The Fighting Methodists and the Political Right

Co-authored with Stephen Swecker, editor of Zion’s Herald

Northwestern, one of America’s great universities, was begun by the Methodist Church in 1850 outside Chicago in a church parsonage. The school had outstanding football teams in the early years of the 20th century and came to be known as the Fighting Methodists. In 1905 football was banned at Northwestern for five years due to excessive violence. Later, after winning several Big Ten football championships, the school changed its team’s name to the less colorful but more collegiate-sounding Wildcats.

The days of the Fighting Methodists, however, may be making a dramatic comeback, not on the football field but inside the church itself. For the uninitiated, a recent new book names the teams and the players and tells what’s at stake in the battle for the soul of the nation’s second largest denomination (after the Southern Baptists).

The book, United Methodism @ Risk: A Wake Up Call, was written by Leon Howell, a respected journalist and former editor of Christianity and Crisis. In the book, Mr. Howell shows that The United Methodist Church and other mainline Protestant churches have been sufficiently vigorous, socially involved and politically effective over the years to garner the wrath of the American political right-wing. The book makes a convincing case that mainline churches such as the UMC can no longer afford to be na‘ve about extreme right-wing advocacy groups that are tightly organized, highly motivated and fabulously well-financed for a take-no-prisoners campaign against mainline Protestant churches. Howell maintains that these churches need to stand up and get in a “fighting mood” because the political right-wing aims to take them over.

The author does a superb job of telling a well-documented story about how the political right-wing, operating in the guise of a gaggle of so-called “renewal groups,” particularly one called the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), has acquired the money and political will to target three mainline American churches: The United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church USA and the Episcopal Church. The IRD was created and is sustained by money from right-wing corporate foundations and has spent some $4.4 million in 20 years attacking mainline churches. Two key architects of this group are conservative Roman Catholics: Father Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak. The IRD’s ultra-conservative social-policy goals include increasing military spending and foreign interventions, opposing environmental protection efforts and eliminating social welfare programs. In a document called “Reforming America’s Churches Project 2001-2004 (executive summary),” the IRD states that its aim is to change the “permanent governing structure” of mainline churches “so they can help renew the wider culture of our nation.” In other words, its goal is not a spiritual quest at all, but a political takeover from the extreme right whose efforts are financed directly and indirectly by the likes of Richard Mellon Scaife and the Olin Foundation, among others.

Mr. Howell indicates that many of the same forces that have overwhelmed the Southern Baptist denomination are seeking to undermine the core values of tolerance, civility, and advocacy for the weak and vulnerable that are central to the heritage and witness of mainline Protestantism. Similar to the strategy employed against the Southern Baptists, the political right seeks to gain top leadership positions in the church by spreading misleading information and incendiary allegations against organizations and individuals. These groups employ the propaganda method of “wedge issues” like abortion and homosexuality to cause confusion, dissension and division. Mr. Howell persuasively demonstrates that the IRD and other self-proclaimed “renewal groups” are uninterested in genuine dialogue, desiring only to impose their belief systems on the target churches.

Irving Kristol, father of William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and one of the “godfathers” of the political right, summed up this strategy in the Wall Street Journal: “Attack the integrity, not the words, of those with whom you disagree.” More recently, Grover Norquist, a conservative activist and long-time friend of top presidential aide Karl Rove, was even blunter when he told the Denver Post that civility is out and nastiness is in among conservative activists. According to Mr. Norquist, “Bipartisanship is another name for date rape.”

Methodists have held proudly to the “extreme middle” during most of their history. United Methodists are a practical people, dedicated at their best to “preaching the plain gospel to plain folk.” The movement from its beginning recognized that self-righteousness is the bane of religion, be it the ideology of the Left or Right. However, John Wesley, Church of England priest and founder of Methodism, never retreated from a necessary fight. When it came to questions of justice, he had “fire in the belly.”

For example, Wesley never forgot the evil and violence of slavery that he saw while a missionary in Georgia (1735-1738). He had the courage to speak out against it in Britain where slavery was a very lucrative business, especially among the powerful and prominent, including the Prince of Wales. On his deathbed, Wesley wrote William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament who had been converted under his ministry, to continue to fight slavery, “that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature.”

In the 18th century Wesley advocated for numerous social policies, the 21st century counterparts of which the American religious and political right vehemently oppose. Wesley was passionate and vocal about the plight of the poor and the need not only to practice charity, but to alter economic policies that encourage greed and punish the poor. He was an advocate of reducing the national debt by minimizing military spending. Wesley was critical of the wealthy classes for their decadence and failure to return enough of their investment to the workers. He advocated lowering grain prices to help the poor and taxing the rich for luxury items to improve public services. Wesley appealed for free clinics and medicines in addition to prayer for the sick. Wesley’s economic ethics were modern, well reasoned and progressive. Robert H. Stone states in his recent book, John Wesley’s Life and Ethics, that Wesley’s humane social proposals constituted a “new compassionate liberalism.”

Unless progressive and moderate members in the mainline churches muster the will to organize and battle for what they believe is fair and just, they are in danger of losing the historical values of these traditions to a determined cadre of ideological advocacy groups. United Methodism @ Risk is a solidly documented and accurately sub-titled “wake up call” for those ready to be convinced that the crisis facing their church is real and the need to respond is urgent. It is time, in other words, for “fighting Methodists” to make a comeback lest their tolerance and Christian charity be turned against them by the political right to undermine their churches and further the social ends of the conservative right wing’s radical ideology.