David Watson has recently posted a blog post complaining of the poor treatment he and other evangelicals received in the West Ohio Annual Conference. They were, he reports, torpedoed by charges of being schismatics. This, he explains, has no basis in fact given his own and other evangelicals have explicitly rejected calls for schism. Despite this, only one representative of the evangelical slate was elected to General Conference while a Centrist and Progressive coalition took the clear majority of positions. What we have here, Watson concludes, is “an emerging Methodist McCarthyism.”
Before critiquing Watson, let me make some qualifications. First, I do not doubt that Watson is right that there were dirty politics and misinformation involved in the West Ohio Annual Conference. Personally, I have been sickened to see the extent to which Methodist politics parallels worldly politics at all levels. I would even suggest that the whole notion of having “slates” of candidates is a corruption of our conference process. If we start out institutionally divided against one another, there is no hope of coming out truly united on the far side. We have created a zero sum game in which every meeting will produce clear winners and losers. Second, Watson is reacting to a local situation which he knows far better than I. He is frustrated and angry. No doubt, to some extent justifiably so.
All of that said, I am not buying the idea of a one sided McCarthyism. Last summer Good News Magazine published a letter “Regarding United Methodism’s Future.” According to its self-description, it was authored by “more than 80 pastors” who “represent all five jurisdictions and more than 30 annual conferences, and many serve as lead pastors of some of the largest congregations in United Methodism.” The letter rhetorically asked: “Are we not at a point where we can acknowledge, after years of dialogue and debate, the depth of our differences and together, progressives and traditionalists, give each other the freedom to pursue our understanding of God’s will?” Are we not willing, in “In the manner that Paul and Barnabas chose to part amicably (Acts 15:39-41)?”
The letter was like a bomb that had gone off in Methodist social media. And that was no mistake. As I noted at the time, it was part of a long running political strategy from the Good News Community. For years, whenever progressives and centrists had challenged the evangelical position on homosexuality, evangelicals threatened to break the church.
So, roughly a year ago a group of evangelicals were stressing how widespread their movement was, and were calling explicitly for a schism in the United Methodist Church. Even Watson himself could sound quite close to the message of the 80: “I’m afraid, though, that after 2016, these theological friends and I–these brothers and sisters in Christ–will no longer share a worshipping community. The denomination has reached a breaking point.”
What happened to the calls for schism? Well, on the face of things, the strategy of calling for schism failed. We will have to wait to see whether it failed so extravagantly that it could open the way for a revision of the Book of Discipline on the issue of homosexuality. But clearly it did build up some ill will against evangelicals, and made it easy to target them as schismatics in some of this year’s round of Annual Conferences.
Watson is right, there has been very little explicit talk of schism from evangelicals this year. Further, not all evangelicals signed off on schism even when it was popular. So, no doubt, opponents of evangelicalism are stretching the truth to make the case that all evangelicals signed on for schism, and that electing evangelicals will lead to schism. But, then again, the original message was created not by centrists and progressives, but by some of the leaders of evangelicalism itself.
As for charges of McCarthyism, we live in a system where there actually are boards of people who are authorized to ask questions about people’s personal lives and sexual preferences, and are able to reject them for jobs if they don’t fit the party line. But it is the evangelicals that are in favor of continuing the current limits here. So, before throwing the label of McCarthyism around, it might be worth at least taking a moment to think about how the metaphor cuts in multiple directions.
In short, what happened in Ohio sounds like a backfire of the strategy deployed in the letter of the 80. There were big name evangelicals involved in that, and the institution of Good News was identified with the effort. So, if evangelicals end up getting lumped in with that, it would be worthwhile for them to look at the mistakes made by evangelicals in addition to complaining about the rhetoric being deployed against them. Otherwise, this kind of thing tends just to continue a narrative of oppressed evangelicalism, which is extremely oversimplified.