The Methodist surprise in Portland

Mark Tooley

America’s third largest religious body voted last week to quit the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), a Washington-based interfaith abortion rights lobby that the United Methodist Church helped found in 1973. Methodists also voted to delete the church’s 40-year-old resolution affirming Roe v. Wade.

When United Methodism organized what was then called the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights in the wake of Roe v. Wade, the church was still culturally and politically influential, with about 10 million members. It was and is the largest Mainline Protestant denomination.

Liberal Mainline Protestants denominations like the Methodists helped create the moral ethos facilitating abortion rights. They portrayed the pro-life cause as Catholic, and RCRC was founded partly to counter the Catholic Church’s pro-life advocacy. For decades RCRC gave religious cover to abortion rights activism. It opposed any legal restrictions on abortion, including parental consent laws, and portrayed abortion as a positive good, even “holy work,” supported by religious ethics.

But United Methodist Women and United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the church’s Washington lobby, are now required to quit.

United Methodism is undergoing its own transformation. Unlike other declining Mainline Protestant denominations, it has a global membership, which is fast growing. It’s down to 7 million members in the U.S., but has 5 million in Africa, where a majority of the church will soon be. The increasing overseas membership in Africa has given U.S. evangelicals legislative majorities at the church’s quadrennial governing General Conference. The church has resisted liberalizing its teachings on marriage and has moved more conservative on abortion, opposing late term abortion and abortion as birth control.

This year, an Indiana clergy woman presented the case against RCRC to the United Methodist General Conference, meeting in Portland, Oregon. An official with the church’s Washington lobby defended her agency’s RCRC membership and stressed there was no church funding for RCRC. There must be some expense associated with staff collaboration, but RCRC has mainly relied over the years on liberal secular philanthropies, like the Ford Foundation.

The margin of 61 percent for withdrawal for RCRC among about 700 voting delegates was surprisingly large after some close votes across decades. Overseas delegates were important, but so too are evolving abortion attitudes on abortion among religious moderates and some liberals. Defending RCRC and its zealous unqualified affirmation of abortion was unpalatable for many especially younger clergy.

United Methodism’s departure from RCRC is historic. The once flagship Mainline Protestant denomination is steering a different direction from its longtime liberal church partners as it globalizes and becomes more evangelical.

But the departure also perhaps confirms that overall public opinion, religious and not, especially by the young, is shifting subtly towards pro-life. Many may not politically identify with pro-life advocacy, but they don’t resonate with RCRC-style unalloyed abortion activism.

Methodist lobbyists who in 1973 founded RCRC in the bracing days after Roe v. Wade would likely be surprised by their church’s departure. But history, and God, often have surprises.

Mark Tooley, author of “Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century” and “Taking Back the United Methodist Church,” is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.