What are good and bad ways for a church or denomination to officially address political issues?
Few churches can honestly say that they have no witness on social issues whatsoever. Most of those declining large denominations known as “oldline” maintain political lobby offices on Capitol Hill. Numerous more evangelical denominations maintain at least a low-budget social-concerns commission or support socially active ecumenical groups like the National Association of Evangelicals. Anywhere the full Gospel is preached, this will inevitably have some social implications.
Last month, I observed the semi-annual board of directors meeting of the D.C. lobby office of my denomination, the United Methodist Church. This office, officially called the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), is fabulously wealthy, with $17 million in reserves and a recently-approved 2015 budget of some $7.3 million, a nine percent increase from 2014 spending.
Some GBCS activities are things that widely supported by people across the ideological spectrum, such as decrying racist caricatures of Native Americans.
But this meeting also repeatedly offered disappointing but instructive demonstrations of what NOT to do in church involvement in politics (a separate question than the involvement of Christian individuals).
To be fair to its current CEO, the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, it is worth noting that she has been at GBCS for less than a year, and much of the problems represent decades of momentum she has inherited.
But regardless of who is responsible for what, the case study of the last GBCS board meeting showcased an instructive list of seven key ingredients for how churches can go astray when they delve into political controversies:
1. Have a Flawed Biblical and Theological Foundation
If a church gets this part of any effort wrong, it should not feel good about the rest.
I reported here on how this last meeting featured selective biblical proof-texting, direct disagreement with key parts of New Testament teaching (with many present apparently not even noticing this), irreverent sloppiness in how God was talked about, and the encouragement of a rather secularized attitude about the sorts of communities churches are supposed to be.
2. Let the Staff Implementing Your Church’s Social Witness be a Self-Perpetuating Ideological Monolith
Most of the current GBCS staff were hired by Henry-Crowe’s predecessor, Jim Winkler. The senior staff is as ideologically monolithic as it gets, outspokenly supportive of unofficial liberal United Methodists caucuses and in dogmatic lock-step with the left wing of the Democratic Party.
In my observation, senior staffers are not content to simply carry out the work and support the causes entrusted to them by the denomination or their own board. They are sometimes rather unrestrained in injecting their opinions into the conversation to steer directors and the agency’s work according to the staffers’ liking. As at this meeting, the GBCS staff also frequently invite in outside experts to “educate” directors, but seem carefully selective in bringing in people in line with the staff’s personal political biases.
During a budgetary portion of the meeting, it was shared that a senior staffer who has been outspokenly liberal in opposing more conservative parts of official United Methodist teaching on sexual morality and abortion is leading an effort to seek large donations from outside of official church channels to fund work the unrepresentative GBCS leadership wants to do. In other words, unaccountable activists openly opposed to the denomination’s own doctrinal and moral teachings are entrusted with doing the external fundraising that will shape which causes the UMC’s official political lobby office does and does not advocate on Capitol Hill, as well as the direction in which the GBCS works to re-educate church members on social issues.
3. Have Unrepresentative Oversight
Both the GBCS staff and board are rather heavily ideologically stacked, so that this agency of the whole church continues to cater almost exclusively to one particular minority faction in the UMC of zealously uncompromising American liberals.
American members of the GBCS board of directors include a Democratic congressional staffer from the Southeast, the former CEO of the Reconciling Ministries Network, a paid staffer of the Methodist Federation for Social Action, a young gay activist who blogged for RMN about how the same-sex marriage cause is insufficiently radical, a young Oklahoman whose election to the last General Conference was singled out for celebration on the RMN blog, another young woman who at this meeting openly displayed her support for a partisan political group devoted to electing only Democratic women who support grisly “partial-birth” abortions, and progressive United Methodists’ go-to legal advocate for various clergy put on trial for violating our denomination’s biblical sexuality standards. I do not know of a single GBCS director with equivalent credentials on the theologically orthodox or politically conservative (not the same thing) sides.
And while the denomination is increasingly global, the GBCS has chosen to continue systematically marginalizing non-Americans. With their token slots, Africans constitute less than five percent of the GBCS board of directors, despite being roughly 40 percent of church members. Meanwhile, the radicalized U.S. Western Jurisdiction enjoys on the GBCS board a double share of its proportionate membership.
A rather high-profile example of the GBCS representing only a minority faction of the denomination was its heavy lobbying in favor of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).
At this meeting, directors passed a resolution acknowledging that “Some United Methodist Conferences have discontinued their own health insurance program in favor of clergy obtaining their coverage in the Health Insurance Marketplaces.” In other words, in the aftermath of the health-care overhaul legislation for which the GBCS lobbied so heavily, without consulting with our denomination’s own laity and clergy, some United Methodist clergy are being directly impacted by losing their health-insurance plans that they liked.
4. Try to Do Too Much, Poorly
But GBCS is not interested in focusing on doing fewer things well. For the next General Conference, the GBCS is reviewing and revising over a HUNDRED political resolutions for re-adoption. Official United Methodist resolutions are not completely binding and automatically expire in eight years unless the GBCS or someone else asks General Conference to re-adopt them, with or without revisions. But the GBCS bears responsibility for each time it decides to insist on keeping or lengthening an item in our denomination’s already unmanageably long Book of Resolutions, which approximately 99 percent of United Methodist laity will never see. Directors did agree to let a few obsolete or redundant resolutions expire.
Bishop Robert Hoshibata, the GBCS president, and the Rev. Molly Vetter pushed forward a consent-calendar process to streamline the approval of political resolutions. As a third director, Randall Miller explained, “If we spent a lot of time on each resolution, then we can’t get it done.” (All three are from the Western Jurisdiction.)
Practically speaking, this streamlined process will likely mean even less opportunity for substantive debate before lefty political resolutions are hastily adopted, and drastically curtailing the ability of directors who are not Lock-step Liberals to have a voice in the process.
But even when it does have time, the GBCS appears uninterested in making the most of it.
The final day’s plenary session was run in such a way that directors rushed through passing resolution after resolution with an alarming dearth of substantial discussion, and with very powerful social pressures against anyone who may want to “bog down” the hurried process in too much discussion.
GBCS leaders actually treated it as an accomplishment that they ended the meeting several hours ahead of the time budgeted in their schedule.
But this meant not doing the actual work the church has entrusted to the GBCS of carefully reviewing the concerns and resolutions before it, taking care to only submit them for General Conference approval after making them the best, blind-spot-free resolutions as possible on the issues at hand. It was not clear how many directors were even aware of how radically some resolutions they passed attacked basic bioethical standards. A resolution addressing the pros and cons of international adoption said nothing to clearly encourage more Christian couples to consider adoption, and ignored the draconian anti-orphan laws of recent years in Russia and elsewhere that have sentenced countless children to languish in orphanages with drastically curtailed hopes of being adopted. Such sins of omission would be more excusable if the GBCS would explicitly admit that it cannot realistically address every social concern and so will focus on only addressing a few issues well, rather than every issue, unevenly.
Getting out early gave directors (at least those who had not booked their planes to leave early) time to go sight-seeing in Washington, D.C. When the GBCS takes offering-plate apportionments to pay for people’s plane tickets to come and do important church work, it seems that the GBCS is okay with the quality of this church work being rather demonstrably hurt so that church leaders can enjoy some apportionment-funded personal vacation time.
5. Be Hyper-Partisan
Among the causes the GBCS promoted at this meeting were gay rights, taxpayer funding for unproven, human-embryo-killing research, defending organized labor, fighting “fracking,” making dire warnings about global climate change, and criticizing Israel.
In all of this, the advocacy appears to be governed by a very powerful, ironclad rule: on all the countless political issues on which the GBCS lobbies, it will, to my informed knowledge, never, ever disagree with the left wing of the U.S. Democratic Party.
Thus, rather than serving as a morally consistent, truly prophetic voice, calling all parties and politicians to a higher standard, the GBCS has over the years chosen to act as little more than a subservient, uncritical pawn of secular political movements outside of the church, ignoring the resultant blind spots.
The GBCS is also often partisan in an even more fundamental sense. Its advocacy on various social and political conflicts often seems based on judging one side to be “the bad guys,” and so issuing all sorts of strong criticisms and demands for stringent government-enforced accountability for them while reflexively dismissing most of their concerns. At the same time, others are apparently judged as “the good guys,” and so zealously treated as above direct criticism.
For example, directors at this meeting passed a resolution that broadly opposed violence in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but continued liberal United Methodism’s ignoble tradition of limiting direct criticism only to Israel.
In revising an older resolution on the “Rights of Workers,” directors actually removed from this very labor-friendly statement a brief section opposing violence committed either against or by labor organizers and calling on unions to “be truthful about employers,” “bargain in good faith,” operate according to “democratic process,” and have “financial integrity.”
Thankfully, not all directors are okay with the GBCS becoming an echo chamber. Bill Stikes, a layman from North Georgia, politely spoke against a resolution calling for “single-payer” government-run health care, noting that this did not reflect the views of many valued church members.
Right after his remarks were respectfully heard, the resolution was overwhelmingly adopted anyway, with only a handful of dissenting votes.
6. Shield the Church’s Social-Witness Leaders from Accountability
Under Winkler, the previous CEO, the GBCS was largely given free rein to oppose any official United Methodist position with which the staff personally disagreed.
The UMC’s governing Book of Discipline charges the GBCS with operating within certain boundaries, such as the denomination’s “Social Principles.” However accountability rests within the GBCS’s own ideologically stacked staff and board (see #2 & 3), who have a long-developed culture of a shared commitment to not only personally disagreeing with certain parts of UMC doctrinal and moral teaching, but also to cynically violating their own standards in order to use this official church agency to oppose the church’s own teaching. I even know of one liberal staffer who was reportedly fired for defending the UMC’s Social Principles against the contrary positions of an outside far-left political group!
For years, there has simply been no effective accountability.
Rev. Henry-Crowe certainly has a friendlier personality than her predecessor. But so far, she has used the bully pulpit the church has given to her to oppose the compassionate, biblical position of the Social Principles on homosexuality, and joined the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) in lobbying for, among other things, the repeal of a law preventing U.S. taxpayer dollars from being used to perform abortions as a means of birth control (never mind that the UMC Social Principles explicitly oppose abortion as a means of birth control). There has also been no decisive about-face from the GBCS earlier this year illegally closing a key meeting.
7. Lobby Directly Against Clear Biblical and Historic Christian Values
As reported earlier, at this meeting the GBCS chose to pick major fights at the next General Conference over its vehement rejection of traditional Christian teaching on sexual morality and the value of human life at its earliest stages. GBCS staffers can one day talk about seeing women and children “as children of God with sacred worth” and see no contradiction with the next day making very clear that an unborn child has no sacred worth, and is utterly unworthy of God’s or the church’s compassion, if s/he is guilty of the Unforgivable Sin of being unwanted by his or her mother.
Such embarrassing advocacy by the GBCS on specific hot-button issues is the “ingredient” of a faulty social-witness that usually gets the most attention. But the first six ingredients lay a strong foundation for such an unfortunate result.