Trump’s election helps The UMC understand the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s base of support and potential for disruption of the institution.
The November 2016 election of Donald Trump as President-Elect of the United States has turned a spotlight onto the voting power and plight of Rust Belt and Bible Belt Americans who are discontent with the way things are and who voted for seismic change.
Interesting, the United Methodist Church draws its largest percentage of American membership from this same region of the country. This begs the question: Are similar sentiments simmering in United Methodism?
Wesleyan Covenant Association
I have previously noted the many ways the year-old Wesleyan Covenant Association mirrors negative parts of American culture (1, 2, 3). But it seems I’ve been circling around the crux of the matter, as it took Trump’s election for me to finally put it all together.
United Methodist News Service recently featured WCA Council member Dr. Bill Arnold in its daily digest. Dr. Arnold indicates that the WCA is necessary to preserve the founding spirit and doctrine of Wesley’s vision for Methodism.
I do not doubt the sincerity of Dr. Arnold’s writings. However, the cultural forces at play have little to do with high-minded preservation of theological treatises and much to do with the same forces that propelled Trump past preservation-minded opponents to the highest seat in the land.
01: the system failed them
In the Rust and Bible Belts, one persistent narrative is that America failed them. Their way of life is disappearing–no longer are towns built around one manufacturing company, no longer can families be supported by one working-class salary. Young people have left Middle America for the coasts. The “American Dream” has revealed itself to be what it always was for most Americans: a myth.
Some parts of United Methodism believe our church system has failed them as well:
- Clergy who were told that they could rise through the ranks to big-steeple churches have been passed over for whipper-snappers younger than some of their clerical robes.
- Laity were told that Methodists believe the same always and everywhere (which, too, is and always has been a myth).
- The charge is that the general agencies advocate for the best of Methodism, but when they take positions that individual Methodists disagree with, then there’s allegations of betrayal.
There’s a lot of disparaging of the institutions that have failed them. But it gets even more specific than discontent.
02. start it all over
The #1 refrain of my friends and acquaintances who voted for Trump is “I wanted change,” ranging from “he will make outsider decisions” to “he will burn it down and start over.”
Likewise, the WCA’s promised future is a return to (their version of) the early days of Wesleyanism, a day when institutions like diverse seminaries and general agencies are no more.
The Rev. Ryan Barnett, a Texas pastor, spoke at WCA’s inaugural event about a Wesleyan movement without General Boards and Agencies, set free from top-heavy bureaucracy leading agencies into areas WCA leaders loathe funding–mainly areas of mission. He dreamed of all the money that currently goes to general boards and agencies (the whopping pennies on the dollar), going instead to Africa, no doubt being used more on conversion and evangelism than on mutuality in mission.
While lip service is given to continuing to pay apportionments and support Methodist missions and ministry, the stated goal is to not have to pay any more and let those institutions crumble.
03: a channeled anger
Anger has been a documented phenomenon in a country that has abandoned the manufacturing infrastructure in the Rust Belt, and Trump has often been accused of whipping up anger through his late-night tweets and rhetoric.
The WCA has a hazy relationship with institutional anger. Rev. Rob Renfroe at the inaugural event said that anger is not the driving issue of the WCA. From an observer’s record:
“[The WCA] will not be a group of people who are mad at the church, angry at progressives, and belligerent to the culture. Is there much to be upset about? Yes, there is: Pastors who teach contrary doctrines that promote pluralism … annual conferences unwilling to live by the covenant … bishops who provoke disobedience …” – Rev. Rob Renfroe
The rhetoric from their strongest supporters tells a different story. One has only to wander into 3,300 member United Methodists for Truth to see the vitriol poured out against progressives and LGBTQ Methodists day after day. And for years, the perceived failures of the system were collected on sites like UMBishopWatch and UCM Page that shared private emails (which Good News is now doing, too) and fevered accusations.
You can’t claim to be a responsible peaceful opposition with such resentment and tactics. In the same speech as quoted above, Renfroe said the aforementioned reform groups would stay “on defense” while the WCA would go “on offense.” Troubling. The relationship WCA has with its angry supporters (much like Trump’s hazy relationship with his base) bears future scrutiny.
04: demographics parallel
Finally–and this is important–the American electorate that supported Trump are curiously similar to the demographics of the WCA.
Trump’s key supporters that put him over the top in key Rust Belt states were white men. At the WCA inaugural event, roughly 95% of participants were white, and 85% were male, per three uncorroborated observer reports (WCA hasn’t publicly released demographic data). And at the top, more than half of the elected leadership has connections to Asbury Theological Seminary in the heart of the Rust Belt.
Here’s the key: It’s to this group especially–white, male, Christian–that the American Dream was promised, and the church with it. Perhaps the fear of losing it, even if never truly possessed it, is what drives the WCA’s critical stance of exclusion of LGBTQ Christians.
An Unsteady Horizon
Denominations exist to express an aspect of the Gospel that, but for that denomination, would diminish or cease to exist. — John C. Dorhauer
The United Methodist Church matters in the world, and we should be worried at its future.
The same Western cultural forces that voted against the institutions and nation states (Brexit and Trump) are ready to do the same to United Methodism. Many of the cultural tendencies and appropriations that propelled Trump into office are driving the Wesleyan Covenant Association, which is best placed to put decades of anti-institutional ire into final action.
The dream envisioned by the WCA–the Church either of the 1950s or the 1770s, depending on the speech–was a church that thrived when women and minorities were kept separate. That’s not the church of the future, if the only way forward is “back” to applying the same sentiment to today’s vulnerable minorities in church and world.
Contrary to Dr. Arnold’s article, that doesn’t make the WCA necessary to retain theology and doctrine; rather, it makes it a threat to every advancement made in including more people in the ever-widening circle of God’s love.
Unity with Diversity beyond American Culture
My hope for The Church lies in our global polity. Forty-two percent of the votes to get anything through General Conference come from outside of the United States’ reactionary cultural context. Large swaths of Methodism in Africa and the Philippines are not part of this cultural itch to tear down institutions. Indeed, Global Ministries, UMCOR, and increased theological education, (ie. the institutional church) have been good to these parts of the world.
While the majority of central conferences seem to support the continued exclusion of LGBTQ people, the cultural tear-down forces are not as present and reasonable compromise is possible, unlike with the WCA. As Dr. Maria Dixon Hall shared about her GC2016 and following summer experiences (and my response here):
“One African delegate said to me, ‘Maria, we will not let this issue [homosexuality] destroy the connection of the Church—it is that connection that is most sacred.’”
My hope lies in the global church (and the Bishop’s Commission) that they find a balance of Unity (in doctrine and teaching) with Diversity (in non-orthodox topics like LGBTQ value). I believe this has a higher virtue than the status quo, and such unity-in-diversity is how the Global South operates anyway.
The church grows together when loud factions cannot take the church hostage, and the well-respected people on the Bishop’s Commission combined with the increasingly diverse Global South will hopefully grow into that counterweight to the culture-driven tear-down drive-out forces of the WCA.
At least, today, that’s my hope. What’s yours?
Fear and mistrust that God created enough for all, spread about in echo-chambers of frustrated white men, make the Wesleyan Covenant Association a well-funded threat to the big global tent of Methodism, and we should pay close attention to their actions and words in the coming months.
Thanks for reading, and your shares of this document on social media. The conversations they inspire are appreciated and necessary.