(I shared these remarks with the Wesleyan Theological Society meeting at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC on March 15, 2019.)
Is there a Wesleyan political theology in the sense that there is a Catholic social teaching, a Lutheran Two Kingdoms concept, and a Calvinist notion of political covenant? If so, it is almost entirely unarticulated, even though Methodism politically in the affairs of our own nation has been as politically significant if not more so than the other major Christian traditions.
Now is a momentous time to address Wesleyan political witness and eschatology. We are facing a dramatic churning in USA and global United Methodism, the largest Methodist polity. Almost certainly the trajectory of at least part of what is now United Methodist political witness will shift in a new direction. There is a unique opportunity to rediscover and even possibly to implement essential Wesleyan principles for political witness. Such a rediscovery would benefit not only United Methodists and the wider Wesleyan family. It could be instructive for the wider Body of Christ, especially in America. Once great denominational traditions are collapsing and Christian political witness is, with all else political, increasingly polarized, not based on constant principles but harnessed to tribal commitments and anger.
Even where orthodox and robust, the Wesleyan message in today’s American Christianity seems often overshadowed by the intellectual prowess and organizational skills of Reformed Christianity. Methodists should not resent this Calvinist ascendancy but instead should learn from it by mining our own traditions, even if those traditions too often are obscured, especially in articulated political theology.
It was only several decades ago when United Methodism and much of what was then still Mainline Protestant Christianity, in its official political witness, succumbed to extreme forms of Liberation Theology supporting globally a Marxist political theology as the Christian solution to poverty and injustice. This commitment entailed ignoring human rights abuses and infringements on religious liberty, even as many Christians and other persons of conscience suffered for their faith under the regimes this church witness extolled. And this public theology, to which much of official United Methodism subscribed, was essentially materialist, focusing on expanding centralized state power to guarantee the delivery of food, housing and health care, at the expense of liberty and human dignity, and in the process, failing to successfully provide even those material basics. It also was obviously false eschatologically. History and Marxism were not aligned.
The failure of much of Mainline Protestantism’s political witness in the 20th century was partly due to Methodism’s own confusion over eschatology. Wesley was arguably postmillennial but a very measured one, and he often acted amillennial. His 19th century successors were much more robustly confident about the church’s ability to usher in the Kingdom. Much of Methodism led the way starting early in the last century with an aggressively human-driven versus God-centered public theology, propelled forward by the Social Gospel’s very idealistic vision of a society without poverty and pain. Just as most of Methodism in America was liberalizing theologically, it was fully mobilized behind and successfully persuading the United States to adopt Prohibition, which it portrayed as a panacea for most of the nation’s ills. Prohibition’s dozen years were the height of influence for Methodism’s social witness in America and also the source of its downfall, as Methodism arguably never fully recovered its cultural or political influence after its failure and revocation.
Methodists across the theological spectrum rallied to Prohibition. But after its failure, the church’s social witness, having learned the wrong lessons, was owned almost exclusively by the church’s utopian left. Mainline Methodism in the 1930s renounced capitalism and war and imagined a new society largely liberated from human sin and frailty. The denomination’s stances on economics, foreign policy, the environment and criminal justice became increasingly ideological in the 1960s and 1970s, literally becoming revolutionary during the Cold War’s final years as church agencies backed Marxist revolutionary movements like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and military insurgencies around the world. Most of these political stances, to the limited extent they were known to most church members, were a cause for estrangement between the local church and national church structures.
Meanwhile, other smaller forms of Wesleyan expression typically lacked a formal, sustained denominational political witness. Several of these denominations, like the Free Methodists, the Wesleyans, the Church of the Nazarene, the Salvation Army and the Pentecostal churches, joined the National Association of Evangelicals, which issued its own political pronouncements that were, until recent years, invariably on the right, such as affirming capital punishment, backing school prayer, and urging vigorous U.S. defense and foreign policies against the Soviet Bloc. Some members of these other Wesleyan bodies, including several prominent clergy, became leaders in the Religious Right that emerged in the late 1970s and remained influential across 4 decades. They did not offer a specifically Methodist perspective on political theology, only a generically American conservative Christian one.
Most of the original modern Religious Right was Calvinist influenced. Francis Schaeffer, a conservative Presbyterian from Westminster Seminary, artfully welded traditional American post WWII Cold War conservatism with a Calvinistic critique of society and history. The Religious Right was rooted in a broad Evangelicalism that was not so much a deep Christian tradition as a 20th century American movement. Lacking deep ecclesial roots, modern conservative Evangelicals, including some Wesleyans, relied on the Schaeffer inspired narrative as their guiding public theology.
But that vision has largely lost steam, and a new generation of Evangelicals is somewhat politically adrift. Many of them are withdrawing from political engagement, disheartened by ostensibly lost cultural battles, and unmotivated by any available Christian argument for social renewal. Calvinism remains the dominant intellectual force in orthodox American Protestant and Evangelical life. But our Calvinist friends are somewhat divided, disenchanted by the old Religious Right formula, tempted by social withdrawal, but also compelled by their tradition, however dourly, to confront society with the Gospel’s demands for divine justice.
The Wesleyan voice for social witness in America is even more disorganized, divided and confused. There was never a Methodist modern equivalent of Francis Schaeffer to inspire a Wesleyan political activism of the left, right or middle. Maybe Harry Ward of the Methodist Federation for Social Action was the closest equivalent though he was more activist than theorist. Thanks partly to him, the political witness of United Methodism and its predecessor bodies was firmly on the left side of the American spectrum starting in the 1930s. Arguably it began to leave the framework of historic Christian moral orthodoxy in 1956 when it endorsed contraception without serious qualifications. More decisively it left it when endorsing, after a 20-minute debate, unrestricted abortion on demand at the 1970 General Conference, over the strong objections of Methodism’s then most prominent theologian Albert Outler and most prominent ethicist, Paul Ramsey. This departure from Christian moral consensus of course facilitated the formal debate over homosexuality that began in 1972 and whose final chapter is yet unwritten.
Also significant is the proliferation of political issues that United Methodism began to address after the 1968 General Conference, before which there typically were only a half dozen or so political resolutions that were printed at the end of the Book of Discipline. After 1968 a new publication emerged called the Book of Resolutions, at first a few dozen pages and later approaching about 1000 pages, full of hundreds of urgent pronouncements, few of which were ever made known to many at the local church level. This Book of Resolutions empowered United Methodism’s Washington political witness office to advocate and lobby on scores of political issues every year over the last five decades, again largely without the informed engagement of most church members or any strong sense of hierarchy or priority regarding the relative importance of these issues. Predictably, the lack of focus and lack of genuine local level support made this form of scattershot political witness by United Methodism ineffective with the lawmakers and policy makers it was intended to influence.
Although professing to speak for what were originally 11 million church members, United Methodism’s political witness, headquartered in the historic and magnificent Methodist Building on Capitol Hill, originally constructed with great fanfare by the old Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals, became indistinguishable from secular left-wing activism. Even on the Religious Left, United Methodism’s political witness, which included funding programs and grants by the New York missions board, plus pronouncements from the Council of Bishops, lost recognizably Wesleyan distinctives. Sometimes Wesley was mentioned for his care about the poor, but no uniquely Methodist public theology was offered. United Methodist political advocacy merely echoed other theologically liberal mainline Protestant denominations, most of which also had Washington lobby offices, often in the Methodist Building. United Methodist political witness merged into generic Religious Left activism, offering a mostly materialistic political theology heavily invested in centralized government’s expansive social welfare and regulatory state, rejecting or minimizing the state’s vocation for police and military powers, and mostly ratifying the Sexual Revolution by accepting its anthropology of atomized, self-empowered individuals liberated from nature, natural law and traditional Christian teaching.
With the smaller Wesleyan denominations continuing to outsource their political witness to the National Association of Evangelicals, there is today very little on which to model a comprehensive, thoughtful Wesleyan political and social witness. The fault is perhaps traceable to Wesley himself, who unlike John Calvin and John Knox, who guide our Reformed friends, did not fully articulate any distinctive theory of the state. There are Calvinist, Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox traditions of political theology. It’s less clear whether there is a definite Wesleyan one. Methodists have traditionally been more renown as doers than theorists, so the absence is not surprising if still unhelpful. The other church traditions of political theology offer centuries of guidance, articulated by thinkers across generations. Methodism’s understanding of political witness often seems to skip from Wesley in 18th century England to the Social Gospel activism of the early 20th century, which was mostly crafted by non-Wesleyans.
Nineteenth century Methodism was a surging powerful social force that deeply shaped the ethos of American democracy. But there seem to have been few Methodist thinkers, at least among the remembered, who articulated a Wesleyan statecraft. Methodists were in the thick of all the major political controversies and social reform movements of that day. But again, they were activists and apparently not theorists. They left us an example of action but not a very clear paper trail of how we should understand our tradition. Leaders like Bishop Matthew Simpson, a doer and sometimes theorist, seemed to conflate the church’s purpose with the nation.
The Temperance and Prohibition movements that crystallized in the late nineteenth century were the cherished political fruit of that era’s Methodist piety. They adopted the Calvinist Puritan view of America as a called-out nation providentially summoned to greatness and holiness. In their eschatology, God’s Kingdom is realized through American democracy, a view Bishop Simpson shared. But they importantly added Methodism’s distinct, hopeful confidence in perfecting a holy society that successfully conquers all major social vices. The original Methodist Prohibitionists were mostly theologically orthodox and believed in the power of human sin and the need for personal repentance. But they assumed the Holy Spirit could and would conquer all social vice just as the Spirit could perfect the individual believer. Methodist perfectionism both made Prohibition initially a success and also inevitably an ultimate failure.
But Methodist Prohibitionists and their socially reforming predecessors, starting with Wesley himself, offer us important counsel for crafting a new Wesleyan social and political theology that is both pertinent to our own times while still firmly rooted to our tradition. This process should replicate their moral enthusiasm while mindful that society this side of the Eschaton will not be perfected.
Wesley acknowledged as much. Sinful though his Britain was, he thought the British constitutional system, based on the great political Whig compromise of 1688, the greatest in secular history. He firmly rejected the millenarianism and revolutionary spirit of the Puritans in the previous century. Purportedly he was a postmillennial but if so he was a cautious one. He was an incremental social reformer. Sometimes he has been portrayed as an autocratic Tory whose political theology traced authority directly from God to the crown and parliament, without a specified role in governance for the general population.
But as Theodore Weber, in his Politics in the Order of Salvation: Transforming Wesleyan Political Ethics, explained, Wesley’s soteriology inevitably has political implications that are ultimately egalitarian and that “democratize political authority.” Divine grace for all arguably leads, whether intended by Wesley or not, to a wider political empowerment for all inherently subversive to the traditional political hierarchy that he professed to support.
Weber identified within Wesley’s theology, however embedded, a political image of God that is a framework for Methodist public theology. In this understanding, persons who are image bearers of God act as divine agents in earthly governance. And this vocation is not exclusively assigned to a narrow elect but is, like divine grace, a universal assignment.
Wesley proposed a wholistic image of God that included the natural, political and moral, according to Weber. His failure more fully to develop the divine political image left Methodist political theology undeveloped but not nonexistent.
As Weber noted, the United Methodist Bishops anti-nuclear declaration of the 1980s, “In Defense of Creation,” one of contemporary Methodism’s most important political statements, barely cited Wesley and certainly claimed no specifically Methodist political tradition beyond broad pursuit of peace with justice. The main critic of that statement, ordained United Methodist and Princeton ethicist Paul Ramsey, in his response to the bishops did reference Wesley’s view of sinful humanity but likewise did not cite or offer a Methodist political theology. It was maybe a missed opportunity but Ramsey can’t be faulted for missing what nearly everyone else has missed, at least according to Weber, whose work strives to bring “Wesley’s politics into the order of salvation of his evangelical theology.”
In Weber’s view, humans bear God’s political image, making them, in Wesley’s words, “governor of this lower world, having ‘dominion over the fishes of the sea, and over all the earth.’” Man is “God’s vicegerent upon earth, the prince and governor of this lower world; and all the blessings of God flowed through him to the inferior creatures. Man was the channel of conveyance between his Creator and the whole brute creation.” This human dominion over creation is corrupted by the fall but God’s political image is not discontinued, notes Weber, though needing redemption.
Weber says the Wesleyan concept of the political image of God is wholly trinitarian, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit “in being and action” collectively govern creation. When rightly ordered, humans as stewards of creation “image the government of God,” in “imitation of God,” and “informed by analogy of God.” Weber contrasts Wesley’s “political image informed by a trinitarian ethics” that is transformational with Martin Luther’s view that the Gospel has no direct political implication. Luther grimly saw government’s purpose narrowly as restraining human depravity. The Wesleyan perspective sees government more cheerfully as “drawn from the knowledge of the work of God and not from the problem that humankind has become.”
And Weber contrasts the Wesleyan perspective with the Thomistic natural law tradition “that derives government from the social and rational character of human nature.” Wesley’s idea of government is not so anthropological but is based more directly on Trinitarian divine agency and through a notion of nature infused by divine grace. Weber also contrasts Wesley with Barth and Bonhoeffer, who originate government “in Christ,” creating an expectation that government will model the Beatitudes, while Wesley integrates all three Persons of the Godhead into the political image. Wesley’s political theology was implicitly not “from God and therefore not from the people” but “from God and therefore through the people.” This Wesleyan notion of universal political responsibility expands the opportunity and duty of governance collectively to all image bearers of God, irrespective of office. Wesley himself maybe surprised that his theology did not necessarily privilege monarchy or any specific political system. Although not his preference for Britain, his theological assumptions pointed towards some form of participatory democracy, as Weber sees it. Certainly American Methodism from the start went this direction.
As Weber describes Wesley’s concept of God’s political image, humans participate in divine agency when they participate politically, and “surrender it when they decline to accept political responsibility.” People do not confer authority on their rulers, as Wesley certainly insisted, but are divinely “deputized” to govern by authorizing their rulers. Weber quotes Wesley: “God’s image upon man consists…in his place of authority. Let us make man in our image, and let him have dominion. As he has the government of the inferior creatures, he is as it were God’s representative on earth. Yet his government of himself by the freedom of his will, has in it more of God’s image, than his government of the creatures.”
Wesley did not believe the Fall cancelled this self-government, because humans retain God’s political image. And their political institutions, if functional, imitate God’s governance in caring for all. States and societies that seek the common good best image God. Weber insists the Wesleyan view of “political image keeps the focus on political institutions and their operators on God’s political work, not on themselves.” And the vocation is assigned not just to Christians but to all image bearers, though premised on trinitarianism not natural law or “common agreement.”
Weber posits that government based on divine political image subordinates power to law and counters capricious force under any form of statecraft. A legitimate government partners with all people under its rule in “fulfillment of their political vocation,” as enacted in particular times and places. States and societies that seek to imitate God are examples of prevenient grace “overcoming the distortions of sin.” There’s no guaranteed political progress, but the political image and light of God are never extinguished. Justifying grace “includes the renewal of political vocation.” And sanctification enables societies to progress away from force towards loving consent and stewardship.
For Weber, “earnestly striving” is a call to political involvement and “to participation in the common human responsibility for the care of creation, that is, to the imaging of God in our shared, interactive, public existence.” It is not a call to political revolution per se, nor is it a call to reactionary satisfaction with the status quo. Instead it is a persevering quest for a society going on to perfection by seeking to recognize and live out the image of God in all persons, and to realize in all persons the empowering political image of God.
The Trinitarian Wesleyan understanding of God’s political image, as Weber understands it, offers a grace-filled and theologically rich alternative to the hyperbolically perfectionist-utopian Methodist political activism of much of the last century if not before. It also rejects the brutalist contemporary interpretations of Luther’s Two Kingdoms, which imply often with moral detachment that government is only about effective force against gross evil, and plays no role in seeking to elevate society through increased appreciation of God’s image in each person.
United Methodism’s current upheaval and repositioning should allow for a renewed exploration of how God’s political image might shape our Wesleyan witness in national and global society today. The huge current vacuum in American Christian public theology might even allow for this Methodist understanding to inspire more than just Wesleyans.