A highly publicized charge filed by some United Methodists against church member Attorney General Jeff Sessions over U.S. border policy has been dismissed by the United Methodist district superintendent of Mobile, where Sessions’ church is located, in collaboration with the bishop of Alabama/West Florida.
This official was correct to dismiss the charge, which was a publicity stunt endorsed by hundreds of activist United Methodists online. But her reasons raise questions. Dr. Debora Bishop responded this way to the complainants:
The judicial process of The United Methodist Church cannot be used in the matter of United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions to address political actions. A political action is not personal conduct when the political officer is carrying out official policy. In this matter, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was carrying out official policy of the President and/or the United States Department of Justice. It was not an individual act. I believe this type of conduct is not covered by chargeable offense provisions in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2016 for laypersons. Therefore your complaint is dismissed.
The accusers to whom the district superintendent responded had cited the previous U.S. policy of detaining at the border illegal immigrants and asylum seekers without their children. They asked the Attorney General’s pastors to “dig deeply into Mr. Sessions’ advocacy and actions that have led to harm against thousands of vulnerable humans.”
Deploying United Methodism’s official reasons in church law for prosecution, the clergy complainants cited “child abuse,” “immorality,” “racial discrimination,” and dissemination of doctrines contrary to church teaching.
Some backers of the complaint compared its dismissal to the “Eichmann defense,” recalling the Holocaust bureaucrat who insisted he was merely following orders.
United Methodism, in its official Social Principles, opposes all enforcement of U.S. immigration law, which would surprise lots of church members if they knew. So all church members involved in border policy would theoretically be vulnerable to a church charge, church trial and excommunication, if the complainants’ views were to prevail. The Social Principles are advisory and not compulsory for church members. So their complaint melodramatically framed U.S. border enforcement as “child abuse.”
Church charges in United Methodism are almost never against laity and typically are for clergy accused of gross misconduct, such as adultery, potentially leading to defrocking or some other penalty.
Nobody expected the complaint against Sessions to proceed to church trial. Its only purpose was media attention, which succeeded. But was the district superintendent correct to dismiss the complaint because “a political action is not personal conduct when the political officer is carrying out official policy?”
She was almost certainly correct that writers of The Discipline did not have in mind prosecution of church members for their legal actions in government service. Ecclesial prosecution is for personal misdeeds not political policy. But her narrowly precise response even if technically correct implied the church has no concern about political conduct by church members.
Of course, ideally, the church should and must challenge church members to live out and implement Christian principles in political life. Church trials and excommunication of state officials are not very Methodist ways of advancing this work. And the institutional church should be reluctant dogmatically to lobby for political specifics, for which it has little mandate, not much expertise, and which are usually matters of prudential judgment. But church members in politics should be encouraged to advance principles of human dignity that enhance the public good and lead to an incrementally more just society.
Sadly, for at least half a century or more, United Methodist political witness has been controlled by utopian ideologues not very rooted in historic Christian political theology. Although the Wesleyan tradition has much to teach, the denomination in its current state has almost no coherent political witness.
But United Methodism is changing, and it’s not impossible that in future years our church might have a theologically and ethically serious political witness that is genuinely constructive for church members in public life.