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UMC Leaders and Compassionate Conservatism

by Michael L. Gonzalez

February 5, 2001

The boards, agencies, bishops, and other leaders of the United Methodist Church are now being thrust into a predicament that no one could have imagined.  For the past several quadrennia, these UMC groups and individuals have, at a progressively increasing rate, aligned themselves with both liberal theology and liberal politics.  In so doing, they have verbally maintained that these liberal shifts are inherently Christian, both politically and theologically.  This resulting liberal ideology has been tied into a neat package, but it's about to be ripped apart by a most unpredictable force.

The development of this liberal ideology can be a study in itself, but suffice it to say that the liberal UMC leaders achieved a masterpiece of consistency with their ideology, at least on paper, as they wove the secular (and practically atheistic) liberal political agenda into, and made it indistinguishable from, their liberal theological agenda, all as a part of their extra-biblical attempt at re-defining Christianity.  Ironically, the conservative Christian political movement (the "Christian Right"), who presented the liberal UMC leaders with an opposition, actually aided these liberals in defining themselves, as they opposed the conservative Christians.  Thus, these two opposing forces provided a framework aiding the many churches of this country in defining themselves, at least when it came to politics, as being aligned with either the "left wing or the right wing Christian forces."

However, the situation today raises these questions:   What would happen to the liberal ideology if a U.S. political leader was able to effectively blend the polarized agendas of the Christian political landscape?  What if such a leader took a nearly-orthodox Christian theological perspective and blended it with a significant number of issues from the liberal Christians' political agenda?  Would such a position strip the liberal Christians of their uniqueness and reason for existence, at least in the political realm?  How would the liberal christians react if their political opposite joined at least a portion of their political agenda?

With George W. Bush as President of the United States, we might just get the opportunity to see the complete disruption of the liberal Christians' ideology.  President Bush's newborn administration has shot out of the gate with the most significant Christian messages in memory.  Bush appears to headed toward taking a Christian approach on some issues that is very similar to typical liberal Christians in politics; although, with regard to several "hot button" issues, such as abortion and homosexual behavior, he remains steadfastly in the camp of the conservative Christians.

If Bush attempts to restore the freedom of religion, as originally contemplated by the founders of the nation, as opposed to the freedom from religion, which has been the mantra of the past few decades, the liberal Christians are going to be in for a period of great consternation.  Although the liberals clamor for the separation of church and state, how would they be able to justify a condemnation of sound Christian beliefs as a basis for governing?  If Bush is able to demonstrate that he can govern on the basis of Christian beliefs, and yet not favor Christianity over other religions (including pagan) in such a way that would give appearance of a "state religion," the liberals would be hard pressed to criticize Bush on the basis of religion.  If the liberals in high Christian positions, such as the UMC leaders, align themselves with liberal atheists to fight Bush on no basis other than his Christian beliefs, then these UMC leaders would expose themselves as decidedly unchristian.  Even the liberal atheists would demonstrate hypocrisy by such an attack on Bush, as it would be categorized as "religious profiling," thus saying that Christians cannot hold government office due to their inherent morals.

So, it will be interesting to see the type of response that Bush gets from UMC leaders concerning the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.  Just one day after Bush's announcement of this, one of the typical liberal "christian" lobby organizations announced their opposition.

It's going to be tough for liberals in the UMC, who have their social agenda as their basic (only) tenet, to reject money from the federal government to fund their programs, as Bush invites Christian organizations to apply for government cash.  These liberals have been clamoring for years that the government needs to provide more and more social services, while they have organized social services within the church that they decry as needing greater monetary resources.

The recent New York Times news report on Bush's new program demonstrates the current liberal viewpoint.

Nudging Church-State Line, Bush Invites Religious Groups to Seek Federal Aid 
January 30, 2001 

WASHINGTON, Jan. 29 - Flanked by an array of religious leaders, President Bush today signed two executive orders that throw open the doors of government to religious and community groups as part of a broad effort to refashion the way government delivers social services.

. . . what the current President Bush promised religious leaders today was far more extraordinary, a new version of "reinventing government," with a religious cast.

The move is likely to be applauded by many religious leaders and Americans  who believe that faith has long been the missing ingredient in government  programs for the homeless, drug addicts, prisoners, the mentally ill and the unemployed.

But it will undoubtedly stir up a barbed constitutional debate: about the government playing favorites with religions; about tax dollars spent on programs that discriminate in hiring and firing employees; and about how far public agencies should go in policing religious organizations that are accused of abuses.

"When we see social needs in America," Mr. Bush said today, "my administration will look first to faith-based programs and community groups, which have proven their power to save and change lives."

Mr. Bush's plan will meet resistance from civil libertarians, and even from some within religious organizations.

"This is going to be an all-out battle," said Joseph Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "A lot of people see this as one of the biggest violations of church-state separation that we've seen in American history."

It will not be a battle of the faithful versus the faithless. The administration may be surprised, critics say, when the battle is joined by some religious groups and whole denominations that sense danger ahead. They fear that when government officials start poring over proposals from religious groups, the government ultimately favors one program, and therefore one religion, over another.

Already, the White House's religious predilections are being scrutinized based on who was invited, and who not, to the meeting there today. In his comments, Mr. Bush repeatedly mentioned the diversity of the group. He was joined by five prominent black preachers and a Muslim imam. To his right was a Catholic nun, to his left an Orthodox Jew. Gathered behind him were about 20 Christian leaders and pastors, many of them evangelicals.

The heads of most of the largest religious charitable agencies, including those run by Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists and Jews, were noticeably absent.

Some of the constitutional issues the administration faces are foreshadowed in the lawsuits filed against states since the start in 1996 of a provision in the welfare bill known as charitable choice, the legislation championed by John Ashcroft, then a senator from Missouri, that allowed religious groups to contend for government contracts to help welfare recipients adjust to the work world.

Texas, for example, gave $8,000 to the Jobs Partnership of Washington County, a program that required participants to study Scripture and taught them, in its own words, "to find employment through a relationship with Jesus Christ."

Now the state is being sued in Federal District Court in Austin by the  American Jewish Congress and the Texas Civil Rights Project, which claim that the Jobs Partnership bought Bibles for students. In evaluation forms, a third of the program's students said they had been pressured to join a church or change their beliefs.

Another significant issue is that the White House initiatives, like the charitable choice rules, allow groups that receive government money to discriminate based on religion in deciding whom to hire and fire.

The Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, which receives financing from the state, is being sued for firing one of its counselors after a picture of her at a gay rights parade appeared in a photography exhibit at a county fair. The agency said it had the right to dismiss an employee it did not consider an appropriate role model. The suit, now in federal district court in Kentucky, is being brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"We will encourage faith-based and community programs without changing their mission," Mr. Bush said. "We will help all in their work to change hearts while keeping a commitment to pluralism."

This is going to be a very interesting period to observe the gyrations that are inevitable within the UMC leadership.  So many issues that tear the liberals in different directions appear to be about to emanate from the Bush administration:  A U.S. president and vice president who are both members of the UMC; Christianity preached from the presidential "bully pulpit" with both evangelical orthodoxy as well as social compassion; Judeo-Christian morals presented as a worthy goal of Americans; Federal government money offered to church programs, 

It appears that the Bush administration will force the hand of UMC leaders who will have to choose between Christian theology, liberal politics, and free money!  These choices are going to be tough for these leaders, and perhaps their true colors will show through via their choices.

This should be very interesting.

Follow the links below for recent articles on Bush and Christianity:


Addendum, February 2, 2001

Well, now we've heard a response from at least one "UMC leader" to President Bush's new faith-based initiative.  According to the United Methodist News Service, we now have this from the General Board of Church and Society:
Executives of the United Methodist Church's social action and advocacy agency are voicing both praise and concern about President Bush's new Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.

"Christians are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and give the thirsty something to drink," said board executive Jaydee Hanson, referring to Matthew 25:31-46. "We should applaud the idea that church and state could work more closely together to curb crime, conquer addiction, strengthen families and overcome poverty."

An aside:  Certainly Christians are called to "feed the hungry . . ." as he states, although this specific Scripture reference is not where the Bible calls on Christians to be socially responsible, specifically to the "needy."  Not that it matters to the GBCS, but Jesus' parable in this passage refers to caring for either: 1) all Christians (amillennial interpretation), or 2) the Disciples, or 3) the Nation of Israel (premillennial interpretation).
Gretchen Hakola, an executive in the board's communication department, cited the denomination's Social Principles, which urge both church and government to avoid striving to rule the other. "We believe that the state should not attempt to control the church, nor should the church seek to dominate the state," she said, quoting from the principles. "Separation of church and state means no organic union of the two, but it does permit interaction."

The church's 2000 Book of Resolutions says that public funds should be used  only in the best interests of the whole society, Hanson noted. The resolution warns that extreme caution must be exercised "to ensure that religious institutions do not receive any aid directly or indirectly for the maintenance of their religious expression or the expansion of their institutional resources."

The United Methodist Church's resolutions neither support nor oppose initiatives such as the president's, but the church should proceed with caution, according to Hanson.

Hanson noted that although the term "charitable choice" is new, the initiative adopted by Bush builds on the past. In 1995, then-Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) introduced legislation into Congress to make it easier for federal funds to go to faith-based organizations that provide social services. At the time, the church board opposed that legislation, since it would have permitted faith organizations to discriminate in their hiring practices despite receiving public money.

"We look forward to working with the White House Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to ensure that the principles of 'pluralism, non-discrimination, evenhandedness, and neutrality,' as the president said, are insured," said Valentin-Castenon.

Is it just me, or do you also hear the UMC boards, agencies, and other leaders preaching in a manner that says "we must protect non-christians from Christians?"  Why do these UMC leaders (all of whom speak in a manner that the public views as speaking for the entire UMC) always sound like it's their duty to hold back the devout, faithful, and evangelical Christians, so that "these types" don't harm the non-believers?

Obviously, for these UMC leaders to say that they are cautious about President Bush's initiative, means that they fear that Bush is one of these devout, faithful, or evangelical Christians who's going to harm someone with his faith.

These UMC leaders should attempt to view the U.S. Constitution by the light with which it was written.  Oh sure, just like those atheists decrying freedom from religion, these UMC leaders like to take quotes of the founding fathers of the nation out of context.

In contrast, let's read a 1804 letter from President Thomas Jefferson posted on the website Spirit Daily which is written to the Roman Catholic Order of St. Ursula in New Orleans:

"The principles of the Constitution and the government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules without interference from the civil authorities. Whatever diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution can not be indifferent to any and its furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society by training up its younger members in the way they should go cannot fail to ensure to it the patronage of the government it is under. Be assured that it will meet all the protection which my office can give it. I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship and respect."

-- Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States.

If the monetary backing of a faith-based social program was sanctioned by a U.S. president, who was actually involved in the Bill of Rights at its inception, is not good enough evidence of what the founding fathers intended, then we can conclude that these UMC leaders are simply not being truthful.  These UMC leaders base their arguments of separation of church and state on the U.S. Constitution, but if this is not a valid basis for their position, and yet they continue to resist such faith-based incentives, then we are left with only one reasonable explanation for their position:  They wish to reduce American's exposure to the Christian faith--the opposite of the Great Commission!

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