A prominent Tea Party activist recently called for shutting down the 7.8 million United Methodist Church, exciting the Huffington Post and various liberal bloggers. Tea Party Nation President Judson Phillips last month saw and disliked a banner at the Methodist Building on Capitol Hill demanding: "Pass the DREAM Act." The sign referred, of course, to now failed legislation seeking to legalize some illegal aliens brought to the U.S. as minors.
"I have a DREAM," Phillips responded. "That is, no more United Methodist Church." He recalled having left Methodism as a teenager because the denomination is "little more than the first Church of Karl Marx" and the "'religious arm' of socialism."
Phillips notes, not inaccurately, that the Methodist denomination, officially, is "pro-illegal immigration" and "in the bag for socialist health care," opposed U.S. force after 9/11, is big on Global Warming, and is anti-Israel.
"In short, if you hate America, you have a great future in the Methodist church," Phillips concluded, while admitting "some good people" and a "few decent ministers" persist at the "local level." The "few remaining patriots" in Methodism should quit their denomination, he urged. And the Tea Partier observed that his dream of Methodism's death could happen "sooner, rather than later," given the denomination's imploding demographics.
One United Methodist bishop responded to Phillips' "visceral attacks," which she said reflected neither "American values nor the Christian faith." But she did pledge to pray for him even while he was dreaming of Methodism's demise. This particular bishop, from Arizona, is especially outspoken for Methodism's virtual open borders advocacy. Ironically, Methodism in Arizona, whose state population is over one third Hispanic, has almost no Hispanic congregations. United Methodism across the U.S. is less than 2 percent Hispanic and is overwhelmingly white Anglo and aging. Once America's largest Protestant church, the denomination has lost over 3 million members, with almost no end in sight for its U.S. section. In contrast, African United Methodism is growing rapidly and will eventually be a majority of the church.
My own experience growing up Methodist is not dissimilar to Phillips'. As a boy in a 1970s Sunday school class, I never forgot an official United Methodist Sunday school lesson focused on the injustice of interning Japanese Americans during World War II. Although historically interesting, it did not seem like a Bible lesson. And it did evince that the Religious Left has long commonly portrayed the U.S as a uniquely malevolent force in the world. We didn't have any Sunday school lessons about imperial Japanese atrocities, or the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews.
If Phillips had visited the Methodist Building 25 years ago, he would have found much more to justify his critique. The nearly 90-year-old prominent lobby presence right across from the U.S. Capitol and U.S. Supreme Court during the 1980s was busily advocating on behalf of the Sandinistas, El Salvador's Marxist guerrillas, and numerous other dubious, oppressive causes. These outrageous stances by Methodist and other Mainline Protestant elites, effectively siding with totalitarianism during the Cold War, motivated me as a college student to start working for reform in my denomination, eventually leading to my current employment with the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
Unlike Phillips seemingly, I did not equate the far left politics of denominational elites with the church as a whole. My own local congregation was conservative leaning and completely unaware of the Methodist lobby office, though it stood less than 10 miles away from my Arlington, Virginia church. Today, as then, Methodists and most Mainline Protestants are largely oblivious to the official church lobbyists who claim to represent them. One poll shows that 14 percent of Tea Partiers are Mainline Protestant. But the United Methodist Church's official support for "single-payer" health care prompted U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi publicly to thank the denomination by name for helping to pass Obamacare, shocking many previously oblivious church members.
The vast array of political stances by United Methodism and many Mainline Protestant groups (Methodism's "Book of Resolutions" has over 1,000 pages) are approved mostly without substantive debate at church conventions. Non-liberal delegates usually conserve their energy for theological debates. Although uninformed, and mostly unsupportive when informed, local church members still fund and are ultimately responsible for the political lobbying waged by their denominations.
Wishing death for Methodism or other Mainline denominations seems harsh. Wracked by decades of decline, these churches are reaping the whirlwind of nearly 100 years of Social Gospel liberalism. But there remain large pockets of orthodoxy and vibrancy. With its large and growing overseas membership, United Methodism is especially prone for a comeback, even as its most liberal U.S. regions fade or die.
A recent survey showed Methodism on the West Coast, where it is most liberal, lost almost 8 percent of membership in just four recent years. The more moderate Southeast U.S. lost only about 1 percent. Overseas African churches, focused on evangelism and not on politics, gained nearly 30 percent in the same four-year period.
Phillips may be correct that demographics ultimately address Methodist liberalism. But I pray it's the church's renewal through its growing international membership, rather than its demise. And hopefully, a decade from now, the banners on the Capitol Hill Methodist Building will be less offensive, not just to Tea Partiers, but also to most Methodists.