But this latest high-profile decision drives home a basic fact: American religion is reorganizing itself. Within the more theologically open part of Protestantism, only the United Methodists are left with a fully traditional view of marriage.
But are we done yet – or for a while – with that reorganization? Or are more divisions to come, and on what issues? When do people decide they can no longer live with one another?
The larger parts of Christianity – including the Roman Catholic Church and major evangelical denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention – recognize marriage as only between a man and a woman.
At their core, religious historians say, the divisions are about how you read the Bible.
“We are ingrained as Bible-believing Christians to feel that if we change on this one thing, the whole thing could collapse,” said the Rev. Ken Cuthbertson, a New Mexico pastor who recently wrote “The Last Presbyterian?” which looked at faith in a changing world. “Then life experience brings us to say: ‘Here’s what I see and that doesn’t seem like what I understood the Bible to really be about.’ And that doesn’t fit with a simple face-value reading of some texts. For me, as a follower of Jesus, it ultimately boils down to the command of Jesus to love God, and love one another.”
Protestantism, he said, is more likely to experience splits since a core value is “that we read the Bible and we seek to understand its guidance by the Holy Spirit – not a hierarchy.” And American Protestantism is even more likely to split, he said, because it doesn’t have state churches as in other parts of the world. We are a more competitive, open religious marketplace for ideas.
At the moment, organized religion looks like it may nearly be done splitting over sexuality. Church leaders say they are exhausted with spending years of annual meetings voting on this topic and wish to focus on other things. However, that’s likely temporary. First, 20 percent of Americans say they are unaffiliated religiously, so it’s hard to know where they will wind up. Not to mention their children.
“The areas of disagreement are clearer than they have ever been before. However, statistics show the younger generation is in a very different place than older people on these questions” of sexuality, Cuthbertson said. “So conservative religious bodies may be facing transitions down the road.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the Rev. Ken Cuthbertson.
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