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Should Social Conservatives Worry about the Next Generation?



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CNN’s Belief Blog recently posted an article about the Public Religion Research Institute’s survey on the attitudes of young adults toward abortion and same-sex marriage. The article painted a pessimistic picture for social conservatives. With regard to abortion, the views of young adults are similar to those of their parents. Many young adults dislike abortion and are receptive toward pro-life arguments, but feel uncomfortable with banning abortion entirely. Even worse, most young people, even those who identify themselves as Christian, seem sympathetic toward same-sex marriage.

However, pro-lifers need not worry. The results of this survey are inconsistent with other survey research on the attitudes of young people toward abortion. The General Social Survey has been collecting opinion data on abortion using the same battery of questions since the 1970s. In most years, respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 tend to be the least sympathetic toward the pro-life position. However, starting around the year 2000, those between the ages 18 and 29 were on average more pro-life than those from other age cohorts.

What is interesting is that one would not expect the current generation of young people to espouse pro-life views. Today’s young adults tend to be less religious and more secular, and have more liberal attitudes toward sex than previous generations. Furthermore, social scientists have not arrived at a consensus as to why this current generation of young people is more pro-life. Various theories include 1) the development of ultrasound technology, the 1990s debate over partial-birth abortion, and popular culture’s depiction of single motherhood as non-disruptive in television shows like Friends and Murphy Brown and movies like Juno.

Now, on the issue of same sex marriage, social conservatives certainly have their work cut out for them. However, the picture is not as bleak as the article indicates. Young people have always been more sympathetic toward same-sex marriage than their older counterparts. However, in the years following the Goodridge decision, which legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, UCLA’s annual survey of college freshmen indicated that support for same-sex marriage fell slightly. This is despite the fact that the decision received plenty of favorable media attention and granted same-sex marriage mainstream political legitimacy.

For a number of years, the mainstream media has been predicting the demise of social conservatism as a political force. This is because historically, young people have been more socially liberal than their parents and grandparents. However, despite this, social conservatism has proven to be quite resilient. In fact, during the past 15 years the pro-life movement has made impressive gains in the court of public opinion. Advocates for traditional marriage certainly need to consider strategies for engaging younger voters. However, social conservatives should take heart. Plenty of data indicates that as people get older, they become more conservative on social issues. And there is a very good chance that the current generation of young adults will prove to be no exception.

Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.



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