What the Methodist split says about American political polarization

The United Methodists are the second-largest Protestant Christian denomination in the United States, and they’re headed for a split.

That might seem like an internecine affair, something of interest mainly to Methodists or, at most, other churches hoping to poach some congregants amid the chaos. But big church splits as politically tinged as this one can be a revealing microcosm of our politics as a whole. And Methodism—which has long held something of a media position in American Protestantism, given Methodists’ historical location between Episcopalians (stereotypically elite, urban, center-left) and Pentecostals (stereotypically poor, rural, populist)—might be uniquely well-suited to provide a religious microcosm of our national polarization and its rising risks.

The precipitating issues for this looming Methodist crackup, as in so many other churches over the past two decades, are gay marriage and ordination. A large (and overwhelmingly traditional) African contingent in the denomination plus the interruptions of COVID have made for a long and complicated process process. United Methodists tentatively agreed on a protocol for breaking up the denomination in early 2020, but this summer, a group of conservative churches preemptively launched their own new denomination, after which more progressive groups rejected the 2020 plan. The issue may now remain in limbo until the denomination’s next General Conference, which, due to COVID, was bumped all the way to 2024.

For now, it’s too soon to say exactly who will get what—the name, the buildings, the seminaries, the bureaucracy, the debts—or even what will remain to divide, as a conservative journalist (and Methodist) W. James Antle III writes, given the denomination’s recent history of “squabbling” and “increasingly empty pews.” Yet however this denominational divorce plays out, theology around same-sex relationships isn’t the only thing driving Methodists apart. “There are parts of the church in which traditional trinitarian thinking is beginning to morph into Unitarian thought,” Bishop Gary Mueller told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “However, there are also parts of the church where I am concerned that traditional Christian orthodox thought is beginning to resemble white Christian nationalism.”

That’s a brief but very suggestive sketch. It envisions the leftward edge drifting into secularism with limited use for God, while the rightward edge moves into a nationalist syncretism that makes God the servant of the state. Even if these two factions could figure out a way to live with one another where gay marriage and ordination are concerned, there’s no basis there for staying united—not with the other extreme, but also not with the Methodists stuck in the middle.

If you’re not a Methodist, though, why should you care? For starters, non-Methodists should care about secularity and its potential implications for religious liberty. As religiosity declines—and especially adherence to religiosity which entails beliefs and practices that putnts significantly at odds with the American mainstream—religious liberty will most likely be of personal interest to an ever-smaller portion of Americans.

A Methodist who is functionally a Unitarian and wholly supportive of gay marriage has much less need of religious liberty protections in the America of 2022 than a Methodist who is opposed to gay marriage and believes that requires her to, say, refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. There are plenty of people who will defend religious liberty to the hilt even if they are not themselves religious, but that kind of principled, consistent civil libertarianism is rarer than we might wish. Many people in practice will only defend the rights they themselves exercise. That means waning religiosity comes with the risk of waning religious liberty.

Next is the Christian nationalism, which is lately much in the headlines thanks to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R–Ga.) decision to embrace the label and, at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, to falsely claim it applies to most other Americans, too. Christian nationalism, as Georgetown University scholar Paul D. Miller argues in The Religion of American Greatness, is not “a lovable excess in patriotism and piety” but an “incoherent,” “illiberal,” and—for Christians—”often idolatrous” fusion of faith and state. Miller says it isn’t “a catch-all term for any kind of Christian political advocacy,” as Greene has tried to assert. Rather, the “unique feature of Christian nationalism is that it defines America as a Christian nation,” he writes, “and it wants the government to promote a specific Anglo-Protestant cultural template as the official culture of the country.”

It’s easy to imagine, particularly in a country as religiously and culturally diverse as ours, the dangerous places to which Christian nationalism could lead. And it’s bad enough as an inchoate folk impulse which mixes some disorganized attempts to claim special political privileges for Christians with mostly normal right-wing politics. But insofar as Christian nationalism becomes a defined political agenda which adherents are willing to claim by name—and that’s quite a new phenomenon—those attempts are likely to become a more serious threat to liberty, not least because of nationalism’s tendency to resort to force to achieve its ends.

Last is the worrisome prospect that history could rhyme. After all, this wouldn’t be the first time the Methodist communion in America has split: The denomination’s current nominal unity is actually a reunity. Methodists’ best-known previous division came in the run-up to the Civil War, when the Methodist Episcopal Church, then America’s largest Protestant denomination, schismed over slavery. The Baptists’ Triennial Convention split the same year and for the same reason, which is how we got the Southern Baptists.

Historians and contemporaries alike agree those church splits prefigured and advanced the national division and war that came a decade and half later. And now, as then, formal church separations can make it easier to view the other side as an enemy, perhaps to be confronted with violence, so that what was intended to be a de-escalation measure becomes escalatory instead.

Maybe now, as then, churches are the canary in the coal mine, warning us of catastrophe we could still avert.

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