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In Theory: Can we disagree, still maintain standing?

June 16, 2011

Q. A study released June 9 by the Public Religion Research Institute: “Committed to Availability, Conflicted About Morality, What the Millennial Generation Tells Us about the Future of the Abortion Debate and the Culture Wars.”

The survey was based on telephone interviews conducted between April 22 and May 8 among a random sample of 3,000 adults in the continental United States. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 2 percentage points, and higher for subgroups.

Fifty-six percent of those polled say that abortion should be legal in most or all cases and 52% say abortion is morally wrong. A majority (72%) of religious Americans believe they can disagree with the teachings of their faiths on the issue of abortion and still be a person of good standing in their faith.

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The study also noted that 18-29-year-olds are considerably more likely than the older generations to support same-sex marriage, but there’s no comparable gap on the abortion debate.

Our culture’s religious beliefs seem to be evolving toward a state in which religious people feel they can disagree with the teachings of their religious faith while remaining believers in good standing in that faith. Do holy writings support this trend toward an intellectualization of religious issues? And is this new religious independence a good thing? Why, or why not?

This question assumes a lot about how we arrive at official teachings in our various religious traditions. Some traditions, like the Catholic Church, have a clergy authority figure who determines the denomination’s stance on issues of the day. Adherents are expected to follow this decision.

Other traditions, such as the United Methodist Church, hold regular conferences for clergy and lay representatives, where together we seek God’s guidance. We start with scripture and the church’s traditional beliefs about the topic in question. We then take into account our lived experiences of God in order to ask the question – has God shown us something about the sacredness of life (in the case of abortion) or love (in the case of homosexuality) that we didn’t see or understand before? Difficult questions like slavery (in the 1800s) and homosexuality can take many, many conferences to decide with finality. Some would say too many, for in the meantime, faithful Christians are asked to live in the tension of a religious tradition that does not seem compassionate toward their reality. You can actually still be a believer in good standing when you disagree with the decision and choose to keep the conversation between scripture, tradition, and experience alive.

In general, Methodist policy leans toward the pastoral rather than the doctrinaire. Our teaching on abortion is an excellent example of this. This is from our Social Principles, determined at General Conference by delegates from around the world:

“In continuity with past Christian teaching, we recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures. We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection…..a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.”

You see? We tend toward extending God’s grace (rather than judgment) to people in crisis, and we believe that God guides us to faithful decisions.

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