by Margaux Curless and Benjamin Knoll
Nearly half a century after Roe v. Wade, abortion remains a divisive issue in American politics. With the recent addition of conservative justice Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, several states are passing restrictions on abortion with hopes of eventually sending the issue back to the High Court.
While abortion attitudes are largely driven by partisan identity, religious beliefs also matter, as shown recently on this blog by Jeremiah Castle. Here, we contribute further analysis to this question using survey data from the 2016 Next Mormons Survey (NMS). While the LDS Church does not officially support the legality of elective abortion and threatens church discipline on those who undergo the procedure, it does provide nuanced exceptions in the case of rape or risks to the health of the mother or fetus.
This is an instructive case study because Latter-day Saints are overwhelmingly Republican and more religiously devout than the average American. We find here that among devout believers, Latter-day Saints of both sides of the partisan aisle find abortion to be morally unacceptable, while for those with lower levels of belief in their church’s teachings, abortion attitudes tend to polarize along partisan lines similar to the national patterns.
The NMS asked respondents whether they believed that abortion was “morally acceptable, morally wrong, or not a moral issue?” Although morality and legality are not synonymous, morality often motivates individuals’ stances on abortion and Americans are more likely to cite religious beliefs over personal experience, or education as the primarily source of their attitudes on abortion. Among American Latter-day Saints, 74% believe abortion to be morally wrong, 12% say it is morally acceptable, and the remaining 14% say that it is not a moral issue.
Examining further by party, the NMS shows that 85% of Mormon Republicans believe that abortion is morally wrong compared to 57% of Mormon Democrats. For members of both parties, this is much higher than the national averages of 64% and 38%, respectively. This suggests that religious beliefs make a difference for American Mormons above and beyond what the “baseline” partisan level of support would suggest.
We can take a closer look by examining in the graph below the combined impact of religious beliefs and partisanship on how Latter-day Saints view abortion. The NMS also asked respondents how much they believed in the teachings of the LDS Church, all the way from “wholeheartedly” to not at all. The graph shows the independent effect of partisanship and belief in church teachings on abortion morality attitudes while controlling for standard demographic factors, convert status, and frequency of church attendance.
For Republicans, levels of belief seem to matter a little: Republican Latter-day Saints with high levels of belief in their church’s teachings are about 10% more likely to view abortion as morally unacceptable compared to those for whom some church teachings are hard to believe, who in turn are about 10% more likely than those who say they don’t believe their church’s teachings. At the same time, all three groups are still more likely than not to believe that abortion is morally unacceptable and the overlap in confidence intervals means that we cannot say with confidence that levels of belief in church teachings make any difference on abortion attitudes among Republican Latter-day Saints.
In contrast, belief in church teachings matters a lot for Mormon Democrats. Among those who believe strongly in their church’s teachings, two out of three view abortion to be morally unacceptable. This reduces to about half of those for whom some church teachings are hard to believe and to only one in five of Mormon Democrats who say they do not believe their church’s teachings.
One way to interpret these patterns is to say that Latter-day Saints of both partisan stripes are likely to adopt their church’s position on the issue of abortion. This fits with other research that shows that American Mormons tend to unite on political issues when their leaders are united in their views and public pronouncements on an issue, which is strongly the case when it comes to abortion among LDS leadership. For Latter-day Saints that have lower (or absent) levels of belief in their church’s teachings, however, their abortion attitudes tend to mirror those of their national co-partisans, whether Republican or Democrat. In other words, devout religious belief may serve to depolarize abortion attitudes among American Latter-day Saints.
Of course, this raises the question of how abortion attitudes affect vote choice. Given that abortion attitudes among devout believers are more in line with the national Republican party, we might expect that many Mormon Democrats would vote across party lines and vote for Republican candidates in national elections. This, however, was not the case in 2016, nor has it been in other recent elections.
One explanation may be due to the importance that Latter-day Saints place on the issue of abortion in comparison with other pressing societal and political issues. The NMS also showed that only 8% of Mormons list abortion as one of the top three most important issues facing the U.S. today, lower than moral/religious decline (33%), ineffective political governance (27%), crime/violence (26%), poverty/hunger/homelessness (25%), or health care (25%). There was not much of a partisan difference on this issue, with 7% of Mormon Democrats but only 9% of Mormon Republicans saying that abortion is one of the top three most important issues facing society today, a statistically insignificant difference.
Thus, even though religious faith might serve to depolarize attitudes toward abortion among American Mormons, the fact that abortion ranks low on the list of societal priorities among Mormons of both political parties may help explain why this effect does not translate into more cross-party voting among faithful Mormon Democrats in national elections.
Margaux Curless is a recent graduate of Centre College in Danville, Kentucky where she majored in Economics and Finance.