Yesterday two Mainline Protestant clergy made news by interrupting a speech in Boston by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was speaking about religious liberty. One was United Methodist and the other serves an American Baptist congregation.
The Methodist initiated the first interruption of Sessions’ speech, quoting the Gospel’s admonition to care for the needy. He addressed “brother Jeff” as a fellow United Methodist and asked him to “repent.” As security personnel approached him he stopped talking and they escorted him out.
Then the American Baptist clergy spoke up in solidarity with the Methodist. Security also escorted him out but he kept shouting his protests, declaring that his own religious liberty was infringed by his ouster.
In a later Religion News Service interview, the two clergy didn’t specify what policies they were protesting. The Methodist explained: “I interrupted Attorney General Sessions today because his entire political agenda is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ.” He said: “Brother Jeff and I are members of the United Methodist Church, so I think I have a responsibility to call him to account about the harm he’s doing.”
The Methodist is a well known activist in his denomination. At the United Methodist General Conference in 2016 he lay prone on the floor, hogtied, as though writhing in agony, to protest the church’s traditional marriage teaching. Delegates stepped carefully around him. Yesterday he told RNS that protest is “in the Methodist, Wesleyan tradition…an expression of social holiness.” The Baptist similarly said protest was part of his tradition.
These clergy were organized by the Massachusetts Communities Action Network (MCAN), which is “faith-based community organizations in MA working for economic and racial justice.…inspired by our faith traditions’ deep and enduring call to justice.“
MCAN, which had protesters outside the event, tweeted triumphantly about the interruption inside: “Our clergy members were removed from Jeff Sessions’ ‘religious liberty’ event, which we’re told was a Christian white supremacist event in disguise. We reject their hatred. #ShutDownSessions.” The event host group was the Federalist Society.
An MCAN co-director explained “we’re here to #ShutDownSessions and speak up for love and against hate in the name of religion #FaithInLOVE.”
Should clergy and religious groups aspire to “shut down” speeches by public officials or others? Would they not object to their own events being “shut down” by critics? What would these clergy say or do if congregants during worship stood up and tried to “shut down” their sermon?
Should Christians ever aim to “shut down” free speech? And should Christians on any side of the ideological spectrum completely demonize the other so as to justify the “shut down?”
Recently writer Matthew Anderson noted: “It seems impossible to tell the story about decaying American civic life without including the demise of mainline Protestantism, which functioned as a (highly problematic) bulwark against America’s pluralism devolving into warring factions.”
Previously influential Mainline Protestantism once helped cohere American civic life. Now some of its fragments amplify polarization. Ideally churches inspire social reforms without contributing to ideological wars.
Contra such wars, churches should offer this wisdom: In society and especially politics, saints aren’t always saintly. And sinners can sometimes be redeemed.