The Culture War is Alive and Well: Religion and Polarization on Abortion

Jeremiah J. Castle, Central Michigan University

The first few months of 2019 have seen a major uptick in restrictive abortion legislation, including an Alabama bill that bans abortions unless the woman’s life is in danger and imposes criminal penalties on doctors who conduct abortions.  Many of the bills are designed to take advantage of growing conservative majorities in the federal court system and potentially even to give the Supreme Court an opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade (1973).  Pro-choice women have reacted by sharing their personal abortion stories using the Twitter hashtag #YouKnowMe, and Democratic presidential candidates have been decrying the new bills on the campaign trail. In short, all signs suggest that the “culture war” is alive and well in 2019.

The recent salience of abortion suggests that the time is right to re-examine academic debates about religion’s role in the culture wars.  In this post, I present new data that indicate that a significant minority of the population holds polarized views on abortion, and that religion is an important predictor of such views.

The term “culture war” entered the popular lexicon with the publication of sociologist James Davison Hunter’s book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (1991).  In it, Hunter makes two major claims.  First, he argues that the public holds polarized attitudes on abortion, LGBT rights, same-sex marriage, teacher-led prayer in public schools, the separation of church and state, and a host of other policies that we can group together under the label “cultural issues.”  Second, he claims that religious identities, including those based on religious tradition as well as those based on religious commitment, are an important factor driving the polarization.

While Hunter’s account quickly became conventional wisdom, prominent political scientists Morris Fiorina, Samuel Abrams, and Jeremy Pope challenge both of Hunter’s central claims in their book Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America (first published in 2005 and now on its third edition).  First, they argue that the public isn’t really polarized on abortion (or other cultural issues), and that most people’s opinions on abortion are somewhere in the middle and depend on the circumstances involved.  Second, they argue that religion’s impact on abortion attitudes is smaller than conventional wisdom suggests.  Thus, the debate between Hunter and Fiorina et al. hinges on two key questions about public opinion on abortion.  First, does the public hold polarized views on abortion?  Second, is religion a good predictor of who holds polarized views on abortion?

Answering these questions starts with having the right survey questions.  Most of the major studies of polarization that consider abortion rely on the stock questions from datasets like the American National Election Study or the General Social Survey.  However, as I argue in a previous post, such questions are insufficient measures of polarization because they do not allow us to measure the depth of disagreement with the other side.  In order to fully measure polarization, we need to ask survey takers to react to both sides of the issue.

Therefore, I rely on data from an original online survey of 1,500 Americans I conducted through Survey Sampling International (now Dynata) in October 2018.[1]  In the survey, I asked two questions (in a random order) that together allow me to measure whether someone possesses polarized attitudes on abortion.  The first question asks about the liberal side of the issue:

How much, if at all, do you sympathize with those who say that in most cases a woman SHOULD be able to obtain an abortion because she has a right to control her own body?

The second question asks about the conservative side of the issue:

How much, if at all, do you sympathize with those who say that in most cases a woman SHOULD NOT be able to obtain an abortion, because they believe abortion is wrong for ethical or religious reasons?

For each item, response options were “A lot,” “Some,” “Not much, ” and “Not at all.”

I order to assess polarization, I divide respondents into three groups following the method used in my recent article “New Fronts in the Culture Wars? Religion, Partisanship, and Polarization on Religious Liberty and Transgender Rights in the United States.”  Those who responded that they sympathized with the liberal position “a lot” and the conservative position “not at all” were coded as polarized on the liberal side of the issue.  Those who sympathized with the conservative position “a lot” and the liberal position “not at all” were coded as polarized on the conservative side of the issue.  All other respondents were considered “not polarized.”

The figure below shows that a substantial minority of the population holds polarized views on abortion.  About 31% of the population is polarized on the liberal side of the issue, and another 13.5% of the population is polarized on the conservative side of the issue.


Religious tradition is a strong predictor of who holds polarized views. The data from the October 2018 survey show that about 30% of evangelicals hold polarized conservative views on abortion.  This is no surprise; as I argue in my upcoming book Rock of Ages: Subcultural Religious Identity and Public Opinion Among Young Evangelicals (Temple University Press), abortion became an important part of the social and political identity of evangelicals in the latter half of the 20th century.  In contrast, about 37% of mainline Protestants, about 41% of Jewish people, and about 43% of the religiously unaffiliated expressed polarized liberal views on abortion.


Church attendance is also a strong predictor of polarized views.  I collapsed church attendance into three categories (never attend, attend a few times a year/once or twice a month, and every week or more) for easier viewing.  Among those who never attend church, 45% hold a liberal view on abortion, compared to just 15% of weekly attenders.  In contrast, about 32% of weekly attenders hold a polarized conservative view, compared to just 8% of those who never attend.


The results presented here can help clarify the academic debate over abortion.  When it comes to the question of whether the public is polarized, the answer is complicated.  While Fiorina, Abrams, and Pope are right that the average American holds moderate views on abortion, my October 2018 data indicate that around 45% of the population holds polarized attitudes on this issue. While we’re far from complete polarization, the subset of Americans with strong views on the issue is certainly large enough to fuel political conflicts.

On the question of whether religious identities are (at least in part) driving the polarization, the initial bivariate data here strongly suggest that the answer is yes. Both religious tradition and church attendance bear a strong relationship to polarized attitudes on abortion.  I hope to clarify whether this relationship holds up with controls in an upcoming academic journal article.

Finally, the data presented here might lead to speculation about the future of the “culture wars.”  Although a few states have introduced liberal abortion bills in 2019, by far the conservative side seems to have the momentum in the present moment.  Conservatives see a chance to chip away at (and potentially even overturn) Roe, and they are taking it.  Yet the data here confirm that, if anything, more Americans are polarized on the liberal side of the issue than the conservative side.  This raises the potential that liberals will respond with a backlash of increased political participation in 2020.

In short, the data presented here suggest that the “culture war” over abortion is likely to continue, and perhaps escalate, in the years to come.

Jeremiah Castle teaches courses on American politics, political behavior, and research methods at Central Michigan University.  His work has been published in journals including American Politics Research, Social Science Quarterly, The Social Science Journal, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and Politics & Religion.  In addition, his book Rock of Ages: Subcultural Religious Identity and Public Opinion Among Young Evangelicals (Temple University Press) will be out in August 2019.  This blog post is drawn from his working paper “Religion and Polarization on Cultural Issues: A Reassessment.”  You can find out more about Jeremy’s research and teaching at his website.


1. Given that the data was collected through a non-random online sample, I have weighted the data to population benchmarks (gender, race/ethnicity, born-again status, partisanship, and ideology).


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