Politics as Heresy

A polarized America needs clergy who mediate rather than inflame.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivers remarks on immigration and law enforcement actions on at Lackawanna College June 15, 2018 in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

By Mark Tooley Published on June 30, 2018

In some American church circles, incorrect political stances have become “heresy,” religiously inflaming already polarized national debates. In the latest example, some headlines claim Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ denomination, the United Methodist Church, is possibly excommunicating him. Why? for defending the administration’s evolving border policy.

In reality, several hundred clergy (out of 44,000 in the U.S.) and some lay people from the church’s most liberal regions have filed a very publicized complaint against Sessions with his pastors. Theoretically it could lead to a church trial and membership termination. But in fact, non-clergy are almost never prosecuted, much less ousted from the church. Almost no one has been ousted from the church for disagreeing with United Methodism’s many left-leaning political stances.

The complaint against Sessions showcases theological differences between left and right in American Christianity. Church traditionalists define orthodoxy by adherence to historic doctrine and accompanying personal morals. Church liberals tout adherence to progressive social and political objectives. Methodist conservatives point out that many of Sessions’ accusers defy the church’s officially traditionalist teaching on marriage. Some could not affirm the Apostles Creed.

These accusers cite the previous policy of detaining at the border illegal immigrants and asylum seekers without their children. They ask the Attorney General’s pastors to “dig deeply into Mr. Sessions’ advocacy and actions that have led to harm against thousands of vulnerable humans.”

Deploying United Methodism’s official reasons in church law for prosecution, the clergy complainants cite “child abuse,” “immorality,” “racial discrimination,” and dissemination of doctrines contrary to church teaching.

Sessions Needn’t Worry

To precipitate a church trial, Sessions’ pastor in Mobile, Alabama, would have to try reconciliation. Then, the pastor would authorize a church committee of investigation to confirm sufficient cause. If so confirmed, a church trial would include a church prosecutor. That prosecutor would need to persuade a jury of church members. If Sessions was found guilty, termination of church membership would be the harshest penalty.

Sessions need not lose any sleep. He is a lifelong United Methodist (I first met him when he was a delegate to the church’s governing General Conference in 1996). And he’s widely admired in Alabama Methodism. Unfortunately for the complainants, there’s no provision for trying Sessions in their more liberal regions, like New York or California. Even there, there’s no precedent for prosecuting lay people for dissent from denominational political stances.

We already face heated national debates and divisions. Ideally, church and other religious leaders would offer mediation and seek common ground where possible.

Most United Methodists are unaware of their denomination’s 1,000 page Book of Resolutions. It contains hundreds of political pronouncements urging single payer health care, abolition of handguns, nuclear disarmament, and, yes, non-enforcement of U.S. immigration law. Nearly all lay people would be non compliant and theoretically worthy of church prosecution. Most but not all stances are liberal. The church opposes same-sex marriage, even in civil law. It backs limits on abortion, including late-term abortion. But no one has advocated church charges for liberal United Methodist politicians.

A History of Mediation

Defining dissent from liberal politics as heretical has always been present in the Religious Left. But in seems to have become more popular. A “Reclaiming Jesus” manifesto in May signed by prominent clerics, including Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, emphatically declared: “We reject ‘America first’ as a theological heresy for followers of Christ.” Trade and diplomatic policies associated with America First may merit political critique by disapproving church critics. But their details are not on the level of apostolic teaching about the Trinity or forensics of salvation.

We already face heated national debates and divisions. Ideally, church and other religious leaders would offer mediation and seek common ground where possible. For much of American history, mainline Protestant denominations like Methodism specialized in uniting Americans behind common commitments to democracy and vibrant civil life. Their institutions and traditions often mediated great national controversies. They negotiated emerging consensus behind social reforms.

Those days are largely over. Mainline Protestant bureaucracies radicalized in the 1960s and 1970s. That precipitated 50 year membership implosions and loss of national influence. Demands for “prophetic” political stances, always from the left, replaced mediation and consensus building. But some of the gracious old habits persevere, at least at the local church level.

Pastoral Care Over Church Trials

United Methodist complainants against Sessions also sent their denunciation to the Arlington, Virginia congregation Sessions sometimes attends. “Some in our denomination are calling on us to distance ourselves from Sessions or to do what we can to get him to change,” Rev. Tracy McNeil Wines of Clarendon United Methodist Church told her Sunday flock, which included Mrs. Sessions. “There has been an outcry about that.”

Rev. Wines said she’d heard from many “concerned citizens” watching “the public discourse and I’m concerned.” Noting United Methodism includes George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton, she said: “As United Methodists, we don’t require one another to march in lockstep. We engage in passionate debate over issues that sometimes divide us.” She “disagrees profoundly” with the administration’s border policy. But is also “deeply troubled by the divisions I see only growing in our culture, our nation and even our church.”

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While clear about her own convictions, Rev. Wines said she “will not dehumanize those who are not in harmony with my deeply, passionately held beliefs. I will not write them off as objects or obstacles, but I will remember that they are flesh-and-blood humans … and I am committed to listen to them.”

A commitment to pastoral care for persons across the political spectrum seems far preferable to attempted church trials or charges of heresy based on political stances. A polarized America needs clergy who mediate rather than inflame.

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  • Chip Crawford

    Hey, the division is already there. Good for it to come up to the surface. Mr. Sessions is not their problem. Whatever they decide, he won’t backslide. Ha ha. I think he has the real thing. Just let the sheep be separated from the goats. Good old fashioned purification. Split on, and let the Good Shepherd lead the remnant of his flock out from the worldly compromise and butting of heads. Amen.

    • stan schmunk

      According to Scripture Sessions and those who agree with him would be the goats…

      • Chip Crawford

        Maybe according to 1st Stan, but God’s word – no

        • stan schmunk

          I’m deciding whether or not to throw pearls…how can you not know them?

  • MarcoPolo

    Attorney General Jeff Sessions has proven himself to be of the Old Guard once again. He’s a throwback of intolerance for those who flee their Homeland for safety in the United States.
    Sadly, Sessions goose-steps to Resident Trump’s marching orders. And for that, he hardly aligns with anything Christ-like.

  • Nutstuyu

    The clergy that signed the complaint should all themselves have charges brought for failing their pastoral roles as well as disobedience and disseminating false doctrines. Once again, UMC clergy fail to realize they are set apart so as to set an example of right and holy living–not be the biggest whiners and antagonizers.

  • Myron Heavin

    The issue in question seems to be the policy of separation of children from their parents by the thousands if you enter our borders, a policy abhorred by both left and right. This event was started when Jeff Sessions announced a zero tolerance policy a few weeks ago.

    My sense is that considerable numbers of Christians on all sides of the political spectrum deplore this policy. I suspect if a poll of Methodists were taken, the number of people deploring this action would be in the millions.

    Lastly one wonders about outright discrimination ah[gainst Christians at our borders, by that I mean So many Christian families are having their Christian children taken away from them. Are those separated allowed to attend worship services? Does ICE pass out Bibles or do they take them away? How many Methodist families are split up at the border.

    This is first and foremost a religious issue, and Scripture should decide our actions, not political doctrine. Scripture comes first. These scriptures are hopefully familiar to all of us readers. When a reader asks – show me the scriptures, this shows lack of scriptural understanding. If this is true – join a good Bible Study. Have we all not heard the parable of the Good Samaritan or “let the little children come into me, for such is the kingdom of heaven”? Do we take Such is the Kingdom of Heaven” and lock them up in iron cages?

    • Chip Crawford

      You have fallen prey to the media’s take and representation on all of this. Many of the “caged” pictures shown are from 2014 – that’s Obama era, doing the same thing. It is a bigger problem than arm chair critics can snap fingers and analyze away. You’ve gone the hyperbole route I see with the “iron cages” rhetoric. They got you alright. Secretary Sessions, as head of the DOJ knows directly the drugs and MS13 gang and repeat criminal scourges on our country. Formerly, these things were ignored. Be informed that the media backs their left and liberal bias in reporting and what they don’t report. God is a God of order and lawfulness. This administration is enforcing the law and the liberals are after new voters, because they cannot govern well and come forth with beneficial plans for the people of the United States – the cradle of the Gospel by the way. The extent of the Great Commission being carried out across the world through the Body of Christ in the US is Job 1 in the Kingdom of God. The subverting of our nation to criminal elements, including an increasingly outlaw and anti-Bible enemy to God element should be obvious and something you as a Christian – you claim – be opposed to not drawn in by.

      The emotional sucker punches only hit the ignorant and spiritually vulnerable, even among church going people. The UMC has been pulling in that direction for some time. God’s word warns us against latter days deception. Take heed, sir. As to abolishing ICE, I think Ms. Conway nailed it by saying that is the intersection of arrogance and ignorance. So, you are counted in that number as well? God did not call the church to help bolster the voter rolls of the increasingly anarchist Democratic Party at the behest of their notably wicked backers, should you actually know as much as you claim, or more crucial – actually be alive to the cause of Christ and available to the discernment of the Holy Spirit. A lot of fringe Christians will fall for this current pitch. You choose whether or not you will be one of them.

  • Nanita Staley

    Jesus predicted that in this the Last Day, men’s hearts would grow cold, they would be lovers of self and pleasure and haters of the truth. Truth is a person, Jesus, Lord of Heaven and Lord of this Earth He created. The Word also said there would come a great falling away, great apostasy. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in this last day. Do we not understand yet that this is where we are, now!

    But we were put here in this day and time for a very specific purpose, to be His voice in the earth. To show the Earth what Jesus looks like. We have been very specially gifted for this purpose and this time. Rejoice and be glad! This is the closing act of Jesus’ church. Those of us who have given ourselves wholly to Him are the ones whom He has selected to show miracles in this world like it never even imagined. Youth renewed: that means exactly what it says, youth restored to those who are long past it. The dead raised, funeral homes and hospitals emptied. Resurrection on a massive scale and I am referring to those who are long dead. God is about to show the world Who He really is and that He is the supreme God of all the earth. The is the day we are privileged to live in and to participate in. He saved the BEST for last!

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