the issue of abortion, with small percentages supporting either a total ban or no restrictions. In an August 2009 Pew poll, 16 percent said abortion should be legal in all cases; 17 percent said it should be illegal in all cases.

In general, Pew Research Center surveys show a slight trend toward greater opposition to legal abortion, but there is no clear consensus. In 2009, 47 percent said abortion should be legal in all or most cases; 44 percent said it should be illegal in all or most cases.

Jewish and unaffiliated voters were the most likely to support legal abortion. Three-quarters of Jewish respondents and 68 percent of unaffiliated respondents backed legal abortion in all or most cases.

Catholics were evenly split, with 45 percent on either side. Fifty-two percent of Protestants — including 71 percent of white evangelicals — opposed legal abortion in all or most cases.

There are dramatic differences, however, in all Christian groups when the focus shifts to their most committed members, those who attend services at least once a week.

White Catholics who are frequent attenders are more than twice as likely than less frequent attenders — 67 percent to 29 percent — to say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Nearly four in five white evangelical respondents who worship at least once a week said they oppose abortion in all or most cases.

Among white mainline Protestants, 46 percent of respondents who attend weekly back restrictions on abortion, compared to 30 percent of less frequent attenders who say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

Explore Views on Abortion and Other Moral Issues in the ARDA’s QuickStats

Differing motives

There are differing perspectives on why the most committed Christians are the most likely to support restrictions on abortion, and how much faith is mixed in with political, cultural and social influences.

Political scientist Ted Jelen of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said one question is whether committed Christians who attend worship frequently are more likely to oppose abortion because of the teachings of their faith. Some say it may be a case of self-selection, that people who hold more conservative attitudes on abortion are more likely to go to church.

The Pew surveys, Green said, support a strong role for religious belief.

A plurality of respondents — 32 percent — said religious beliefs were the main influence on their opinion about abortion.
21 percent cited education as their main influence.
14 percent said personal experience.
21 percent said there was something else that shaped their views.
Six percent said the views of others were the most formative influence.
Five percent cited the media.


Again, there are wide differences based on levels of religious commitment:

68 percent of white evangelicals and 60 percent of white Catholics who attend weekly said religious beliefs were their main influence.
41 percent of white mainline Protestants who attend at least weekly cited religion, compared with 14 percent of less frequent attenders who said their beliefs formed their opinion on abortion.


Thursday’s health care summit called by President Barack Obama was described by many media observers as a last-ditch effort to save his plan for health care reform, which is losing support according to public polls.

A lot can happen in a few weeks or months. The president also is said to have a plan B that calls for addressing health-care issues in smaller steps. But the summit again showed how tight the political equation is for getting large-scale legislation passed.

Even if the president and Democratic leaders are able to push their party’s plan through the Senate using a political technique called reconciliation that would require only a majority vote, any bill that provides government funding for abortion would face a stiff test in the House.

The first time around, Catholic and evangelical leaders engaged in intensive lobbying. They made appeals at Sunday Masses to make sure any plan did not call for public funding of a practice they consider the taking of innocent human life. With the support of several Democrats, the final House plan included a provision blocking the use of federal subsidies for insurance policies that cover abortion.

The abortion issue likely will continue to be critical. House Democrats in religiously conservative districts facing contested races will be particularly cautious.

Take objections to public finding of abortion off the table, however, and the religious coalition on health care changes dramatically.

Many evangelical leaders still oppose the plan out of opposition to big government. The Catholic Church, however, would become a powerful ally for universal health care.

The nation’s largest denomination teaches health care is a basic human right, and is particularly forceful in its advocacy on behalf of immigrants.

In a close vote, it matters what way millions of Catholics at Sunday Mass – those most amenable to the moral suasion of church teaching – are encouraged to stand and act on health care reform.

Explore Survey Questions Related to Health Care in the ARDA’s Data Archive

— David Briggs

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