The Heart of Conservative Values: Not Where It Used to Be?

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The Public Religion Research Institute released a report on Thursday about the Millennial generation (roughly those ages 18 to 29) and where they stand in today’s culture wars, particularly concerning abortion and religion. One finding was that Americans in general, and particularly Millennials, have “decoupled” part of the traditional conservative values agenda, showing more support across the board for same-sex marriage while keeping in tact the preceding generations’ split over abortion.

“In recent election cycles the so-called ‘values voter’ agenda has often been distilled to abortion and same-sex marriage,” the report reads, “Yet these two controversial topics are no longer necessarily linked in the minds of Americans.” Based on 3,000 interviews and other number-crunching, Public Religion Research Institute researchers found that almost precisely the same amount of people say today that abortion should be legal in all or most cases (56%) as in 1999 (57%). Meanwhile, the support for same-sex marriages has ballooned 18 points, from 35% in 1999 to 53% in 2011.

The Millennials, characterized as a more open-minded and less religious cohort than their parents, are at the forefront of the divide. Only slightly more of that group (60%) say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, but 57% of them favor same-sex marriage, and an additional 19% think homosexuals should be allowed to form civil unions. Meanwhile, only 26% of Americans ages 65 and older favor same-sex marriage, and far more of that older generation views sex between adults of the same gender as morally wrong (69% to 41%), while all age groups fall somewhere in the 50% range when asked if having an abortion is immoral.

Researchers also found that many Americans identify as both “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” a murky contrast to the sharply divided political stances usually taken in public debate. About 7-in-10 Americans said they were at least “somewhat” pro-choice, while two-thirds said they were at least “somewhat” pro-life. Which, if we take a moment to picture the Venn diagram, will tell us there’s pretty significant crossover.

The question is how and if these more complicated beliefs will be reflected in the rhetoric of politicians going into 2012. Certainly the heart of the social-conservative agenda won’t shift quickly, especially as politicians keep to the right and left during primary season, but if young people continue to widen the gap, it seems that shift—or perhaps more Mitch Daniels-type “truces”—may prove inevitable.

Here are some other highlights from the report:

  • Having watched MTV’s shows about young unmarried women who are pregnant or have children made people feel more positive about abortion.
  • Knowing someone who had an abortion also made people feel more positive about its legality.
  • 72% of religious people believe they can disagree with what their faith preaches on abortion and still be a “person of good standing in their faith.”
  • Among Americans who go to church at least twice a month, 54% said they heard clergy talk about abortion and 51% about homosexuality.
  • Excepting white evangelical Protestants, majorities of all major religious groups say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.