By Thomas Lambrecht –
Over the last two weeks, we have looked at results from a recent survey conducted by the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University under the direction of Dr. George Barna. We saw that many Americans are confused about who God is and what God is like. We also found that many Americans and even Christians believe in salvation through being or doing good.
But what does it mean to be good or to do the right thing? This enters the realm of making moral choices. These choices begin with a basic concept of what is a human being, and what is the value of human life.
The Value of Human Life
According to the survey report, 56 percent of Americans believes that human beings are created by God and made in his image, but are fallen and in need of redemption. At the same time, 69 percent believe that “people are basically good.” This is another example of confusion on the part of presumably 13 percent who believe that human beings are at the same time “fallen and in need of redemption” and “basically good.” (This is actually a decline from the 83 percent who thought “people are basically good” in 1990 — a testament to our more pessimistic current time.) I wish the survey report had separated the question of whether human beings are created by God and made in his image from the question of whether they are fallen and in need of redemption. That would give us a better understanding of how people value human life. Some may believe that humans are created by God in his image but are not fallen and in need of redemption.
That question of the value of human life is answered rather starkly in another question, where only 39 percent of Americans said “human life is sacred.” Even for evangelical Christians and political conservatives, only 57 to 60 percent agreed with the sacred value of human life. Other views on life included the 37 percent who believe “life is what you make it, but it has no absolute value” and the 11 percent who believe “life does not attain its full value until we reach our highest point of evolution and expression.” This contingent view on the value of human life could help explain the travesty of more than two-thirds of Down syndrome babies being aborted before birth. If human life has no absolute value or is not valuable until it has reached some developmental maturity point, then such abortions can be morally justified, as can many other actions that demean or threaten human life and dignity.
Moving more specifically to the question of abortion, 37 percent of Americans say the Bible is ambiguous on abortion and an additional 22 percent say they do not know. This means only 41 percent believe the Bible is clear in teaching the sacred value of human life in the womb.
One’s concept of the value of human life is the grounding point from which many other ethical decisions flow. Hatred, the culture of insult, discrimination, violence, racism, and many other harmful attitudes stem from our unwillingness to value the other person as created in the image of God and of sacred worth. One of the greatest contributions of Christianity to Western civilization over the centuries has been the concept that even the most disregarded or poorest human being was of infinite value to God. While not always practiced, this understanding of human life has led to many advances, compared to the brutality evident in many pre-Christian civilizations. Yet today we are in danger of losing this foundational understanding.
Source of Moral Guidance
Where do we turn for guidance in making moral decisions? The survey reported that only one-third of Americans turn to a religious source for moral guidance. Twenty-three percent turn to the Bible, six percent look to direct divine intervention, and three percent rely on the input of religious leaders. Encouragingly, about two-thirds of evangelical Christians turn to these religious sources.
Another third (31 percent) of Americans looks to themselves when making moral decisions. A third group (27 percent) relies on trusted people for help, mainly family, friends, and peers.
This heavy reliance on self and other people to guide moral decision-making may account for why so often Christians act just like the society in which they live. It is the Bible and the historic teachings of our church that help us live by a value system that often contradicts that of our society. Our most valuable testimony is that we live differently from those who do not follow Jesus. That testimony is lost when we fail to use the resources of our faith in making moral decisions. At the same time, the Christian veneer that has generally sustained Christian values in secular American society in the past is swiftly eroding.
The survey set forth several scenarios and asked respondents to register their moral opinion. Six out of ten Americans (and 83 percent of committed Christians) stated that the intentional failure to repay a loan to a relative is morally unacceptable.
Less than half of Americans (47 percent), and in contrast, 75 percent of committed Christians, thought that telling a minor lie to protect one’s personal best interests or reputation is morally unacceptable.
As might be expected, abortion was the most divisive issue in the survey. Forty-four percent of all Americans thought that having an abortion because the woman’s partner has left and the woman cannot reasonably take care of the child is morally unacceptable. Twenty-two percent believe it is morally acceptable and eleven percent think it is not a moral issue. (One-quarter do not have an opinion.) As expected, 83 percent of committed Christians believe such an abortion is morally unacceptable.
Only one-fourth (27 percent) of all Americans think having sexual relations with someone that they love and expect to marry in the future is morally unacceptable. In contrast, 71 percent of committed Christians believe it is morally unacceptable. This result was the widest gap between Christian moral decisions and those of the general population.
The practical questions actually give mildly encouraging results, in that they showed committed Christians maintained a dramatically more traditionally Christian value system. (The survey defined committed Christians as those who were spiritually active and involved in church leadership.) Regular members were often less affirming of traditional Christian values in their decisions.
This survey shows that it will be important for Christian pastors and leaders to teach the foundations of Christian moral reasoning, starting with a solid understanding of the sacredness of human life and its implications for how we are to treat one another. This understanding can transform the way our society functions, especially in such a time of polarization and division.
It will also be important to teach our people how to look to the teachings of Scripture and the historic teachings of the church to find moral guidance for everyday life. We need to make these teachings understandable and accessible to all Christians in a way that will influence their everyday lives. Teaching on particular moral issues helps, but it is more important to teach our people how to think Christianly about moral issues and enable them to make good decisions without necessarily being told what to do in every situation. While teaching on abortion and human sexuality is important, we need to broaden our teaching to other moral arenas, such as human relationships and financial integrity.
The old song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” When people observe how Christians live, they should see a distinctive difference from the self-centered values of the world. The survey results show we have room for improvement in learning how to live as Christians in an alien world.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.