Today the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry tweeted a news release from United Methodist affiliated American University boasting it’s the first U.S. university to become carbon neutral.
No doubt a notable accomplishment, and perhaps in sync with John Wesley’s admonition to strive for Christian perfection. But the tweet provokes the question as to how Christianity and Methodism are faring at this Methodist university in the nation’s capital.
The answer is that probably not very differently than at the other more than 100 United Methodist affiliated colleges and universities in America. They have all become effectively secular, with minimal to no public acknowledgement much less enthusiasm for the Methodist connection. They include Boston University, Emory, Duke, Southern Methodist and many other distinguished schools.
Fault for the dechristianization lies not with the schools but with Methodism, which early in the last century proudly autonomized the schools it had founded as the denomination itself abandoned Christian doctrinal specifics in favor of Social Gospel and ethical improvement.
American University’s website mentions it is a “Methodist-affiliated institution chartered by Congress in 1893.” It also recalls it was “founded by John Fletcher Hurst, a respected Methodist bishop who dreamed of a creating a university that trained public servants for the future.” And it notes Hurst invited President Teddy Roosevelt to dedicate building named for William McKinley, the bishop’s friend and fellow Methodist. There’s no more mention of Methodism.
As I recall in my book Methodism & Politics in the 20th Century, the 1908 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church met at American University in 1908 and heard President Roosevelt commend Christian righteousness.
It was envisioned that American University would serve as a Christian and Methodist influence in the nation’s capital. But that vision was soon lost, as the Christian vision for other Methodist schools was lost. Catholic University today exercises a wonderful Christian intellectual influence in Washington, D.C. But there’s no Protestant equivalent. American University could have been so.
I’m told at American, as elsewhere, faculty who are openly Christian are few. These schools often have Methodist chaplains and campus Methodist ministries, but they are typically, with some notable exceptions, theologically and spiritually anodyne, closer to conventional academic groupthink than Wesleyan orthodoxy. The more animated campus ministries almost always are evangelical para church groups.
Even as United Methodism globalizes and returns to orthodoxy, there’s little chance of meaningfully reclaiming the schools as meaningfully Christian and Wesleyan. It’s sad and tragic that Methodism with the rest of Mainline Protestantism largely abandoned committed Christian intellectual life. It’s sadder still that most of United Methodism abandoned Gospel outreach to young people, whether on campuses, or in reviving cities like Washington D.C. where young people are flocking.
Maybe the initial baby steps towards recovery would be renewed Methodist campus ministries. Likely they won’t come from official denominational structures, so ad hoc outreach by congregations or organized laity maybe the answer. Some day maybe the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education will celebrate an historically Methodist school not for its carbon neutrality but for its Gospel proclamation and spiritual vitality. Planting trees is commendable, saving souls even more so.