The following review is by Ray Nothstine, managing editor of Religion & Liberty, a publication of the Acton Institute.
He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Mississippi in Oxford.
He also served on the staff of former Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss).
This review was originally published in a slightly longer form on the Acton Institute Power Blog.
Some links below have been added by MethodistThinker.com. — Ed.
Methodism was once the largest denomination in America. The faith grew rapidly from America’s beginning and has traditionally been characterized by aggressive evangelism and revival.
It has carried a vibrant social witness, too. Methodist Church pronouncements once garnered front page headlines in The New York Times.
Its high water mark undoubtedly came during prohibition, the greatest modern political cause of the denomination. Methodists even built and staffed a lobbying building next to Capitol Hill believing a dry country could remake society.
In Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century (Bristol House, 2012), Mark Tooley has chronicled Methodism’s denominational political pronouncements from William McKinley, America’s first Methodist president, to 9-11. Tooley has unearthed a staggering amount of official and unofficial Methodist declarations and musings on everything from economics, war, civil rights, the Cold War, abortion, marriage, and politics.
Tooley, who is also the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church (Bristol House, 2009), offers little of his own commentary on the issues in Methodism and Politics, instead allowing Methodism’s voice for over a century to speak for itself.
What emerges is a denomination that begins to recede in significance, perhaps because of the sheer saturation of its witness in the public square. But its leadership often trades in a prophetic voice for a partisan political one, and sadly at times, even a treasonous voice.
Methodists not only led on prohibition, but were out in front on issues such as women’s suffrage, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Movement. While they did not always carry a unified voice on these issues, even many Southern annual conferences and bishops broke with the popular political position (in their home states) of defending segregation.
While support for the New Deal and greater federal intervention in the economy was not rubber stamped by all Methodists, an emerging and often biting anti-free market voice would dominate official pronouncements.
This continues to this day with declarations calling to support greater government regulations, single payer health care, and a host of measures calling for government wage and price controls.
Way back in 1936, one Oklahoma Methodist pastor offered his own advice to some of his brethren:
Why do [these Methodist Reds] not get passports, emigrate to Russia where they can prostrate themselves daily before the sacred mummy of Lenin and submit themselves to the commands of Joseph Stalin?
Soft on totalitarianism
Tooley chronicles the pacifist sentiment that began to overtake the denomination the 1920s. By the 1980s, a denomination that once was harsh in its critique of communism became one in which a committee of bishops would pronounce that “actions which are seen as ‘Marxist-Leninist’ by one group are seen as the core of the Christian message by others.”
Perhaps most shameful was the action of several bishops during the American hostage crisis in Tehran, Iran, from 1979-1981.
United Methodist Bishop Dale White said of the new Islamic fundamentalist regime, “I know there are individuals in the Iranian power structure who do trust The United Methodist Church.” White offered assessments of the new regime being “democratic.”
The United Methodist General Conference sent a message to Ayatollah Khomeni declaring that the UMC hears the “cries of freedom from foreign domination, from cultural imperialism, from economic exploitation.” Methodist officials even participated in pro-Khomeni student demonstrations in Washington D.C. and met with (and offered praise for) officials in the new Iranian government.
One former hostage recalled:
Some of the people who came over especially the clergy were hypocrites because they came to aid and comfort the hostages but ended up giving aid and comfort to the Iranians and actually making it worse for us.
The election of President Ronald Reagan naturally sent many United Methodist Church officials into a tizzy. “People voted their self interest instead of the Social Principles of the church,” Bishop James Armstrong concluded. “It looks like United Methodists with everybody else forsook their Christian idealism at the ballot box.”
Some United Methodist Bishops had already declared their denomination much more aligned with the Democratic Party. It was downhill from there for many Methodist leaders, as they coddled the Sandanistas and “Brother Ortega” in Nicaragua and dove head first into the nuclear freeze movement.
In the 1990s, one official of the UMC’s General Board of Global Ministries bewailed the Republican Congress by saying, “White, male supremacists now wear suits. They talk states rights and anti-taxes. The climate of hate and violence is a challenge to us.”
Not to be outdone, General Board of Church and Society official Robert McLean declared that the GOP Contract with America effectively “cancels” the Sermon on the Mount. Most recently, some UM officials have joined forces with the left-leaning “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign.
Because The United Methodist Church is a connectional denomination, today the growing influence of theologically conservative African is counter balancing what Methodist progressives and political liberals can accomplish. Indeed, the liberal influence has been shrinking for decades. And because progressives have made so many predictable pronouncements, they no longer speak with the weighty spiritual authority The Methodist Church once held.
American Methodism in 1900 was growing, confident, largely unified, and politically formidable.
One hundred years later, it looks back over decades of steep membership decline and political marginalization, as church officials were no longer presumed to speak for most church members.
In the 1920s, President Calvin Coolidge said of Francis Asbury, one of the first two Methodist Bishops in early America, that “he did not come [to America] for political motives,” but came to bear “the testimony of truth.”
One wishes Methodist denominational officials would not only follow more of Asbury’s doctrine, but his praxis as well.