Pundits often refer to the nation’s red-blue ideological divide that was reflected in the 2000 presidential election when a few powerful and populous liberal areas of the east and west coasts (the blue states) were balanced by the conservative, less-populous, but more widespread heartland of the nation (the red states).
We see a parallel divide in the religious community. Similarly, powerful elites of the nation’s mainline denominations — the bishops and clergy, as well as the denominational seminary faculty, headquarters and media staff –have engaged in a theological tug-of-war against the vast and significantly more conservative and orthodox members who fill church pews.
The main contentious issues? Primarily homosexuality, with abortion and the war against terror running closely behind.
In vote after vote on the floor of the United Methodist General Conference, held in April, the conservative majority prevailed — usually decisively or overwhelmingly — and Biblically orthodox positions were upheld or strengthened. The nearly 1000 delegates voted:
- to strengthen the statement about homosexuality in the official book of church law, the Discipline. The statement now reads, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching”;
- to defeat homosexual unions by 756 to 159. An equally strong vote declared that homosexual activity, clergy performing weddings for same-sex couples or having sex outside of marriage, are “chargeable offenses”;
- to defeat, 56% to 44%, a statement that would have declared: Christians disagree on the issue of homosexual practice being compatible with Christian teaching;
- overwhelmingly, 806 to 95, to support “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness”;
- to add language endorsing “laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman”;
- that regardless of sexual practice, members of the church will “seek to live together in Christian community.” This, the only area of “compromise,” came in the matter of church unity.
In addition, the nine-member Judiciary Council voted 6 to 3 that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals cannot be employed within the church nor be appointed to any position by a bishop.”
In short, the delegates consistently, and with solid majorities, reaffirmed traditional understandings of Biblical teaching. Yet the media focused repeatedly on the “divisions” over gay marriage. News reports overwhelmingly quote liberal bishops or gay activists. For instance, the Associated Press reported briefly that the United Methodists have not altered their official stand against homosexuality in three decades and that the delegates in Pittsburgh reinforced and strengthened that position. Otherwise, the report emphasized the struggle and the controversy; they quoted a gay minister’s emotionally laden rhetoric — that gay clergy “are awaiting a word of grace and word of acceptance from their denomination.”
Instead of phrasing the decisive votes positively, newspapers like the Las Vegas Sun led with the negative claim that “conservatives have won new ways to enforce a church ban.” Articles, like one in the Denver Post, quote bishops and delegates using words like “very harsh” and “strident” in describing the debates. There are usually quotes about the war on terrorism, too — criticizing the “unilateral actions” and the “culture of fear about terrorism” — and lamenting about church members who are “hung up on issues” instead of just “getting along.”
More reflective of the outcome of the General Conference and the assessment of the majority of the delegates was the statement released by the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Mark Tooley: “The United Methodist Church . . . was faithful to the beliefs of most church members, faithful to its Wesleyan traditions, and faithful to the historic teachings of the universal church.”
The handwriting is on the wall. It is long since time that the “blue” liberal bishops and others in the church hierarchy wake up to the fact that the “red” people in the pews want the church to remain true to its historical mission of lifting up Jesus Christ. The Master’s words were never more needed: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”
Janice Crouse, a life-long United Methodist, is senior fellow of the Beverly LaHaye Institute. She spoke at a delegates’ luncheon at the General Conference and attended the conference as a member of UM Decision 2004, a coalition of leaders in renewal groups within the denomination.