The Nation's Pulse

Divided Methodists

Their latest convention showed some growing fissures -- over liberalism.

By 6.2.08

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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.

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
related to church work) are not individually considered by the full body of about 1,000 delegates.

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.

One of the clearest demonstrations of the fact that the overwhelmed delegates have often not even read many of the petitions was this General Conference's overwhelming endorsement of a statement-at the behest of the denomination's powerful Women's Division-that at one point calls for participation in a conference in the year 2001!

Of course, this devotion to stridently left-wing politics is nothing new for the hierarchy of United Methodism. Under such influences as the Social Gospel movement and theological liberalism, many leaders in American Methodism and other "mainline" Protestant denominations in the early 20th century, rejected-or at least questioned the importance of-traditional Christian doctrine on such key religious matters as the authority of the Bible and the divinity of Christ, while seeking to redefine the church's primary mission into promoting political transformation of society.

The radicalization of mainline Protestant institutions was further accelerated by the social upheavals of the '60s and '70s. (One United Methodist pastor friend of that generation recently told me about receiving academic credit in seminary for participation in protest marches.)

But while many conservative United Methodists have left for greener denominational pastures, many others are staying in and working to take their church back from its decades of liberal dominance. Powerful demographic factors appear to bode well for the prospects of a successful turnaround of United Methodism. The denomination has much stronger historical ties and a much stronger modern presence than other mainline Protestant denominations in culturally conservative Southern and rural parts of the country. Generally speaking, the denomination's more liberal-dominated areas are losing members (and thus influence within the denomination) more rapidly than other portions of the denomination.

It is not terribly surprising that liberal churches would have trouble growing when they downplay the importance of evangelism, or that they would struggle to even maintain their membership when they offer no greater answer to people's deepest spiritual longings than opportunities to sign eco-feminism manifestos or listen to stale platitudes about "peace and justice" (invariably defined as reflexive endorsement of the secular Left's political priorities of the day).

Perhaps most significantly, while the U.S.-based denomination continues to shrink in this country, it is growing rapidly in Africa. Now constituting one-third of the denomination's membership, African members
are passionate about evangelism and excited about the church working to directly provide for pressing human needs.

The Africans tend to have little patience for the theological and biblical revisionism of much of the U.S. United Methodist establishment and little use for barely read, hastily adopted, and quickly forgotten pronouncements by leftist church officials on domestic U.S. political concerns.

AT THIS GENERAL CONFERENCE, the church's liberal activist wing failed to demonstrate the firm control one would expect from decades of dominance. One of their top priorities, for the church to pursue "divestment"
against Israel, was overwhelmingly rejected.

While the denomination's official position on abortion has been pro-choice since 1972, it has been inching in a more pro-life direction since. This General Conference overwhelmingly adopted statements (over
opposition from liberal leaders) that describe abortion as "violent," oppose abortions chosen for "trivial reasons," and that "affirm and encourage the Church to assist the ministry of crisis pregnancy centers and pregnancy resource centers that compassionately help women find feasible alternatives to abortion."

And on the most prominent point of conservative-liberal struggle, the General Conference decisively voted to maintain its statement that homosexual practice is "inconsistent with Christian teaching" and the related prohibitions on same-sex union ceremonies and the ordination of "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals."

While few within or without the United Methodist Church would be aware of them, the radical political resolutions adopted at this General Conference are not particularly new phenomena. The concerted efforts by conservative and moderate U.S. members with the denomination's growing African constituency are relatively new and only likely to intensify in the future.

John Lomperis is a research associate for the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

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John Lomperis writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.