Dr. Riley Case, a retired United Methodist District Superintendent in Indiana, author of “Evangelical & Methodist: A Popular History,” and Associate Director of the Confessing Movement, has written this review of my book “Methodism & Politics in the 20th Century.” Riley is himself an apt observer of Methodist history, having experienced quite a bit of it himself! He offers insights about the century that place my book in context
METHODISM AND POLITICS IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
By Dr. Riley Case
Methodists have always, it seems, been optimists. That is, they have believed in the perfectibility of human nature, and, by extension, in the perfectibility of society. No one, it seems, has talked more about the social order than the Methodists in America during the 20th century. And no one, it seems, has been so quick to offer advice, insights, pronouncements, resolutions, pontifications, and opinions as to how the social order should be arranged and who should do the arranging. War, peace, temperance, revolutionary movements in far-off countries, social policy-no political topic has been too complex or too controversial or two obscure to escape Methodist comment.
Mark Tooley has made a positive contribution to The United Methodist Church by gathering a good cross-sampling of these comments and pronouncements in his new book, Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century (Bristol Books). Tooley covers a lot of ground. The book contains 385 pages with 59 pages of footnotes and another 22 pages of index.
The 20th century started with Methodism the predominant Protestant institution in America. Methodist leaders were middle class and basically conservative. In this era conservative was not the same as “evangelical.” The evangelicals of the day were the revivalists, the gospel hymn writers, and the holiness advocates. Their ministers came from the ranks of the Course of Study, not from the seminaries. Evangelicals stressed personal morality and addressed issues like dancing, tobacco, family worship, and modesty. They thought it unbecoming to get involved in politics, which they saw as compromise with a fallen world.
Conservatives were represented by such persons as William McKinley, the first president who was an active Methodist. McKinley appeared to believe America was the hope of the world. He remarked about the Philippines, which fell into American hands after the Spanish-American War: America should keep the Philippines because it offered the opportunity to “uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.”
But theological modernism was on the way. Historic Christianity was an impediment to the faith. Borden Parker Bowne, the most influential early modernist remarked:
Whether in government, or in humanity, or in morals, or in social forms and religious thinking, the most bitter and determined enemy of progress has been the ecclesiastical organization. About this there can be no question.
Bowne believed that forward-looking intellectuals should lead the church and the nation out of the “swamps of ignorance.”
Numbers of persons felt they were qualified to be the forward-looking intellectuals to lead the church and nation out of the swamps of ignorance. In 1907 a newly formed group, Methodists Federated for Social Service (now MFSA), offered to the Methodists and other denominations the Social Creed which called for the abolition of child labor, release from employment one day in seven, for the recognition of the Gold Rule and the mind of Christ as the supreme law of society and the sure remedy for all social ills. The General Conference of the ME Church adopted the creed and indicated that the Federation would be the unofficial official voice of social conscience for the church.
The modernists were caught up in the fervor of inevitable progress. Theologically they jettisoned traditional Christian teachings like original sin. They believed in building on the goodness of humankind to build a new social order. First, however, the allies would need to win World War I, defeat nationalism, and then set up a League of Nations which would outlaw war and poverty. Both liberals and conservatives (and evangelicals) also believed alcohol should be outlawed in national Prohibition.
When the League of Nations failed, and poverty and injustice persisted in the world, Methodist liberals or progressives took a more radical step. Fair labor practices were not enough. Evil was more deeply entrenched and could be identified as militarism, nationalism, capitalism, and the profit motive. The Methodist Federation for Social Service proposed to do away with greed by the imposition of some form of socialism or communism. It seemed that during the 1930s the Federation could not say enough nice things about the Soviet experiment.
Meanwhile, most of Methodism continued life as if the progressive proposals did not exist. They preached Jesus Christ crucified, fought against tobacco, supported the Christian home and the family altar, and observed Race Relations Sunday, Soil Conservation Sunday, Temperance Sundays, and Mother’s Day.
As World War II was approaching Methodism’s liberal elite believed America should not go to war under any circumstances. America and the allies should reason with Hitler in a civilized manner. The Methodist and the United Brethren official stance, supported by the General Conferences, was pacifism. In 1944 after Hitler had gassed 6 million Jews and much of Europe was in ruins, the General Conference of the Methodist Church finally allowed for the possibility of a just war. As an indication of the disconnect between the forward-looking intellectuals and the rest of the church fewer than 900 Methodists signed as conscientious objectors during the war years. The number of Methodists who were part of America’s armed services and who gave their lives in the war numbered in the hundreds of thousands.
Meanwhile the fascination for socialism and communism continued. In 1947 MFSA, still the unofficial official social action voice for Methodism, wrote into its constitution:
The Federation rejects the method of the struggle for profit as the economic basis for society, and seeks to replace it with socio-economic planning to develop a society without class or group discrimination or privilege.
Finally a group of conservative laypersons roused the church In 1950 Reader’s Digest carried its famous article “Is There a Pink Fringe in the Methodist Church?” The General Conference of 1952 pulled its support from (now) MFSA and created a new church agency, The Board of Social and Economic Relations, to do its social and political advocacy. Liberals opposed the agency because they believed conservatives might be represented on the board. No worry. Progressives gravitated to and soon dominated that board and its eventual successor, the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS). The progressive agenda now became official.
Since 1972 when the General Conference made GBCS a virtually independent superboard, the church has been treated to continuous and regular barrages on innumerable subjects, almost always from a liberal perspective. Many of these barrages can be found in the Book of Resolutions which, it is estimated, might fill up 1,200 pages after its 2012 printing.
Is there anything to be learned from all of this?
1) The church needs to recognize that there is a tremendous imbalance between its social pronouncements and the preaching of the gospel. The recent General Conference talked in general about the mission of the church as winning disciples for Jesus Christ, but it is hard to see where the conference took that mission statement with any seriousness. An inordinate amount of time was spent on items of diversity and inclusiveness and social ills and matters of interest to progressives. Someone wondered whether an outsider to the conference would conclude that for United Methodists this is all that there is.
2) The disconnect between the elitists’ obsession with liberal politics and the views of common ordinary United Methodists needs to be recognized and addressed. It is almost as if there is disdain for United Methodists in the pew. In every study that has been taken United Methodists have identified themselves as moderate to conservative on social, political and doctrinal matters. Methodists who are members of congress are nearly twice as apt to be Republican than Democrat. Yet it is hard to find any Republicans on any of the seminary faculties or among the bishops or on general agency staffs. No wonder there is a lack of confidence in our agencies.
3) Despite significant differences in the church, all United Methodists need to affirm our denomination’s interest in the solutions to the sins, the injustices, and the ills of our day. The full gospel of Jesus Christ is a personal gospel but it has social implications.
However, if the church is truly interested in diversity it will include various political and social perspectives in the ongoing conversation as to how the church can best use its influence for good. For starters it could positively engage persons like Mark Tooley and persons associated with the Institute of Religion and Democracy (IRD). UMAction is the United Methodist component of IRD that has the support of numbers of what might well be the majority of United Methodists.
Perhaps a future article on United Methodism and Politics in the Twenty-First Century would offer a story we could all feel proud about.