June 9th, 2011
01:46 PM ET
By Richard Allen Greene, CNN
(CNN) - Ask Sarah Mattingly for the first word that comes to mind when she hears the word "abortion," and she heaves a huge sigh.
Then there's a long pause before she answers: "Sadness."
Mattingly works at Northland Church, an evangelical megachurch in Orlando, Florida, and she regularly passes an abortion clinic on her way to work.
"There are always picketers. The parking lot is always full. I see these women sitting in their cars and just feel full of sadness," she says.
There's no doubt in her mind that abortion is wrong: "not what God has ordained."
And yet, she says, she's not entirely convinced abortion should be against the law.
"I know a lot of people my age who struggle with that - who say we will never agree with it, but at what point is it the government's responsibility?" she asks. "I would tend to say I think it should be illegal, but I can see both sides of the story. It's a tough one."
Mattingly is part of what's being called the millennial generation, born in the 1980s and coming of age around the year 2000.
A huge new survey finds that she is not alone among her peers in feeling conflicted about abortion.
Just under half of 18- to 29-year-olds say that abortion is morally acceptable, but six out of 10 say it should be legal in most or all cases, and nearly seven out of 10 say it should be available locally.
The survey, by the Public Religion Research Institute, contains a number of startling findings.
One is that millennials are not significantly more supportive of abortion rights than their parents are, even though they tend to be better educated and less churchgoing - factors which tend to predict people are pro-choice.
There's no noticeable difference in the number of 20-year-olds and 50-year-olds who say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, for example, according to the PRRI.
But young people do break ranks with their elders on the other major "value voters" issue, gay marriage.
Only four out of 10 millennials say sex between adults of the same gender is morally wrong, about 60% of 50- to 64-year-olds say that, and seven out of 10 people 65 and older think it is.
The millennials are driving a massive shift in American views on gay marriage.
In 1999, just over one-third of Americans said gay marriage should be legal. Today, just over half do, according to the PRRI survey, which is consistent with other recent findings.
Views on abortion, by contrast, haven't budged in the last dozen years, with 57% of Americans saying in 1999 that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 56% saying so in the PRRI survey.
"The decoupling of attitudes on abortion and same-sex marriage suggest that these topics, which served in the past as the heart of the 'values' agenda, are no longer necessarily linked in the minds of Americans," says the survey, which was released Thursday.
It's called "Committed to Availability, Conflicted About Morality: What the Millennial Generation Tells Us about the Future of the Abortion Debate and the Culture Wars," and is based on 3,000 English and Spanish telephone interviews conducted in April and May.
One of America's most prominent cultural conservatives admits that when it comes to gay marriage, the movement is not as influential on young people as it would like to be.
"There's a lot of ground to make up there," said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, a Washington-based organization that promotes "marriage and family" and opposes abortion.
He disputes the PRRI findings on abortion, asserting that "young people are stronger in their pro-life views than their parents."
But he concedes that conservatives haven't had a similar impact on young people's views on homosexuality.
"Cultural influencers have weighed in heavily" in favor of gay marriage, he said.
But the millennial generation could well change its mind as it grows up and starts families, he said.
"There is certainly this live-and-let-live attitude, but once the younger generation gets married and has children it falls by the wayside out of a necessity to protect their children," Perkins predicted. "They begin to re-evaluate the value construct."
Back at Northland Church, Sarah Mattingly is torn about gay marriage the same way she is about abortion. Married to a musician who works in musical theater, she and her husband have gay friends.
"Again, I don't agree with it, I really don't," she says of gay marriage. "God specifically in his word has ordained marriage to be between a man and a woman. But at what point is it the government's responsibility to step in?"
She thinks gay marriage is "misguided," and feels the "church and believers" need to be involved.
"We would never say that this is a good thing in the sense that we don't like it, we wish it didn't exist. But the reality is, it does," she says.
And she as she wrestles with whether the government should let gay people marry, she can't come up with a definite answer: "I can answer yes and I can answer no to that."
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.