How Marxism and Identity Politics Contributed to UMC Decline

on February 5, 2018

The United Methodist Church (UMC) began losing members in the United States shortly after its inception in 1968. Some United Methodists nowadays thus advocate for “getting back” to the status quo in the 1960s as a solution. But this fails to understand how rapidly changing American cultural and political ideas affected Methodism according to Dr. Kenneth Collins, professor of historical theology at Asbury Seminary and board member of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. Collins argued in a new academic paper that Marxism, identity politics, and other radical ideologies have altered society and infiltrated United Methodist institutions with ongoing implications for the denomination today.

In November 2017, Collins presented a paper entitled “The Missio Dei in the United States: The Challenge of a Baffling Cultural and Political Context” at an academic colloquium co-hosted by the UMC’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) and the Association of United Methodist Theological Schools (AUMTS) at Boston University. The paper will appear in the forthcoming book Missio Dei and the United States: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness, published by GBHEM later this year.

Collins presented a striking chart at the outset of his paper that chronicled the declining number of UMC adherents in the United States since 1970:

Much ink has been split attributing this troubling trend to a lack of faithfulness to orthodoxy and Wesleyanism, while urging the UMC to return “back to Wesley” in response. Others have advocated for a “sola sixties” fidelity to returning the UMC to its supposedly pristine state in the 1960s.

But Collins said the causes of this decline, and thus the response, remain more complicated. He argued that reinvigorating Methodism and redeeming American society requires greater nuance. This must involve understanding the cultural changes prior to the UMC’s creation, the tumultuous social context of the 1960s, and the cultural changes that have occurred since then.

Collins wrote that declining UMC membership traces back to growing cultural hostility toward Christianity. This trend stretches back at least as far as the American Civil War, when the Methodist Episcopal Church – probably the most influential branch of Methodism at the time – essentially buckled under cultural pressure. He explained that “the Methodist Episcopal Church basically abandoned the intellectual defense of Christianity in the face of its emerging critics.”

Methodism, reflective of Mainline Protestantism in general, began shifting its message from Gospel proclamation to promoting mere moral codes. But cultural acceptance of this morality began waning quickly. Collins identifies the moment when America began to reject Christian ethics in earnest:

By the time Prohibition was repealed in the 21st Amendment in December 1933, the nation had grown weary of this reforming cause, which had taken on ultraist proportions, and of those who had championed it. Indeed, Robert Handy in his engaging work, A Christian America, marks the year 1935 as the time when the cultural leaders of the nation, chaffing under the recently imposed Protestant morality with its array of taboos, set in earnest to remove Protestant leaders from cultural power.

These trends only gained steam during the following decades. By the time the UMC came about in the 1960s, Collins wrote “revolutionaries and radicals” had hit their stride:

The United Methodist Church formally emerged during a decade in which the rise of a new movement was to have enormous consequences for American culture in general and for the political climate in particular. The moral and cultural space that Methodism had once enjoyed in the early twentieth century with its social principles and reforms was soon taken over during the 1960s by revolutionaries and radicals who were unceasingly critical of most religion but especially the Christian faith.

The movement in question identified as the New Left. It embraced Marxist theory and developed identity politics as an extension. The movement targeted the Church and other pillars of traditional society in an effort to replace or co-opt them during “the move to a centralized state.”

Ultimately, Collins said “the embrace of identity politics” subsumed the New Left. This led to “a reworked leftism that hardened the distinctions of race and gender to set up a veritable tribal structure within American society.”

Not even the United Methodist Church remained exempt from this social transformation.

This ideology based on “the troika of race, gender and social class…and eventually sexual orientation” became “so culturally pervasive” that it infiltrated nearly every level of the UMC, from seminaries to annual conferences. Collins shared one rather shocking example from a workshop at the Kentucky Annual Conference:

During one of the sessions a sheet was passed out that contained the distinctions of white/black, male/female, gay/straight, rich/poor and numerical values of pluses and minuses were assigned to each category. Some of the ministers in attendance began to recognize that this calculus could easily result in racial and gender stereotyping, and even shaming, in which any given person was deemed guilty and blameworthy simply by being born into a certain group. Indeed, not even Jesus Christ would fare very well in such an analysis with two strikes, and possibly three, against him.

One tragic result of this worldview shift is that it has sidelined the Gospel. Both social engagement and individual sanctification become primarily viewed as political rather than spiritual.

For example, Collins cited the example of prominent British Methodist minister Cedric Mayson who completely distorted the Christian theology of personal transformation. Mayson not only equated Christ’s work with that of other religious and political leaders, but described it in essentially communist terms: “Human renewal from Jesus and Mohammed to Marx and Castro has always been through small groups with a social purpose and a living experience.”

To reinvigorate the UMC’s Missio Dei (meaning “God’s Mission” for the Church), Collins offered three main recommendations.

(1) Restore the Gospel to its rightful place: “First of all, the church must repent of its spiritual idolatry, on the one hand, in overvaluing the sinful and divisive narratives of American political and cultural life and, on the other hand, in undervaluing the gospel narrative…”

(2) Recommitting to “loving persuasion” instead of “a frontal assault” against the opposition: “This means, of course, that ‘political’ means and other top down approaches (in which the will of one particular group triumphs over the other) should be broadly abandoned…”

(3) Revamping the Church as a spiritual hospital for broken people: “to become a loving and healing presence among peoples who have suffered so greatly, who have become alienated from one another due to the ‘group speak,’ the divisiveness and rampant ethnocentrism of identity politics.”

While Collins wrote mostly with United Methodists in mind, surely his recommendations apply to the Church more broadly. All Christians ministering in America would do well to consider and take his observations to heart if they desire to reach their culture more effectively.

  1. Comment by Alan on February 5, 2018 at 12:10 pm

    It is like reading a roadmap for where the Southern Baptist Convention is headed with the likes of Russell Moore running things.

  2. Comment by William on February 5, 2018 at 3:14 pm

    In the UMC, the progressives are in cahoots with the very secularists who are out to destroy them, and they seem oblivious to this phenomenal relationship. If there has ever been an example of infiltration for the purpose of destruction from within, look no farther than our UMC. Our mission — to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world — is little more than an empty slogan. Progressives have managed, with most not recognizing, to take the church in the opposite direction — to transform Jesus into a designer Jesus who loves and accepts everyone even in their sinful human condition WITHOUT the requirement of REPENTANCE, FORGIVENESS, and a new TRANSFORMED life in him —a Jesus who is a social and political activist for the cause(s) of the day instead of the MESSIAH AND SAVIOR OF THE WORLD. My, my how our UMC has been taken for that proverbial ride by the great deceiver. Unless we rid ourselves of Satan and return to Jesus the Christ, we will indeed perish as a denomination. He would like nothing more than for us to support both positions under some sort of “big tent” or “local option” to deal with our current schism over sexuality and marriage and gleefully watch our UMC completely devour itself.

  3. Comment by Bruce on February 10, 2018 at 12:14 pm

    Well said! That’s my view also. Some days I’m completely disgusted with the direction of the UMC. I love our little church, but wonder how long before it is compromised.

  4. Comment by Levi Baer on November 9, 2018 at 11:53 am

    It was evident since the UMC allowed females to become pastors. The Bible is clear on the requirements of a pastor and a heterosexual female cannot meet this requirement. This too was the work of cultural Marxism and the devil himself.

  5. Comment by Dean Snyder on February 7, 2018 at 4:51 am

    I don’t think Cedric Mayson was United Methodist.

  6. Comment by Dennis Sheppard on February 9, 2018 at 10:53 pm

    He was British Methodist.

  7. Comment by Earl Schroeder on February 7, 2018 at 10:01 pm

    I think this article is right on. Very simply there is a huge chasm between the ideology of the people in the pews and the leadership of the UMC. I can tell you there is another factor in the decline of membership. The lack of emphasis in youth programs back in the 60’s. Youth Sunday School and Youth Group were neglected.

  8. Comment by Judy Bailey on February 10, 2018 at 12:59 am

    How sad it is to have witnessed the UMC’s fall from grace. And yes, she was taken captive from within by the evil that permiated within the leadership. Weak and spineless souls who could not take a stand for the Word of God and preach ALL of it for fear of hurting feelings. What about God’s feelings? What about SIN? Is it ever mentioned and backed up by scripture from the pulpit anymore?REPENTANCE? What about the sheep and the goats? My Bible says all will not enter. Will Jesus recognize us? Matthew 7:23 “Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Remember “Hearts on Fire” at Lake Junaluska? Open minds Open hearts Open doors? Satan walked right in… but he was here long before that. I remember being at a conference in Kentucky and seeing a little man holding a sign with a drawing of an unborn baby on it and the wording “UMW, why do you harm your sisters?” We have a lot to REPENT for. Amen.

  9. Comment by Donald on February 10, 2018 at 10:31 am

    Certainly true of Presbyterians as well. From a high of 4.1M to now at 1.4M since the 1960’s.

  10. Comment by Larry on February 10, 2018 at 12:11 pm

    Right on!

    Compassion should be for the purpose of the Gospel, to bring people to God, not the other way around.

  11. Comment by Jim on February 10, 2018 at 8:43 pm

    There will come a day of reckoning for all of us, no matter the denomination. This attempt will not re-write the Nicene and Apostle’ Creeds as well as the Biblical Canon! Humans fall short in common sense and any number of other pursuits, like learning from history……..time will tell as it always does, like a number of truths I have read and believe!!!

  12. Comment by John Smith on February 12, 2018 at 7:16 am

    In all of this I’m not seeing the part where those in the UMC worry more about their own conduct, morals and spiritual standing than that of others. Perhaps it is time to start preaching to the choir to get past the “amens” to the “why is he talking about me?” part.

    Its all well and good to say the people in the church are not perfect, are sinners, need help but spend most of the time having those people telling people outside the church how to live. You may ignore your flaws and failures but they don’t and thus they ignore you.

  13. Comment by Linda Cebrian on March 24, 2018 at 10:20 pm

    The phrase “useful idiot” has been used by Soviet Communists and the KGB to refer to persons in the West who had been successfully duped into accepting statism. The term has been traditionally attributed to Vladimir Lenin.
    As far back as Jan.10,1963, the US Congressional Record contains an entry which today could be recognized as a harbinger of things to come. Under the heading “Current Communist Goals” is a list taken from “The Naked Communist” by Cleon Skousen, (pub.1958) which includes the following:
    #16- Use technical decisions of the courts to weaken basic American institutions by claiming their activities violate civil rights.
    #26- Present homosexuality, degeneracy and promiscuity as “normal, natural,healthy.”
    #27- Infiltrate the churches and replace revealed religion with “social religion.” Discredit the Bible and emphasize the need for intellectual maturity…
    The 55 years which have passed since 1963 has seen the imposition of this faux social construct known as same-sex “marriage” thanks to the useful idiots. They are the homoerotic militants, the liberal media, the gutless politicians and the activist jurists who take up the LGBTQ cause as part their lifework.
    However, for liberal clergy and misguided Christians who find the arena of so-called LGBTQ “rights” to be a divine calling, it would seem the joke’s on you as agents of your own destruction – all under the guise of “social justice.”
    Lenin would be proud.

  14. Comment by William P. Corr on March 14, 2020 at 11:39 am

    A challenge of who-dunnit proportions is to substantiate the following statement:

    “The movement targeted the Church and other pillars of traditional society in an effort to replace or co-opt them during “the move to a centralized state.” ”

    One possible (and I speak squarely from a position of naïvety and ignorance) thread is to examine the works and letters of UMC leaders in the Berkeley, California area in the 1960s and 1970s. That would include examining the works of Bishop Donald Harvey Tippett of 45 Southhampton Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94707 (415) 524-2906.

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