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LIBERAL FEMINISTS CONCERNED BY TURN TOWARD RELIGION

Women are growing more religious and more conservative, and that is worrying liberal feminists.
It didn't show up in the last election and isn't reflected in current political polls, but a study released this week by the Center for Gender Equality suggests women are moving to the right on some key issues at the same time that they are becoming more involved in religion.

Faye Wattleton, former head of Planned Parenthood and now director of the gender equality center, who acknowledges being religious herself, thinks there may be a link between what she sees as an erosion of women's rights and the rising political activism of conservative religions.

In a telephone conference this week, Ms. Wattleton said the survey, "Impact of Religious Organizations on Gender Equality," shows a "seismic shift" in women's view of religion and politics. Coincidentally, she said, there is a softening of support for abortion rights, affirmative action and divorce, and increasing acceptance of church involvement in politics.

Comparing women's attitudes with surveys taken six years ago, the study shows women embracing religion in greater numbers and intensity. Responses indicate they are looking for community, guidance and support and are not dogmatic.

Women have what the center researchers call a "shopping cart" approach to religion, in which they make personal choices on marriage, family and social issues that are not always in sync with church teachings.

The survey, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Association, involved telephone interviews with 1,000 women in July. The sample was predominantly white and Christian, and half of the Christians identified themselves as "born-again" or evangelical.

Three-quarters of the women said religion is very important in their lives, an increase from two years ago when 69 percent made that statement. The women in this survey were evenly divided about whether politics and religious values should be mixed, whereas six years ago 63 percent thought there should be a wall between them.

Seventy percent said there should be more restrictions on abortion, including 40 percent who would impose stringent restrictions and 13 percent who would make abortion illegal.

The majority in the poll support equity in employment, education, health care, business opportunities, sports and the military, and two-thirds think more needs to be done to achieve that.

However, a substantial percentage favor making it more difficult to get a divorce, and only a slim majority favor affirmative action.

A majority favor sex education in the schools but are not so sure about distributing condoms there.

While a majority reject the Southern Baptist decree that wives should submit to their husbands, about half agree that society would benefit if the man were the breadwinner and the woman the homemaker.

Most of them think religious institutions, including the Christian Coalition, are at least harmless and at best helpful in advancing the status of women.

Ms. Wattleton attributes this to the ability of leaders of the religious right to "present themselves as friendly to women."

Stating that mixing religion and politics should be closely examined, she added, "The public must not be misled by leaders who speak on the value of women and campaign to restrict their status."

The Rev. John Buchanan, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago and newly named editor of Christian Century magazine, said women are turning to religion because it is one place where they have the most opportunity to achieve their "full humanity."

Noting that half of Presbyterian seminary students are women, he said the church offers women full access to equality and leadership.

Historically the church has been involved with public issues, he said, adding that he is more comfortable dealing with issues than with partisan politics. The fact that women disconnect the position of the church and their personal choices "shows an autonomy of the individual that we applaud."

The Rev. Forrest Church, a Unitarian minister, said there always is the danger that the wall between church and state will crumble but women's strong commitment to gender equity may transform religious institutions run predominantly by politicized males.

The gender gap is not permanent, he said, adding that among the younger generation girls have different expectations. The church is empowering to women. "Don't dissuade women to take things into the political arena, but warn them of the dangers," he said.

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