Who Determines Denominational Policy?

Methodism in Postwar America

The Interlude of the 1950s

The Re-emergence of Radicalism

Radical Consolidation

Reaction to Radicalism

Questions for United Methodism

Endnotes and Bibliography

A study of Methodist reaction to American foreign policy since World War II provides insight about the way in which the denomination functions and information about the relationship of the church and state. This concluding chapter will give attention to the implications for the church and its future role, in society.

A Question of Priority

People do not go to church primarily to receive instruction in social issues. Worshipers on any given Sunday are not looking to their denomination for guidance on how they should react to American foreign policy. They may of course be concerned about a particular crisis, such as the hostages who were held in Tehran or the turmoil in Central America, but they are concerned as citizens rather than as United Methodists.

Members are primarily concerned about personal and congregational issues, while church leaders tend to focus on denominational concerns and programs. There is a small group of persons who have a professional or a vocational interest in certain non-church issues such as foreign affairs. These include staff of social action agencies and clergy and laity who serve as board members of agencies whose mandate includes monitoring and providing guidance on foreign policy issues.

Unitcd Methodist people in the main do not express their interest or seek to influence foreign policies through their denomination. There is no evidence that church members look primarily to their denomination for specific guidance in making up their minds on matters of foreign affairs. An illustration of this is the official pacifist stance of the church. A report to the General Conference could correctly describe the church as being like the historic peace churches. While this may reflect General Conference's actions, few United Methodists are pacifists. The simple act of counting those who were conscientious objectors and those who served in the armed forces in any of America's wars will confuirm this fact.

Some denominational leaders may see their responsibility as instructing Methodist people on a wide range of matters, including foreign policy, but there is no concrete evidence that their efforts are effective. Perhaps the constituents simply do not receive the messages which these leaders are trying to communicate. It may be that they do receive the messages but perceive that foreign policy is not an area of the church's competence, so they tend to ignore the instructions. If the evidence on the effectiveness of the churches to influence their own constituencies on the course of foreign policy is inconclusive, the question can be raised, "Why do persons both within and outside the churches expend so much effort in getting the denomination to adopt a particular stance on issues?"

The reason is that religious organizations can legitimize beliefs and actions which may be held by other groups in society. A controversial idea or action is more likely to be accepted if a church will provide an endorsement. The individual who is waivering may be convinced of the rightness of a cause if he or she is told that the church has given its approval.

The Question of Goals

Many official United Methodist positions have become increasingly negative toward American social and economic institutions, particularly since the 1960s. This is not the position of the overwhelming majority of laity and clergy who would perceive themselves to be both loyal American citizens and committed church members. Many Methodist people are embarrassed and puzzled when church agencies and leaders support organizations, movements and even regimes which are not democratic and either indifferent or hostile toward the Christian Church. To find the answer to why this condition exists, it is necessary to consider how the present situation developed.

Methodism entered the twentieth century with great pride in the progress already made and equally great confidence for the future. This was expressed in the Episcopal Address to the General Conference of the Northern Church in 1900. The bishop proclaimed,

How many dull and narrow intellects have been enlightened and enlarged for world-wide uses by the ministry of the [Methodist] pulpit, the school, the press!. . .What contributions have been made by a Church coeval with the Republic to civic virtue and order!1

While there was justifiable pride in what had already been achieved, there was increasing sensitivity to conditions in the social and economic life of the nation in need of change. Thus Methodism early in the twentieth century became deeply involved in what was to become known as the Social Gospel movement. Efforts were made to improve the working conditions in the factories, mines and stockyards. A campaign to abolish child labor was mounted. A peace movement spurred on by the utter destructiveness of World War I gained support. Thus the churches, both as denominations and ecumenically through the Federal Council of Churches, gave increasing attention to reform in the social and economic areas of the nation's life.

Church leaders who were involved in the beginnings of the Social Gospel movement would today probably be classified as evangelicals. Some were leaders in the missionary movement. Their commitment to social and economic reform was rooted in their deep commitment to the Christian faith and was a result of that faith.

Those who became adherents of the social gospel were optimistic about what people could achieve. They believed in progress and were confident that the kingdom of God on earth was a reasonable goal. They were profoundly affected by two events in this century. The horrors of World War I created a small but permanent pacifist group within Methodism. The Great Depression of the 1930s caused some church leaders to doubt the viability of the capitalist economic system and the profit motive. While the number of Methodists who took these positions has always been very small, they have had considerable influence over the years and have contributed to the anti-American bias found in some of the recent denominational pronouncements.

Methodism entered the post-World War II era still strongly influenced by the Social Gospel movement. The denomination had throughout the twentieth century thought of itself as a leader in applying Christian principles to the social and economic order. The new reformation theology of Karl Barth had some influence, but it appears to have only temporarily dampened the optimism of the Methodists who continued to have great hope for society. The United States had been spared the kind of destruction that many countries experienced in the war, a fact which contributed to this sense of optimism.

Church leaders were aware of the immense problems facing the world. The atomic bomb was a sobering reality; the Cold War always presented the possibility of developing into an armed conflict. Nevertheless there was a sense that even the difficulties facing the postwar world might be overcome. Great faith continued to be placed in the United Nations. The church would influence American society, which in turn would be an example to the rest of the world. The place to begin was with problems in American society. As these were solved, the example of America would be so irresistible that other nations would follow. This might be called the "good example strategy of foreign relations."

This perception of the church and the nation rested on two incorrect assumptions. The first was the degree of perfectibility that could be achieved in American or any society. Moreover, the complexities of social and economic problems were underestimated. Perhaps a more significant factor was the failure of those persons who expected rapid progress to recognize sin in individuals and society. People and nations simply did not respond or behave in the desired rational and enlightened manner.

The second incorrect assumption was that a more perfect American democracy would cause other nations to follow our good example. A totalitarian system which maintains power by ruthless force is not likely to be impressed and changed by even a liberal and enlightened democracy.

In the period since World War II the desired social and economic progress was not achieved. The international scene seemed to be an endless series of crises. The optimism about social progress in the United States was shattered by the turmoil of the 1960s. Something obviously had gone wrong. Frustrated by the turn of events, those persons who were convinced that they had been building the kingdom of God either had to admit that their theory was wrong or find a reason for failures. Because it is always easier to locate a scapegoat than to admit that one's theory is incorrect, the blame for a whole range of problems was placed on the church as an institution and on the United States as a nation. It was argued that the church and the nation by their action and inaction had contributed to, if not caused, many of the world's difficulties. Having found the church and the nation guilty, it was fairly easy for some persons to become enamored with the only other missionary political faith available, that based on Marxist ideology.

This helps explain why some church persons are supportive of revolutionary movements based on a Marxist perspective. Such groups claim to be building a new society. Some church leaders, having lost confidence in their ability to build the kingdom of God, seem to be putting their faith in revolutionary and so-called "justice" movements. This may be a reason why otherwise intelligent American church leaders can ignore or rationalize the brutality and authoritarianism of certain regimes while seeing the United States as the chief of sinners. It may help to explain why church agencies make financial grants to organizations whose goals are completely secular and fundamentally hostile towards the Christian faith.

When the transcendent nature of the church is ignored, frustration is inevitable. The ultimate goals of the church are beyond history. Social goals, no matter how worthy and desirable, face the limitations to which all humans are subject. Frustration in not achieving greatly prized goals may result in more radical methods. The reformer turns to revolution; the peaceful protester becomes violent. If the goals are unrealizable, the frustration increases as more radical but equally ineffective methods are adopted. This may account for the increasingly radical stance of some church people in regard to American foreign policy.

Fundamental to any consideration of the United Methodist reaction to American foreign policy is the church's understanding of the nature of society, the, relationship of the church to society and the kind of society toward which the church should be striving. These are theological issues which determine how Christians believe society should be ordered and how individuals and groups should relate to each other.

The current controversy over the United Methodist stance on foreign policy issues involves a theological dispute over the nature of society and the role of the church in that society. While the points at issue may be specific, such as American support of a particular regime, the fundamental differences are theological. The church needs to address these issues if it is to respond with clarity and rationality to specific foreign policy matters.

The Question of Determining an Official Position

The Discipline of the United Methodist Church is clear. Only the General Conference can speak officially for the denomination. And the General Conference does speak on an incredible number of matters ranging from the Law of the Sea to requesting the United States Congress to have "works of art expressing the peaceful pursuits of humankind. . .placed in the Pentagon to provide a visual reminder to those who work there of the national ideal to live in peace. . ."2 The resolutions approved by the 1984 General Conference require 191 printed pages.

As has been pointed out, the structure of the denomination is such that official statements are approved by relatively few persons - the General Conference has a membership which cannot exceed one thousand. However, many resolutions, particularly those of little concern to a large number of constituents, are the work of an even smaller number of persons. These are put into the legislative process by general agencies and often passed in a perfunctory manner with the delegates giving little or no attention to them. Some are approved in the last hectic days of the conference without the delegates having had time to study them. Given the volume of business that a General Conference must transact and the fact that it meets for only twelve days every four years, it cannot give much time or attention to such items as complex foreign policy matters.

While only the General Conference can speak officially, the Council of Bishops has from time to time issued messages to the church. These have been relatively infrequent; only twenty-two such messages were issued in the thirty-nine years following the unification of 1939. The bishops also prepare the Episcopal Address which is given at the opening of each General Conference. While not binding official statements, they have been influential.

The messages from the Council of Bishops have responded to a specific issue or concern that it felt should be brought to the attention of the denomination. The subjects may be internal or concerning external issues in the larger society. A number of messages have focused on public policy issues. The bishops offered guidance to Methodists concerning participation in World War II. They suggested the way in which they felt a most lasting peace might be attained. Several of the statements dealt with communism, including a response to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The bishops also counseled the church relative to the involvement of the nation in the war in Vietnam.

The messages of the bishops have been well thought out and carefully prepared. There is a sense of realism in what they have had to say. Their advice to the Methodist constituency, and through them to society, has not contained the radical proposals which might result in their counsel being dismissed as impractical. The element of realism may be due in part to the fact that the bishops preside over regional areas and therefore have contact with the laity and the clergy at the grass-roots level of Methodism. It may also be related to the fact that the messages are the work of the entire council and therefore represent a collective viewpoint. Whatever the reason, the bishops' statements have represented some of the most practical advice on foreign policy issues that have come from any Methodist body.

Other groups in the church, such as boards and agencies and annual conferences, also pass resolutions on a wide range of topics. These statements reflect the opinions of the body which approves them, and the body may represent a few or many people. Such resolutions tend to be covered in the national media. A statement of an annual conference on U.S. involvement in Central America is more newsworthy than the more routine but important business of the body. The multiplicity of resolutions on such a wide range of topics results in confusion about exactly where the United Methodist Church stands on an issue.

The Question of Competence

When one reads the resolutions on foreign policy that have been passed by the General Conferences during the past one-third of a century, two factors stand out. The first is the large number of statements that are approved. The second is the wide range of topics on which the United Methodist Church has had something to say. Nothing seems to be too complex or too insignificant for the church to have an opinion. The resolutions range from profound to frivolous. Methodists do not lack self-confidence when it comes to giving unsolicited advice on social and economic issues.

Despite the fact that the General Conference does in fact pass the resolutions and thereby makes them the official position of the denomination, most are the work of a very small group of persons. Few are even considered by the legislative body. The delegates know that a resolution is not legislation which could have a direct impact on the denomination, so approval tends to be perfunctory. The feeling seems to be that such actions do no harm and might possibly do some good. In either case they are treated as unworthy of much time or attention. Occasionally a resolution will prove to be an exception and be hotly debated, such as one dealing with support for the Vietnam War.

The large number of resolutions on such a broad range of topics raises serious questions about the competence of those who prepare them. The board and agency staff and the clergy delegates to the General Conferences are persons whose expertise is in religion. The lay delegates represent a broad spectrum of church members. While the sentiments expressed may be noble and the hope for goals desirable, many resolutions do not give evidence of in-depth analysis or borad understnading of the subject. In some instances the same resolution with only minor editorial changes was passed by successive General Conferences. This is an indication of hw little staff work actually went into the preparation of the resolution. The result of this process is a large number of official statements about a variety of topics of which most church members are unaware.

Denominational resolutions have severe limitations on what they can accomplish. The reasons for this are given by Mark R. Armstutz: (1) they are too simplistic; (2) they are not based on biblical or moral analysis because they are designed for public advocacy, not teaching documents; (3) resolutions rarely represent the institution on whose behalf they claim to speak because they tend to represent special groups within the denomination and; (4) they are divisive because they take a simplistic position on complex and disputed issues.3

United Methodist bodies could exercise some self-restraint in passing resolutions. Every General Conference does not necessarily have to take a position on every issue the world faces. A few thoroughly researched and carefully considered resolutions would have far greater impact on the church and perhaps be noted by the larger society than do the multitude of positions the church now makes official. Some resolutions might actually represent the sentiment of the Methodist people. Given the penchant of many church leaders to feel that everything should receive their attention, the likelihood of this happening is remote.

The Question of Methodism's Role in Society

Methodism has played a prominent role in the development of the nation. The church grew with the country, expanding westward as the population moved across the Appalachian Mountains and into the Great Plains. Methodism shared the struggles of the developing country. Any national tension found its counterpart within the Methodist Church. This can be seen in the struggle for a more democratic denomination which came during the Andrew Jackson era and resulted in a schism out of which the Methodist Protestant Church was formed. The controversy over slavery led to the division of the church into northern and southern branches. When the nation was considering prohibition, the Methodist Churches were in the midst of the struggle. When in the mid-twentieth century the nation was debating the role of its black citizens, Methodism was engaged in a controversy over the Central Jurisdiction.

During the past thirty years the official response of Methodism to American foreign policy has shown evidence of an increased rejection of American society. This is more fundamental than simply a difference of opinion concerning specific aspects of foreign relations, such as involvement in the Vietnam War or U.S. policy toward Central America. It is a rejection of much of what is fundamental to the way the American society is organized, including capitalism and the profit motive. Although not as evident, it also rejects the democratic system. Authority is perceived to be with the leadership elite rather than based on the general population, whether this population be United Methodist constituents or the general public. This is most evident in certain sectors of the church bureaucracy, which has increasingly developed an adversary relationship with its constituency.

A fundamental question which must be answered in the period ahead is: Will the rejection of much of American society change the nature of the role of Methodism in the United States? Should the present trends continue and the more extreme views prevail, Methodism will occupy a different place in American society in the future. A religious group cannot reject the society of which it is a part and be a responsible participant in helping to shape the course of that society. Religious groups, of course, can reject the larger society of which they are a part and withdraw into themselves. They can assume a revolutionary stance and attempt to win support, thereby hoping to transform the entire society. The likelihood of this happening to Methodism is remote. However, the continued rejection of American society could change the role of Methodism from that of responsible participant to a group that rejects and is rejected by society.

A possible course is that the denomination will not only contihue to shrink in size but also lose influence. A religious group which withdraws into itself can continue indefinitely, but its impact on the world will be minimal. The United Methodist Church cannot survive as a major denomination in America and at the same time adopt economic and social theories which are an anathema to the great majority of its constituents.

This is not an argument for the church to assume a "my country right or wrong" posture. Church people should be responsible participants in the political and economic life of the society. The church should be a responsible critic. Methodism is not a sect whose members live in their own subculture. Its members are participants in virtually every aspect of the nation's life.

The rejection of American institutions by certain elements also has the potential for major conflict within the denomination. The fact that most church people are concerned primarily with their local congregation and ignore the resolutions has probably kept this from becoming a major problem.

The Critical Issue

The fundamental issue is what the United Methodist Church perceives its role to be in American society. For its first century and a half its primary goal was evangelism. Social involvement was intended to benefit the nation. There was agreement with the statement in the 1798 Discipline that "God's design in raising up the preachers called Methodists, in America. was to reform the continent, and spread scriptural holiness over the lands."4

The Christian Church has a responsibility to speak the word of the Lord to the world. It is called to be prophetic, to stand for justice and to support the weak and the oppressed. But the church always faces the danger of being co-opted by some group within society that needs its support to legitimize its particular cause. This can range from a ruling faction that wants the church to bless the status quo to revolutionary extremists who want the church to join their movement. The temptation is to ioin one side, to get into the secular fray and to make the cause a holy crusade. History is littered with sorry examples of church involvement in inappropriate causes.

The United Methodist Church must first give serious attention to the theological basis for its official positions. Any position which is adopted must be based on the church's understanding of its role in society. Methodism must address and clarify its theological understanding of its nature and mission.

It is of course easier to mount a crusade for this or that cause than to wrestle with the reasons for such action. Social and economic activism can be a way of avoiding the tough theological questions. It is always easier to identify a villain who needs to be defeated than to struggle with the basic issues of the Christian faith and their implications for the life of the individual and the activities of the church.

Just how much attention will be given to the theological basis of policy statements - and by whom - is not an easy question to answer. In Methodist tradition activism has been stronger than reflection. The likelihood of this changing is not great. Nevertheless, if the church is going to make statements which are both responsible and have the potential of being effective, it must give adequate attention to their theological bases. Any statement for which this is not done does not deserve serious attention by the constituents.

The fundamental issue therefore goes far beyond what the position of the United Methodist Church should be on the Middle East or Central America. The fundamental issue is the nature and mission of the church in today's world. How the people called Methodist define their role and purpose will determine the future of their church.

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