The Mistaken Premise of the “God Gap” and Abortion

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The Mistaken Premise of the “God Gap” and Abortion

Scott Swenson

Politico reports that white weekly churchgoers aren't supporting Obama any more than other Democrats. Richard Land and Tony Perkins attribute the "God gap" to abortion. Could it be because of misinformation?

On this Sunday before Election Day, Politico has an interesting article with a mistaken premise about the "God gap" in Gallup polls indicating that Sen. Obama is doing no better than previous Democratic candidates among white voters who attend church every week, comprising about one-third of the electorate. Obama is polling at roughly the same 28 percent among this demographic as did John Kerry. Per usual, the article quotes leaders of the religious right (absent are vocal pro-choice people of faith) in this case Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention:

“It’s abortion,” Land replied when the Gallup data was read to him.

“I think pro-choice people in this culture have absolutely no idea of
the depth and intensity of the moral outrage of the people who are
pro-life,” Land said. “They think that conservatives use it only as a
wedge issue.”

“There is no other way to explain it than Obama’s position on the
issues, particularly the issue of life,” said Tony Perkins, president
of the conservative Family Research Council.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Perkins and Land both said that the religious fissure is also deeper
than any one issue, even abortion, and rooted in philosophical outlooks
that still define the public’s view of both parties.

“One party is traditional and another party is pretty post-modernist,” Land said.

Democrats have made some gains in improving the public’s perception of
their openness to religious Americans. Some 38 percent of Americans
believe the Democratic Party is “generally friendly toward religion,”
up from a low point of 26 percent in 2006, according to the annual
August Pew Religion and Public Life Survey but still well below the 52
percent of Americans who view Republicans as "friendly."

Current polling indicates Obama has gained with voters who attend
church occasionally and could possibly win the Catholics next week.
Kerry, who would have been the second Catholic president, lost
Catholics to Methodist George W. Bush by about a million votes,
according to exit polls.


Perkins and Land may be right – it may be all about abortion rights and other social issues for these white weekly churchgoers who make up one-third of the electorate.

The mistaken premise is that the information these white weekly church-goers have received about abortion rights is accurate.  We know with certainty it is not. 

That doesn’t mean white weekly churchgoers would all be pro-choice if they had accurate information about the publicVideo: Framing Reproductive RightsVideo: Framing Reproductive Rights policy debate, but for 35 years we know for a fact that this issue has been so politicized, creating so much division, and left many people with so much misunderstanding about what the issues really are, that it is no surprise pro-choice candidates don’t do better among this sliver of the electorate.

When anti-choice people argue based more on emotion and fear than facts, conservative white people who hear that message every week in church will believe it. It comes from people they have chosen to trust, people they believe know more about God than they do, people they have associated with, in some cases, because they reinforce each others beliefs. The same can be said about information these white weekly churchgoers get about women in general, or gay people, or contraception, or sexuality education, or HIV/AIDS, or any issue for that matter.

These poll numbers are the results of 35 years of political tactics and strategies used to create a loyal base of support for the far-right among the most conservative white weekly churchgoers. It is no surprise that the tactics and strategies have worked, even though more centrist Republicans now openly question them.

When you have the attention of any group of people every week, especially in an intimate setting where people discuss religion, you will shape and mold their views. The question is, when it comes to public policy about health and safety, why would you do that based on anything but provable facts?

Video: Anti-Choice StereotypesVideo: Anti-Choice StereotypesWould these white weekly churchgoers have a different view of abortion rights if they understood that progressives have been fighting for policies like Prevention First, and others — instead of just hearing them falsely accused of being "murderers?"

Would they have a different view of sexual and reproductive health if women were seen as equals in the home, in the church, in life — instead of subjugated as they are in Richard Land’s Southern Baptist Convention, and many other organized religions?

Would these white weekly churchgoers have a different view of late-term abortion if they talked to women who had crisis pregnancies and had to go through them for their health and life, or women who made a moral decision to have an abortion within the first weeks of pregnancy because they weren’t ready to parent responsibly?  Would they think twice about their views after sitting with a woman who was raped and didn’t want to  relive the rape? Would they change their minds if they understood that pregnancy — and the lack of maternal health — is a leading cause of death for women in many developing countries where safe, legal abortions and access to contraception could preserve lives and improve reproductive health in crisis pregnancies so that women could live to be mothers, not create more orphans?

What if, instead of only hearing one side of the story every week for 35 years, and one side that wasn’t always honest in the information it gives out, this one-third of the electorate heard both sides — honestly discussed without emotion, or fear-mongering, but just the facts?

Even those people who still view abortion as wrong would at least have a better understanding than they do now and our democracy would have the benefit of more common ground, less division.

But  men like Tony Perkins, Richard Land and the highly-politicized Conference of Catholic Bishops have too much invested in demagoging the abortion issue for their political control — they prefer white weekly churchgoers not have the whole story, and they won’t be telling it any time soon.

The real surprise in these polling numbers is that given all the misinformation and fear mongering that the anti-choice side has done every week for 35 years, that they haven’t been able to get their views to take hold outside of this one part of one-third of the electorate. 

The simple fact is that this group, white weekly churchgoers — and not even all of them — are the main obstacles to public policy moving forward on many sexual and reproductive health issues. Their disproportionate control over our democratic process has been a roadblock to better education and prevention efforts in Congress and the main support for federal policies promoted by the Bush Administration that create more sexual and reproductive health problems, not solutions — relying on religious ideology more than medical facts.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, like the other two-thirds of the far more diverse electorate that doesn’t go to church every week and prefers public policy based on provable facts, I’m going to pray that Americans be allowed to know the truth of every issue and start to see through the lies — no matter who tells them — so that our nation can better govern itself and that we can teach respect and responsibility when it come to our sexual and reproductive health and rights.

We don’t have to agree on abortion, but we should agree that public policy in our democracy should be based on facts.