Wednesday, April 28, 2021

All (UMC) Politics Is National

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

There used to be a saying in US politics, often attributed to former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill: "All politics is local." In essence, the saying reflects the recognition that, especially given the winner-take-all system of US elections, unless one is able to connect with local voters in order to win local elections (primary and general), one cannot participate in national politics.

In United Methodist circles, I think there is an opposite tendency: to assume that all politics is global. In this view, current UMC politics are dominated by the impending split between The United Methodist Church and the Global Methodist Church, with parties lining up behind one or the other of those options based on their views on sexuality and/or the institutions of the church, and this divide drives all other political considerations in the denomination.

I would like to suggest another way of viewing current UMC politics: All politics is national. That is, even seemingly global issues like whether to go with the UMC or the GMC are significantly shaped by considerations that happen at the national level of the church, even when these factors are not readily visible to outsiders.

Within the United States, scholars and journalists have pushed back on O'Neill's saying and have written numerous books and articles about the "nationalization of politics." In this read of US politics and culture, in 2021, even school board elections, a symbol of local government, often become about national political debates like responses to the pandemic, climate change science, and race. Thus, even local political questions are understood through the lens of national political issues.

This nationalization of politics has, I believe, impacted the church as well. Thus, what might in other settings or at other times be viewed as personal conflicts within local churches or annual conferences are turned into conflicts between conservatives and liberals, with denominational, political, and cultural understandings of those categories intertwined. Even routine decisions like appointment-making are viewed through the lens of how that will impact churches' likelihood to leave or stay in the denomination. Local church and annual conference politics are thus understood through the lens of national cultural and religious debates.

This nationalization of UMC politics is also true in most countries in Africa, even though that is not always apparent to US observers. Africans do not really disagree amongst themselves over their views of sexuality. Whether they plan to join the Global Methodist Church or remain in the UMC, Africans are overwhelmingly opposed to homosexuality. Thus, Africans' decisions about leaving or remaining are not really a function of their views on sexuality.

Instead, Africans' decisions to remain or depart reflect their views about the importance of signaling their opposition to homosexuality and their feelings about the church as an institution. Yet both of those views are primarily shaped by national contexts.

Regarding the importance of signaling opposition to homosexuality (by joining the GMC), that is shaped in part by one's theology and whether one is willing to remain in an international denomination with varying views. But it is also based on the national context: How significant are debates about sexuality within that country? What are the contours of those debates? What positions have other churches taken in these debates? How likely is it that religious and political opponents (and most churches have these) might try to use connection to LGBTQ-affirming churches in other countries against the church in your country?

Similarly, views about The United Methodist Church as an institution are not just about how one thinks about international bodies like General Conference, the Council of Bishops, or the boards and agencies. These are also questions about the church in one's own country: How cohesive is the church ethnically, economically, and politically? What are the different factions (ethnic, personality-based, etc.) within the church in your country, and what access do they have to positions of power and prestige? Are the institutions of the church seen as favoring one group over another? What are the relationships like between the UMC and other denominations in the country? What is the relationship between the church and the country's government, and what are the implications of that relationship?

Such national political considerations are also relevant in the Philippines and in Europe. The small size of the church in many European countries reduces the significance of internal church politics but increases the significance of political questions about the UMC's relationship to the government, the country's dominant church tradition, and society as a whole.

Thus, when it comes time to for branches of The United Methodist Church around the world to take sides between the UMC and the GMC, all these different sets of national politics will be at play. In some instances, it will mean that the entire church in one country decides to go one way, as the church in Liberia has indicated its overwhelming intention to join the GMC. But in other instances where there is a great deal of conflict already within the church in a country (such as Nigeria), there may be splits, with different groups in the country aligning one way or another to forward their own local objectives.

In this way, the coming split of the UMC resembles the Cold War: Countries around the world were asked to declare allegiance to one or the other of two dominant global powers (in that case, the US and USSR; in this case, the UMC and GMC). Those decisions were influenced by ideology (capitalism vs. communism; views on sexuality), but were also significantly shaped by expediency based on national-level political considerations. In some countries, there were rival groups who established connections to different superpowers, who were happy to support proxy fights to forward their own ideological agendas, even when there was more going on in a local context than an ideological either/or.

In the end, Cold War politics were neither all global nor all national. They were significantly about the interactions between the two. The politics of the UMC split will be the same: about the interaction between global ideology and national considerations.


  1. General church politics have local manifestations! The 1894-1922 separation of the United Evangelical Church from the Evangelical Association began with a controversy over the theological issue of sanctification argued largely by national church leaders in the pages of the denomination's periodical. It soon segued into other differences aligning behind two vocal episcopal leaders owning disagreements over mission policy before finding final expression in issues of local church polity and property ownership. The greatest impact of the division was collateral damage experienced locally with contesting members of separating congregations seeking resolution to conflicting claims of property ownership. In a former United Evangelical Church I served, midnight raids took place into the neighboring Evangelical Association Church to liberate a piano and other coveted furnishings to which the separating contingent felt it had legitimate ownership. Others left decisions to the courts where cases would linger for years. Needless to say, disruption ruled in many churches throughout the period of separation.

    It is impossible for me to see an alternative experience resulting from the proposed separation of the GMC from the UMC. As much as the Protocol seeks to protect investments on properties and pension rights, local units embracing new or changed connectional bodies will discover and suffer distinct consequences. The conflicts whether theological, political or cultural contributing to the outcome of debate at GC2022 will have their final adjudication locally. That lesson is utterly apparent in the separation of the Ft. Worth Diocese of The Episcopal Church into the break away Anglican Church in North America which was recently finalized in the courts after ten years of costly litigation.

    The divided Evangelicals soon learned that their differences were not worthy of institutionalizing and decided to reunite in building the Body of Christ. May it also be so for contemporary global Methodists.

  2. There is a strong argument for the national context - and for the way national contexts are more important that so-called global issues. When it comes to the authority of scripture and traditional marriage there really is pan-continental agreement in Africa and Asia among United Methodists. And yet political responses to what is supposed to be a division along these lines vary from nation to nation. Suggesting that in reality these "global" issues aren't really the issues driving the politics of division.

    Practically speaking these politics will become intensely local, as Dr. Harmon points out. With rare exceptions every congregation's fissures will be exposed and its members forced to choose sides over consequential matters. A recent division in the Episcopal Diocese of Ft. Worth will actually result in the transfer of the remains of the dead from one columbarium to another as members find themselves unwelcome in what was a church home for generations. Expect the same in UMC congregations that choose to leave - although perhaps also for some that choose to stay.

  3. Dr. Harman's and Dr. Hunt's comments add so much to the context of this post that I'm moved to ask for permission to republish their comments as well as the post on United Methodist Insight. Is that acceptable to all?