Politics as Heresy
A polarized America needs clergy who mediate rather than inflame.
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.
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.”
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.