May 17, 2012
By William McKenzie
How do religious institutions or organizations know when to change?
That's the question I would like you to think about this week, in light of the announcement by President Obama that he now favors the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry.
The president isn't the only person who has changed his views over time. Last week, the New York Times traced how attitudes on same-sex marriage have changed significantly since just the 1990s.
In 1996, the Times reported, 27 percent of Americans favored same-sex marriages. Now, 47 percent favor them.
Views on other issues, such as interracial marriage, also have shifted. In 1972, the Times noted, 59 percent of Americans favored it. By 2002, the number had risen to 90 percent.
But on other topics, nothing has really changed. In 1975, 75 percent of Americans thought abortion should be legal under either certain conditions or in all circumstances. The Times reported that number is virtually the same today. In 2011, 77 percent favor the right to abortion in either limited or unlimited circumstances.
Of course, most of us will claim that we make our decisions by principles, not polls. And that is undoubtedly true. What's more, many principles don't change over time. For example, stealing remains an offense today much like it was when the Ten Commandments were handed down.
But clearly societal attitudes change in some key areas. And religious organizations, like many other institutions, are forced to respond.
So, how do they do that, especially when it comes to issues like same-sex marriage, where attitudes are clearly changing?...
WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
Religious organizations are notoriously slow to change. For that reason, religious organizations are highly susceptible to seismic changes, separations, and schism.
A case in point is the experience of Christians in western Europe about five hundred years ago. In the years (indeed decades and more) prior to October 1517, a variety of movements for change had erupted in Christian circles. But none had actually resulted in immense institutional change until the efforts by Martin Luther became catalysts in unleashing massive organizational transitions -- not only Protestants separated from Catholics, but also within Catholicism. The sixteenth century became, for Christianity, an age of plural reformations!
For Christians in North America, the notion of "denominations" seems so normative that we can scarcely keep alert to the radical change such an organizational pattern fostered. Instead of structuring religious organizations by regional or political boundaries, which had become standard in Europe, North Americans developed the patterns of religious bodies who coexisted in their separate houses of worship along the same streets in a community. Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and others occupied parcels of land, built sanctuaries, shared the benefits (including freedom from paying property taxes) of America's constitutional security, and either cooperated with the others or ignored others.
Some scholars believe we are now living through another seismic shift. Denominations are rarely relevant. A different form of religious organization is being born. But, rather than being the creators of social attitudes, these religious organizations are followers of the changes in society. That is not new. America's Methodists remained a racially segregated denomination in their official structures until 1968, fourteen years after the Supreme Court decided Brown vs. Board of Education. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated before Methodists chose to desegregate their organizations.
So church bodies and other religious organizations will follow -- not lead -- the social changes that are occurring with regard to same-sex partnerships and marriages. And religious organizations will eventually adopt the attitudes held by three-quarters of Americans with regard to abortion. But that will only happen as the result of some seismic change among communities of faith. Then a new normal will be brought to life....