At its major conference in May, a major American organization voted to approve resolutions that: call convicted Puerto Rican terrorists “political prisoners” and demand their release from prison; support activist efforts to offer “sanctuary” to illegal immigrants; accuse the U.S. of “pursu[ing] a global economic agenda that is of, by, and for transnational corporations”; “support progressive income taxes”; demand an end to U.S. military aid to Israel.
This was not a gathering of MoveOn.org or the Young Democratic Socialists of America. Rather, these were just some of the political resolutions adopted at the United Methodist Church’s April 23-May 2 General Conference, the denomination’s top governing body.
As America’s second-largest Protestant denomination, United Methodism is no liberal church at the grassroots level. The wide range of its membership includes President George W. Bush, Senator Hillary Clinton, Vice President Dick Cheney, and former Senator John Edwards.
In fact, if anything, United Methodists lean to somewhat to the right. According to a study by one of the denomination’s own agencies, three-fourths of United Methodist congregations in this country are located in “red” counties whose voters that supported President Bush’s re-election.
According to a study by the Pew Research Center, white mainline Protestants (whose largest sub-category by far is the overwhelmingly white membership of the United Methodist Church) who attend church weekly favored Republicans in the 2006 Congressional elections by a 59-38 percent margin. Other surveys have shown large portions of United Methodists and other mainline Protestants strongly opposing their churches weighing in on political matters at all (regardless of whether the positions taken were liberal or conservative).
So why this great disconnect between the denomination’s governing leadership and its grassroots membership?
FIRST OF ALL, the elected clergy and lay General Conference delegates are not a very representative sample of the people in local United Methodist congregations. The very nature of the General Conference, with the fourteen-hour days over the course of nearly two weeks and the library’s worth of materials delegates are expected to read beforehand, tends to particularly attract the minority of members who want the church’s primary function to be offering a “prophetic voice for social justice.”
At the same time, with some notable exceptions, most United Methodists with successful careers in government, business, or the military-who would bring a greater appreciation for political realism, free markets, and Christian “just war” teachings-simply do not have the available time needed to serve as delegates.
Conservative and moderate United Methodists would generally rather spend their annual vacation time relaxing with their families, or perhaps even serving on a short-term missions trip, than going to an exhausting two-week church conference to argue at length about complex and divisive political issues on which fellow delegates have little expertise.p>There are also problems with the process of the denomination’s General Conference. The vast majority of the hundreds of political resolutions (as well as proposed statements and structural changes more directly br> related to church work) are not individually considered by the full body of about 1,000 delegates. /p>
Rather, all petitions (the rough equivalent of proposed bills in Congress) are first considered by smaller committees and sub-committees of delegates, with the most liberal delegates disproportionately represented in the bodies dealing only with political statements.
As an observer at this General Conference as well as the previous one (in 2004), I saw how in the majority of cases, the recommendations of these small groups (sometimes with as few as four people) on proposed political statements more or less automatically become the position of the General Conference and thus of the entire denomination.
ALL OF THE ABOVE factors work to the advantage of the denomination’s liberal-dominated official agencies, which submit most of the political-themed resolutions adopted and quite openly lobby delegates before and during the conference to rubber-stamp the preferred party line.
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