Last month columnist David Brooks spoke at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection outside Kansas City. He was hosted by its pastor Adam Hamilton, who convened the two-day annual Leadership Institute, which typically focuses on pastoral leadership. But this year the convo was essentially a rally for dissenters who oppose United Methodism’s orthodox teaching on marriage and sexual ethics.
Brooks journalistically across decades has been right of center. But as he recounted in Hamilton’s church, he backed same sex marriage in the 1990s as a stabilizing alternative to promiscuity. Previously an agnostic from a Jewish background, Brooks has moved into Christianity over the last six years. (In a separate talk at Hamilton’s Church he credited the influence of the late British evangelical theologian John Stott.) He has not changed his support for same sex marriage, nor has he, to my knowledge, publicly explained his dissent from orthodox, universal church teaching.
“In the broader [American] culture this argument is over,” in contrast to the church, Brooks briefly noted of United Methodism’s debate over same sex marriage, which the global denomination officially disapproves. He mentioned that he has many Anglican friends who quit the Episcopal Church over the issue. And he admitted there are strong opinions based on Scripture. He regretted Christianity is perceived as more focused on sexuality than service to the poor.
But Brooks said little else about United Methodism’s controversy or sexuality, which maybe frustrated some of the more activist-minded in the room. There were 2500 registrants for the convo, which included bishops, hundreds of clergy, church agency executives and many others. Hamilton himself leads United Methodism’s “centrist” faction, mostly wanting creedal orthodoxy with liberalized sexuality. Progressives of course want liberalized sexuality but typically are less committed to creedal orthodoxy, which more “liberationist” progressives disdain.
Several progressives at the convo tweeted negatively about Brooks, likely viewing him as too conservative, and preferring cheerleading for liberationist causes over Brooks’ message of “weaving” polarized society back together. They likely didn’t like his warning against tribalism and its framing all politics as war. And they surely disliked his critique of social justice advocacy simplistically portraying “society divided between oppressor and oppressed.” Progressive liberationists define themselves by this narrative.
Brooks preferred to highlight the imperative of healing divisions. He credited the role of the church in this mediating process. But United Methodism currently, at least denominationally in America, is not a healing agent. It is instead a case study in culture war polarization.
For orthodox Christians, healing and unity are found in fidelity to universal church teaching. For United Methodist dissenters, there is no justice until the denomination renounces universal church teaching in favor of current American societal preferences.
Brooks observed he had never lost friendships over politics, which should occupy only a small share of human life, subordinate to human relationships. But for United Methodism, denominationally in America, politics has eclipsed the historic consensus of the faithful. So there will be schism, first between traditionalists and sexual liberals, and later between “centrists” and progressives, perhaps even among progressives, as they divide over varied layers of “liberationist” struggle. Identity politics offers no basis for unity outside resistance to perceived oppressors.
When individualism and tribalism prevail, as Brooks warned, there can be no peace, just cascading division. Hamilton’s Leadership Institute and its rally for United Methodist dissenters unintentionally showcased this tragedy.