Tuesday, June 3, 2014

What the UMC's big tent looks like in Liberia

As the American branch of the UMC discusses the possibility of schism, one historic feature of the church that has been repeatedly highlighted is its nature as a "big tent" denomination - a denomination with room for conservative and liberal, progressive and traditionalist.  The example that is almost always used is that the UMC is the spiritual home of both Hilary Clinton and George W. Bush.  A recent article by Julu Swen of the Liberia Annual Conference shows us, though, that the US is not the only place where The United Methodist Church serves as a big tent capable of bringing together people across political (and theological) divides.

In an article from mid-April, Swen tells the story of Dr. Togba Nah Tipoteh.  Dr. Tipoteh is an economist and politician in Liberia and a prominent United Methodist.  Recently, he has been sharply critical of the administration of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia and herself also a United Methodist.  In addition to his recent criticisms, Dr. Tipoteh ran against Ms. Sirleaf in the 2005 presidential elections, in which she ultimately went on to win and he finished far back in a crowded field.

Dr. Tipoteh's recent criticisms against Pres. Sirleaf's administration have to do with poverty and the state of the Liberian economy.  Dr. Tipoteh has accused Pres. Sirleaf and others associated with her with overstating Liberia's economic progress in recent years and downplaying the extent of the poverty that still remains in the country.  He has railed against foreign control of the country's economy, a pattern in which he alleges Pres. Sirleaf is complicit.  It's a sharp attack, and it's hard to imagine two more opposing political standpoints, both held by United Methodists.

This example of big tent United Methodism in Liberia is not only an interesting anecdote.  It also raises a question.  The UMC's big tent in America is threatening to collapse, weakened by increasing polarization and an erosion of the middle ground.  That is surely a lamentable state of affairs but also reflects wider American cultural and political trends.  Americans as a whole are polarized and uninterested in compromise on a whole host of issues.  The question then is this: If the American portion of the UMC's big tent collapses, what does that mean for the UMC's big tent elsewhere around the world?  Certainly, Americans don't have a monopoly on fractiousness, religiously or in other areas of life.  Yet is the potential effect of American plans for schism to export a particularly American form of religious and cultural polarization to the rest of the world?  Or is Methodism's big tent likely to remain standing in other countries, regardless of what happens in the US?

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