On religion and social issues, women trend right

As conservative religious groups grow more politically active, American women are becoming more religious and more conservative on a number of social issues, including abortion, divorce, and affirmative action.

Those are among the findings of a national survey examining the religious involvement of 1,000 women. Three-quarters of women polled say religion plays a very important part in their lives, up from 69 percent in 1996. And half of Christian women call themselves "born again" or evangelical, a 7 percent increase since 1996.

"Women tell us that a lot of good things about religion regarding friendship, support, and ethical standards are important to them," says Faye Wattleton, president of the New York-based Center for Gender Equality, which commissioned the survey.

At the same time, a majority of women are taking a "shopping cart" approach to religion. They accept many of their denomination's teachings but make their own choices on such personal issues as marriage, birth control, and whether or when to have children, even if those decisions conflict with their religion.

Yet Ms. Wattleton calls some of the findings "very disturbing," revealing "seismic shifts" in the way women view religion and politics. Women, she says, are "increasingly comfortable" with religious involvement in political debate, which she terms "religiopolitics." Only half of respondents say that "religion and politics should not mix," compared with 63 percent in 1996.

Thirty-six percent of women polled agree with the Southern Baptist resolution that "wives should submit graciously to the leadership of their husbands." Almost half of women think it is better for society if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman cares for home and family.

Fifty-three percent of women favor more restrictions on abortion, up from 45 percent in 1996. Forty-four percent believe divorce should be more difficult to obtain. Women's support for affirmative action is also softening.

"I don't feel that it's a blip," says Diane Colasanto of Princeton Survey Research Associates, which conducted the survey. "Other people who have looked at the impact of religion on politics over a longer period of time are finding a long-term trend toward religious conservatism."

She notes socioeconomic differences, explaining that college-educated women and those in high-income households are more likely to want abortion rights protected, to feel negative about the involvement of religious groups in the abortion debate, and to support equality between men and women in the family.

Among survey participants, 56 percent identified themselves as Protestant, 22 percent Roman Catholic, 1 percent Jewish, and 7 percent some other preference, such as Muslim. The rest identified no denomination.

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