A Christmas Meditation: One Church, Many Countries
On the first Sunday of Advent, I found myself a stranger in a strange land. Having missed the worship service at my Methodist church due to travel, I attended an evening Mass at a Catholic Church outside our nation`s capital in Arlington, Virginia. The priest`s homily was certainly an inside-the-Beltway affair.
We were exhorted to call undecided members of Congress—whether we lived in their districts or not!—and lobby them to vote for the DREAM Act. This wasn`t subtle sermonizing with a few proof texts followed by an oblique reference to the congressional amnesty attempt. The priest ran through the entire roll call of senators whose votes were still up in the air.
It was brazen and unusually heavy-handed, to say the least. But amnesty advocacy and mass immigration activism aren`t alien to my own tradition either. The United Methodist Church remains the largest mainline Protestant denomination. (But given the rate at which the old-line churches have been hemorrhaging members for the past 50 years, this distinction is rather like being the tallest building in Topeka.)
The Social Gospel long ago supplanted the Real Thing in the staid quarters of moribund mainline liberalism, contributing to slogans about Open Doors—to say nothing of Open Borders—and a reality of empty pews. The soft-headedness masquerading as open-heartedness of the bishops was not shared by the rank-and-file. But on immigration, it is increasingly seeping through the evangelical subculture that still thrives in the Methodist Church—and in evangelical Protestantism more broadly.
Consider a recent evangelical statement on "Just Assimilation Immigration Policy" signed by such leading churchmen as Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention and social conservative leader Mathew Staver of Liberty Counsel. It could have been written by my fellow United Methodist George W. Bush! Chief among its arguments is that once any conditions are attached, amnesty is no longer amnesty.
"Let us be clear — an earned pathway to citizenship is not amnesty", the signatories wrote. "We reject amnesty". Land himself later argued, "The term `comprehensive legislation` is not code for amnesty, no matter what my critics contend". (Those "critics" were likely conservative Christians unwilling to join the evangelical elites in their unbridled immigration enthusiasm.)
Former President Bush went so far as to tell Rush Limbaugh (also raised Methodist), "I don`t know many people who were for amnesty when it comes time for comprehensive reform". [A Spirited Talk with President Bush, Rush Limbaugh Show, November 9, 2010]
Why are conservative Protestants beginning to sound like liberal Protestants (what`s left of them) when it comes to borders, sovereignty, and immigration? And why ought they come to different conclusions on the National Question?
Let`s begin with my own United Methodist Church. In recent years, Methodists have in their legislative General Conferences actually become more orthodox in faith and morals. This is unique among mainline Protestant denominations, and a good share of the reason lives outside the United States.
One third of the United Methodist Church`s members now reside in foreign countries, with Africans making up the largest share of overseas members. According to Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), "By some estimates, there are more worshipers in United Methodist churches in the Democratic Republic of Congo on a typical Sunday than in the entire United States". And that`s not counting all the Methodists who live in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Angola, and elsewhere.
African Methodists are overwhelmingly theologically conservative. At the United Methodist`s quadrennial General Conferences, they vote heavily in favor of the primacy of Scripture, the traditional Christian sexual ethic, and the sanctity of innocent human life. This is at variance with American liberal Methodists who prefer "theological pluralism", blessing same-sex unions, and church membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
The growth and orthodoxy of Christians in the Southern Hemisphere is not limited to Methodists, of course. As Philip Jenkins documented in his important book The Next Christendom, Global South Christians are breathing new life into many denominations. I concluded my 2009 Chronicles review of William Murchison`s fine book Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity by noting "It is a bitter irony that Africans may need to send missionaries to convert American Episcopalians, Methodists, and other mainline Protestants to the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
What makes United Methodism unique among major Protestant denominations, however, is the integration of its international membership into its legislative bodies. Overseas Methodists may supply up to 40 percent of the delegates to the 2012 General Conference.
Displeased at the sight of black Africans and white Southerners voting together on theological and social issues, liberal Methodists proposed a new U.S.-only conference that would exclude the Africans. But this global segregation measure was voted down by local annual conferences, with African conferences almost entirely opposed.
Now in order to liberalize Methodism`s Book of Discipline and unmoor it from Christian tradition, the denomination`s progressives would need an improbable 90 percent of American delegates to vote their way. But here too demography is destiny. The United Methodist Church is heavily based in the Midwest and the South, thinly distributed elsewhere in the country. There are now more Methodists in Georgia than in the theologically liberal Pacific Northwest (which includes California).
As IRD`s Tooley has written, "Maybe the ordinariness of Methodists was ultimately the church`s protection". Compared to the rest of mainline Protestantism, Methodists "are typically among its most Middle American and middle-brow". And it was a Methodist Middle American, the late Rev. Charles Keysor of Illinois, whose 1966 Christian Advocate essay "Methodism`s Silent Minority: A Voice for Orthodoxy" helped spark the denomination`s renewal movement.
Notice that no part of this remarkable renewal story, a testament, really, to Christian unity, required mass immigration. There is true diversity among the different people working together in a Christian spirit of cooperation across geographic boundaries and geographic lines.
Yet just as Christ the Messiah came as the world least expected him, this unity did not come in quite form that socially conservative immigration enthusiasts led us to expect.
Many cultures and nation-states; one Body of Christ.