This article is part of a series of writings about the new “Uniting Methodists” caucus group within the UMC, led by Adam Hamilton, some high-profile leaders within general agency and liberal caucus circles, and others. Within these articles, I have put in bold sentences for which I would especially welcome feedback in the comments if I have missed something major. I have put *stars in front of the names of individuals on the “Uniting Methodists” leadership team. Articles in this series will be released over the course of several days. Each article examines the “Uniting Methodists” group in light of the following:
In looking at specific controversies within the United Methodist Church on issues other than sexual morality, I have not seen much “centrism” from leaders of the new “Uniting Methodists” caucus in terms of what any have prioritized enough about to take a public stand or spend any energy on within the last five or six years.
If I have missed anything major on the issues below, please let me know in the comments. If there is anyone within “Uniting Methodists” willing to work with traditionalists like me on shared values in any such area, I would love to hear from you if you email umaction at theird dot org. But here is what I have actually seen:
The UMC’s Social and Political Witness
Another major dividing issue concerns disagreements over the extent and nature of the involvement of the United Methodist Church – in terms of its actual congregations and apportionment-funded institutions, rather than individual members – should be involved in secular politics.
One main “side” has been promoted by the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) and Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA), both of which urge the church to actively promote positions on a seemingly limitless range of secular political issues, consistently lining up with the left wing of the Democratic Party in the United States.
I know of no major force within the UMC urging a “mirror image” of seeking to have the UMC actively involved in just as wide a range of secular political controversies, only while being as uncritically and reflexively aligned with the right wing of the Republican Party as GBCS and MFSA are with the left wing of the Democratic Party.
IRD/UMAction, however has been the primary advocate for an alternative approach, urging that church representatives who publicly speak on political issues do so in a way that is limited, non-partisan, biblically and theologically rooted, and which recognizes that the majority of public policy debates are not clear debates of good vs. evil but rather about differing prudential judgments for advancing and balancing commonly shared values. And it’s simply embarrassing for mainstream United Methodists to hear of denominational agencies publicly taking such a combination of stances as calling for investing in North Korea, divesting from Israel, legalizing prostitution, and stopping criminal background checks even for childcare workers. I outlined more of our vision here, explaining the basis of our critique of the GBCS’s approach and noting concerns related to blasphemy, humility, and mission. The 2008 General Conference overwhelmingly adopted a resolution I wrote offering this vision in a more positive form.
To my pleasant surprise, last April *Doug Damron and *Mike Slaughter’s UMCM group did share a response from my friends at Good News magazine, basically reflecting IRD/UMAction’s concerns, of some partisan echo-chamber rhetoric from the GBCS. UMCM called this critique of the GBCS statement “A fair assessment.” Hey, I’ll give credit wherever it’s due.
But beyond that single post, I am not aware of anyone in “Uniting Methodists” directly critiquing MFSA or the GBCS’s approach, although several, including folk with UMCM, strongly criticizing IRD/UMAction’s approach.
As for other “Uniting Methodists” leaders…
I have already mentioned *Lonnie Chafin and *James Howell’s involvement as GBCS board members. We at IRD/UMAction routinely observe almost every GBCS board meeting. There are a few board members who could be classified as moderating influences within what is generally a liberal groupthink culture. But while it is possible I missed something, I do not recall *Chafin or *Howell offering significantly moderating influences, aside from a single brief comment the former made about North Korea several years ago.
At last year’s General Conference, *Chafin went out of his way to not only declare his personal support for a single-payer healthcare system in the United States (a stance that puts him to the left of much of the Democratic Party), but to insist on having a resolution making his ideological preferences on such debatable political matters THE official position of the whole denomination.
Even aside from denomination-wide agencies, most of us would prefer that our pastors stay away from public political partisanship, in or beyond the pulpit, as this inevitably reflects on our congregations. *Pastor Magrey DeVega evidently has a different attitude, judging by his numerous tweets expressing appreciation for one of the major U.S. political parties and disapproval of the leaders of the other. His tweets critiquing Republican leaders seem less along the lines of “here is a concern about Christian values that I am raising about something in public life in a carefully non-partisan way” and more schoolyard mockery of the sort designed to make folk in his own camp feel superior, win over no one, and deepen polarization.
While there are other examples I could cite from other “Uniting Methodists,” the bottom line is that I am not aware of any of them being as publicly pro-Republican and anti-Democratic in an equal and opposite manner to DeVega.
One notable voice worth highlighting is *Mike McCurry, best known as President Clinton’s former press secretary. While I have some major differences with him, I have observed him publicly urge the church as a whole (in contrast to individual United Methodists) to be restrained in the breadth and depth of its political involvement, in ways consistent with what much of we have said.
However, it is also striking if the most moderating voice in “Uniting Methodists” with regard to the UMC’s social witness is a longtime partisan Democratic political operative.
If “centrists” can be defined as including folk who are liberal on some polarizing issues and conservative on others, then one of the more common such combinations nowadays in the United States is folk being liberal on sexuality but pro-life on abortion.
However, I have not seen much along these lines from “Uniting Methodists” leaders. I have heard things about some of them privately having some pro-life leanings. In one of his books, *Slaughter mentions being pro-life, at least several years ago. *Hamilton’s much earlier “Confronting the Controversies” video series included a segment on abortion that can be interpreted as hinting in a pro-life direction. I appreciate both of those.
But what I have seen that is public from “Uniting Methodists” leaders in recent years is rather different.
I am not aware of anyone involved in “Uniting Methodists” doing anything at either of the last two General Conferences to help with pro-life concerns, such as the successful effort our denomination’s affiliation with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC).
With their joint slate with their MFSA allies, *Damron and *Slaughter essentially worked to, among other things, elect strong abortion defenders, in place of pro-life evangelical candidates, to the 2016 West Ohio delegation.
Right before RCRC was voted on at the last General Conference, *Damron rushed to the microphone to basically try to appeal to the presiding bishop to prevent delegates from voting on the matter, on the grounds that the Conference had earlier voted to table “sexuality-related” petitions.
*Damron’s (thankfully unsuccessful) attempt was downright cruel in several ways. There is of course the obvious of how by defending the status quo, this powerful man was defending merciless, dehumanizing violence. If *Damron’s appeal had been successful, this would have heavy-handedly forcibly silenced many United Methodists who had been in such anguish over RCRC’s extremism and had been waiting for years to finally get a hearing for our concerns about this group using our church’s name. This extremism includes RCRC’s opposing any restriction on abortion, its calling all abortions “holy work,” its harsh demonization of pro-lifers, and its Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom program publishing a paper by a self-described “Wiccan High Priestess” declaring that “All consensual sex is good, even when it is simply a pleasure shared between friends.”
*Damron’s appeal was particularly cruel towards those of us who had been at the previous General Conference, been overjoyed at how the relevant committee had miraculously recommended ending our denomination’s affiliation with RCRC, only to be crushed by the full session of delegates never getting around to voting on this after it was classified as “a sexuality issue” (over the objections of conservative and even some relatively fair-minded liberal leaders). *Damron evidently wanted to do this to once again, after we had already been unfairly forced to wait another four years.
If *Damron had gotten his way, his heavy-handed parliamentary trick would have silenced discussion, prevented delegates from enacting, or even discussing, an urgent concern supported by a strong majority, and preserved another several years of this extremist, strident political group claiming to represent United Methodism, and making folk who question the “holiness” of abortion feel unwelcome in the UMC.
I would love to hear if I missed anything, but again I have not heard of any “Uniting Methodists” leader saying anything publicly to encourage pro-life efforts at the last General Conference.
I have also seen *Del Rosario retweet a statement broadly defending abortion while appearing to broadly identify pro-lifers with people who murder abortionists.
I have not seen any Uniting Methodists leader similarly critique abortion defenders.
The Arab-Israeli Conflict
For some reason, some have felt the need to make this a prominent debate within our denomination.
Many United Methodists are pro-Israel to varying degrees while others are, to varying degrees, more pro-Palestinian / anti-Israel. Some of the latter have gone so far as to urge General Conference to divest United Methodist holdings from various sorts of companies doing business with Israel and simplistically accused of “profiting from the occupation.” In recent years, the GBCS, with which *Chafin and *Howell are affiliated, has become a main force pushing this approach. This perspective only represents a minority faction of the church, as demonstrated by how such proposals have been overwhelmingly defeated at one General Conference after another.
In 2014, *Slaughter’s church hosted a conference that went much further by promoting the more comprehensive “Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions” (BDS) campaign, which one speaker defined as “boycotting all things Israeli.” I reported at the time about the extremism of how speakers at this conference callously dismissed concerns about such things as Hamas’s rocket attacks, hateful Palestinian media, and Israel providing a much-needed haven for Jews driven out of other Middle Eastern lands, while rather unfairly demonizing Israel.
This event was sponsored by the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM). Under the leadership of Thomas Kemper, the GBGM has continued the anti-Israel advocacy pursued under his predecessors, despite earlier hopes, when Kemper first came aboard, that he may share his fellow Germans’ reluctance to single out the world’s lone Jewish state for negative treatment.
*George Howard is a longtime leader in GBGM and now serves as a right-hand man and senior officer to Mr. Kemper.
I am not aware of any “Uniting Methodists” leader with any equivalent level of involvement in a pro-Israel group or even in opposing Israel divestment proposals.
Africans make up some 40 percent of our denomination’s membership, but in many ways remain tokenized and under-represented in leadership. Some of us have strongly advocated shifting more power to allow more African seats at the table as a basic matter of fairness, as this would make representation proportional to the geographic distribution of membership. Others have resisted or suggested that the current system is already doing enough or even too much to be inclusive of Africans.
There are a couple of key places where this controversy plays out.
First, I acknowledge that as a fellow delegate in my General Conference sub-committee last year, *Chafin did join me in supporting a motion, originally submitted by my wife, to require fuller translations for non-American delegates at future General Conferences. (Again, in this article series, I am noting positive exceptions wherever I can find them.) However, the sub-committee vote was nearly unanimous, so his support was not really exceptional.
Secondly, for the last several years there have been various proposals that have been unofficially nicknamed “Global Segregation Plans.” The basic idea is to set up some new central conference or other structure in which Americans will make key decisions for themselves on a range of matters with zero input from African and other overseas delegates. Renewal groups have long opposed this for several reasons, including but not limited to how liberal groups have pushed this as an eventual means of liberalizing our church’s sexuality standards in at least the United States. This would also drastically limit African power in many inter-connected pieces in the life of the UMC, especially given how many UMC institutions with very global influences are headquartered in the United States, right at the time when Africans are becoming more outspoken in denominational affairs.
In our General Conference committee last year, this was one of several issues on which *Chafin and I cordially sparred.
Through their UMCM group, *Damron and *Slaughter have repeatedly pushed creating a U.S.-only central conference, offering such arguments as calling for “doing away with the unique, dominating status the American church has in this global denomination.” Such rhetoric is highly misleading, as it obscures how the primarily practical effect of such global segregation would be to dramatically limit and establish permanent barriers to African power in the governance of United Methodism, while doing nothing to address the ways Americans are unfairly dominant relative to Africans.
I am unaware of any “Uniting Methodists” leader having recently publicly opposed such global segregation proposals.
Thirdly, on one denomination-wide leadership body after another, Africans are structurally limited to a few token slots. Perhaps the worst offender in this regard is the GBCS. While other agencies have restructured their boards of directors, the GBCS has basically chosen to keep its rules systematically limiting Africans to only three seats out of some five dozen. I have not observed *Chafin or *Howell, or any other “Uniting Methodists” leader, try to change such under-representation of Africans.
In fact, two years ago, I complained of this on Twitter and was almost immediately challenged by *Chafin. Rather than admitting this clear mathematical imbalance and offering to use his influence to try to fix this, Chafin replied to me (in a tweet that I have saved) “should Africans set GBCS stand on US foreign policy? On domestic policy? Wouldn’t this b farther from ppl in pews?” This was an odd way to justify the marginalization of Africans by GBCS. After all, when GBCS takes its many stances on policies of non-American governments, I have not seen anyone similarly suggest that American United Methodists should have no more than a token voice in such debates.
In fact, in only the previous year, *Chafin took a very different approach to Americans taking stances on the policies of African countries. As the GBCS board was preparing to endorse a resolution denouncing “homophobia and heterosexism,” Bishop Christian Alsted of Denmark expressed concern that this petition “is written out of a Western perspective.” It was revealed that this resolution was written without involving input from United Methodist leaders in Africa or Eastern Europe. Bishop Alsted said, “I am worried that we in the West will impose on the world something without first hearing them. We may wish to still say what this resolution is saying, but we need to respect and hear them first.”
*Chafin pushed in an opposite direction by (unsuccessfully) proposing an amendment calling for educational “materials relevant to the members of central conferences contexts.” He said that he did not intend to insult anyone, but “[t]here is a continent where” gay rights are severely restricted, and so he urged fellow directors to “not pretend that that’s not a reality.” To be clear, I would agree with Chafin that some of the draconian restrictions on self-identified members of the LGBTQ community in some African countries should be opposed as a basic matter of neighbor-love. But it is a striking double standard to justify the systematic exclusion of Africans from the table when the GBCS discusses American government policies – including those with very direct impacts on African countries – while having no African involvement in GBCS discussions of African countries’ policies, or at least no involvement beyond Westerners talking among themselves about how they need to educate the Africans with their superior wisdom.
I am not aware of any of the all-American leadership team of “Uniting Methodists” publicly calling or significantly working to bring increased, proportional representation for Africans on the GBCS and other denomination-wide leadership groups.