Trump’s election will either awaken the sleeping heart of Methodism or accelerate its turn towards schism and irrelevance.
Trump “Even Though”
While much has been said about the racist, misogynist, and anti-gay statements of President-Elect Donald Trump and his supporters, such conversations tend to fall into “Not all supporters!” and “He isn’t to be taken literally!” and other unhelpful conversations.
However, there’s one incontestable fact that helps us better understand Trump’s supporters and The Church at this time.
What is not contestable is that a simple decision was made by every electorate who voted for Trump: they voted for him “even though” they knew all the bad things about him.
- Even though he said he would ban all Muslims from entering the country.
- Even though he bragged about sexually assaulting women and entering dressing rooms of teenagers.
- Even though he chose a Vice President who supports conversion therapy ie. that teenagers should have the gay electro-shocked out of them.
The billions of dollars of free air-time and Fox News updates means that the super-majority of supporters knew these things before they were in the voting booth.
Even though he did all those things, the electorate voted for him in the majority in key states (though not the popular vote by a significant margin), which will put Mr. Trump in the White House.
They knew. And even though all these concerns were known by Trump’s supporters, they still voted for him. Racism, sexism, and anti-gay actions were not deal-breakers for their support.
The 2016 Presidential Election has a strong parallel to The United Methodist Church because Trump drew much of his “even though” support from the same power-base as The UMC.
Donald Trump won significant majorities in a wave of the Rust Belt, which Colin Woodard’s 2011 book American Nations designates as Greater Appalachia and the Midlands. As established in a previous post drawing on demographic data in the Church:
Greater Appalachia is the strongest cultural force in the United Methodist Church, with a land mass that spans the midwest, to the plains of Oklahoma, to Texas, and the northern parts of what is considered to be “the South.”
The largest unit of United Methodism in America comes from Greater Appalachia, which along with the Deep South and the Midlands comprises 51% of American Methodism.
And this is the same region with the largest upset of voters who voted for Trump “even though” he denigrated women, immigrants, LGBTQ, veterans, and disabled Americans.
“Even Though” in the UMC
For at least 44 years, The United Methodist Church has chosen be a Church of the “Even Though.” In 1972, at the first General Conference for what is now United Methodism, the delegates (from roughly the same demographics as today) approved the following language:
We insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured, although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Gee, look at that word: although, or “even though” in my parlance.
Methodism has a history of the “even though” when it comes to its relationship with minority groups. As Jane Ellen Nickell outlines in her bookWe Shall Not Be Moved: Methodists Debate Race, Gender, and Homosexuality:
- The debate over women’s ordination led to efforts to license women to serve an agreeable local congregation, even though they would not have the same voting rights as male pastors, thus denying connectional authority to them. This was the case from 1924 until full clergy rights in 1956.
- The debate over African-American clergy led to aAfrican-Americans being allowed to serve as clergy, even though that was only in the Central Jurisdiction, a non-regional jurisdiction consisting of only African-American churches and pastors. This was the case from unification in 1939 until the merger with the Evangelical United Brethren denomination in 1968.
- Read more here.
The UMC has a choice ahead of whether it will continue to be a church of the “even though” and sacrifice people groups on the altar of unity, or if it will choose to be a church for all people.
Option 1: Trumpian Theology
The Trump moment could go one of two ways for United Methodism.
The first way is the most obvious: Methodism (and especially its current antagonist The Wesleyan Covenant Association) follows American culture very closely, especially in its treatment of minorities. Even though the executive structure overall works hard against mistreatment of minorities, the general population (often represented by General Conference) does not:
- In a time when Black Americans are being killed in custody and about to lose a Black president and bring in a white nationalist, United Methodism came this close to shuttering our Religion and Race programs through the PlanUMC debacle, and continues to not support local efforts like Hannah Adair Bonner’s vigil at Sandra Bland’s site.
- In a time when Native Americans are suffering, our Bishops have been silent on the North Dakota Access Pipeline and Standing Rock–outside of the Western Jurisdiction’s Bishops, and DAPL is not even in their jurisdiction!
- In a time when women’s rights are being threatened, The UMC’s electorate chose to walk away from the table of women’s health, and deny affirmation of important statements on women and children.
So Trump’s election could exacerbate this allowance of mistreatment of minority groups because the power-base supports The UMC “even though” they exclude LGBTQ people and a widening circle of other minority groups. And they could continue to do it while claiming to be loving their neighbor: It’s easy to love our neighbors when they are all white.
This is the direction hoped-for by The Wesleyan Covenant Association as they offer the ultimate “even though”: join this revival and get all the evangelistic resources, even though your hopes for LGBTQ inclusion will never happen. A reactionary United Methodism to the WCA’s lures would also continue the same institutional exclusion, denying that such choices lead to irrelevance, schism, and a failure of all we are entrusted with.
Option 2: Healing and Resistance
The second option is for Trump’s election to shock United Methodism into living differently in the shadow of a country turned against minorities from the top-down that straight, white people are only now becoming aware of.
Methodism, even though it was not always for “all people,” used to be the Church for the prevailing needs of the most marginalized groups. We stood against child labor, wrote the first Social Creed of any American church, and stood for the Temperance movement (that did not stand the test of time), and advocated for labor laws. I’ve already named the many prevailing needs of this age that demand the church’s witness, blunted as it has been by systematic silencing for decades. But in truth, we are perfectly positioned to do precisely that witnessing, given our small church outlets for messages all across the Rust Belt and beyond, to turn the tide back towards inclusion of all people.
My unfounded and idealist hope is I believe we could use the Trump Moment to spur us to truly stand in solidarity with each other, rather than the shallow unity of “even though” and “although” that Methodism has become adept at.
Jim Wallis at Sojourners wrote in response to the election:
After this election, faith communities’ faithful role is imperative — for prayer, discernment, speaking and standing up, solidarity and support for those most fearful right now, and for speaking the truth to power. Our call and our ministry, in such a time as this, will be both healing and resistance. Lord have mercy on us all.
My hope is that the sleeping heart of Methodism–that loved one another although rather than oppressing people even though–awakens and stands again against the powers and principalities that would do harm to our neighbors, white or otherwise.
Let’s be clear: “Even though” is not about a particular candidate, as everyone votes even though a candidate is not perfectly aligned with their values. Rather, it matters when the “even though” includes the systematic oppression of a minority group, or when a church calls for unity “even though” minority groups are in the crosshairs. We need to fix this now.
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