At Large

Culture War and the Global Church

Liberal Protestant denominations are increasingly no match for their conservative brethren worldwide.

By 1.31.12

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Global Christianity is thriving, with one out of every 3 people on earth professing Christian faith, according to a Pew study released last month. But Christianity is shifting south. Two percent of global Christians 100 years ago lived in sub-Saharan Africa. Today, nearly a quarter do, equal to Europe's percentage, and soon surely to surpass it.

Insulated secular elites in the U.S. remain largely clueless about thriving religion even in America, much less globally. To the extent they notice domestic religion, it is often the echoing voices of liberal Protestant elites who preside over increasingly empty churches.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Episcopal Church, both of which are now likely below 2 million members, will have their governing conventions this summer. They will probably solidify their liberal trends, especially in deconstructing traditional marriage. United Methodism, unique among the major liberal Mainline denominations for having not compromised its sexual teaching, will convene its General Conference in late April in Tampa. Its U.S. membership of 7.6 million is shrinking, while is overseas membership of 4.5 million, mostly in Africa, is surging.

Meeting at the same convention center where Republicans will nominate their presidential candidate a few months later, the United Methodists perhaps will offer a little more excitement than the GOP. Church liberals, as they have for 40 years, hope they will finally overturn the denomination’s prohibition against same-sex unions and clergy sexually active outside heterosexual marriage. But 30 percent of the nearly 1000 delegates this year will come from Africa, and another 10 percent from the Philippines, Europe, and elsewhere overseas. The overseas churches, especially Africa, are overwhelmingly conservative.

Liberals will need over 80 percent of U.S. delegates to win. But about 200 of the 600 U.S. delegates are believed to be evangelical, making the odds almost insurmountable. The U.S. church’s only growing areas are in the relatively more conservative South, while the U.S. church as a whole loses 50,000 to 70,000 members annually. The liberal West Coast and Northeast regions that are most adamant about “full inclusion” are the fastest declining. This year, the whole West Coast and Rocky Mountain region will have only 32 delegates, or only about 3 percent of the total. The Democratic Republic of the Congo will by contrast send 136. African churches gained more than 1 million members since the last General Conference, while the U.S. church lost about 300,000.

At over 12 million members and fast approaching 13 million, the United Methodist Church is now possibly the ninth largest denomination in the world. And arguably it is the largest global Protestant church. Catholics number over 1 billion, the Russian Orthodox Church reputedly has 125 million, the Ethiopian Church (Oriental Orthodox) has 48 million, the Church of England claims 25 million, Germany’s Evangelical Church (Lutheran) reports 24 million, the Romanian Orthodox cites 23 million, the Church of Nigeria (Anglican) has 18 million, and the U.S. Southern Baptist Convention has over 16 million.

All of the larger Protestant churches are mostly national churches. In contrast to a typical Southern Baptist governing convention or a Church of England synod, United Methodism’s uniquely international General Conference will sometimes appear schizoid. Nigerians will denounce homosexuality as an abomination, while U.S. transsexuals will insist on the holiness of cross dressing and sex change operations. At a pre-General Conference news briefing last week in Tampa, a liberal Minnesota bishop presided over a panel on “holy conferencing” about civil disagreement. But the panel ended with an angry lesbian activist complaining she had been denied ordination 3 times and insisting the time for dialogue was over. The time for justice is now!

The Minnesota bishop, along with the briefing program, described the chief political issues before United Methodism as anti-Israel divestment, liberalized immigration, environmentalism, and opposing the Afghanistan War, including nuclear disarmament. The General Conference will focus especially on “repentance and healing” over mistreatment of American indigenous people. One church official described how Tampa was a “deportation center” for Cherokees and other tribes during the early 19th century's “Trail of Tears.” He also bemoaned how an ancient Indian mound once blocks away from the convention center had been destroyed a century ago to extend Tampa’s Jackson Street, named for the president who deported eastern tribes westward.

Meanwhile, an anti-Israel caucus invited participants at the United Methodist briefing in Tampa to attend a session on divestment proposals targeting companies that profit from Israel’s “occupation,” such as Motorola, Caterpillar and Hewlett Packard. A divestment spokeswoman faulted “campaign donations” and “arms sales” for bolstering pro-Israel policies in the U.S. The briefing was poorly attended, but the anti-Israel divestment proposal, aimed at the church’s huge pensions fund, comes from the denomination’s official lobby office. United Methodism already has officially denounced the "occupation," the spokeswoman pointed out, and its bishops have opposed U.S. arms sales to Israel.

Focusing on the historic crimes of America and Western Civilization, both real and perceived, is a favorite theme for politically correct U.S. church bureaucrats. But these mostly leftist themes will not resonate with most international delegates. For Nigerians and other Africans, discussing the threat of radical Islam would be more relevant to their own current situation. For U.S. church liberals, any conversation potentially negative about aspects of even political Islam would be anathema.

When African churches soon become a majority within the once all U.S. denomination, overshadowing U.S. liberals, the chronic debate about sex will finally recede. So too will the preoccupation with U.S. political themes. The increasingly global United Methodist Church will then confront new controversies. But at least it will then reflect the concerns of millions of Christians around the world, rather than the obsessions of a cloistered, elite few in the U.S.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.