“How might the decline of democracy impact the United Methodist Church?” The question is difficult to answer, not least of all because from a historical perspective, it is obvious that the movements have grown up together. This has been well documented already. From a philosophical perspective, much the same reality is available to be unearthed.
The Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor has remarked, “Democracy is teleological. It’s a collective effort with a noble goal: Inclusion.”
A statement like this does much to explain why democracy at least seems imperiled now. The democratic impulse Taylor observes towards inclusion has uncovered laudable results, especially around the inclusion of voters of color. In the first US Presidential election, the voting electorate was comprised almost exclusively of white men. While democracy would expand the pool of voters in dramatic ways over the next two centuries, extending suffrage to all free men, and then to women, and then to those as young as 18, the racial composition of that electorate would not change dramatically for the first 200 years of the American experiment. In 1992, for instance, 84% of voters in the presidential election were white.
2020 offered a new reality in the project of American democracy, as 33% of presidential election voters identified as non-white. Racially speaking, the electorate shifted by as much in less than 3 decades as it had in the previous 2 centuries. Is it any wonder that in the wake of this great exercise of inclusive democracy some individuals and groups felt threatened, rejected the outcome, and challenged the institutions which upheld it, posing an at least temporary threat to the American democratic project? Other forces not entirely dissimilar in shape are playing out in dozens of contexts around the world.
But how will this impact United Methodism?
The project of democracy as described by Taylor, bears a remarkable resemblance to the stated mission of the United Methodist Church, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world (BoD p v).” Just as Taylor’s definition of democracy, the aims of this mission are teleological, focused on a goal: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”. The goals of democracy and United Methodism share many fundamental features. Both are focused on creating a new vision of flourishing for the world, rooted in a philosophy of inclusion of all people. The roots of this broad inclusivity in Methodism can be traced back to John Wesley and his understanding of the atonement of Jesus Christ. To be sure, American democracy is not at all explicit about its commitment to Jesus as a central agent in its project.
It is at this point of difference that United Methodists might see cause for hope, even if the fortunes of democracy dim.The agent of Methodism’s inclusivity is not the citizens of Methodism, except insofar as they are agents interacting with the providing, contingent God of Jesus Christ. The Theological Task of the United Methodist Church spelled out in Paragraph 102 of the Book of Discipline places the agency of action first and most squarely with God in Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit:
“At the heart of the gospel of salvation is God’s incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth. Scripture witnesses to the redeeming love of God in Jesus’ life and teachings, his atoning death, his resurrection, his sovereign presence in history, his triumph over the powers of evil and death, and his promised return. Because God truly loves us in spite of our willful sin, God judges us, summons us to repentance, pardons us, receives us by that grace given to us in Jesus Christ, and gives us hope of life eternal.”
It goes on to add, “We share the Christian belief that God’s redemptive love is realized in human life by the activity of the Holy Spirit, both in personal experience and in the community of believers.” The primary agent of Methodism is not the citizenry, but God.
All of this suggests that the impacts of the decline of democracy on Methodism will be proportional to the seriousness with which United Methodists take their own claims. If democracy declines, United Methodism will certainly too, at least in institutional, statistical, and numerical terms, regardless of what Methodists do, for the roots of the two are entangled.
Yet, if United Methodists are truthful in their theological claims, one might expect that God would continue to be the faithful agent of truth and liberation, speaking through people called Methodists. This means that even if the harvest of democracy withers in the field, the Church might still, through divine power, raise even a small harvest of witnesses pointing to truth and freedom for those oppressed by authoritarianism, violence, intolerance.
Depending on how steep a decline democracy faces, though, the path for these United Methodist witnesses may not be easy. If other historical scenarios of declining democracy offer any vision, some of these witnesses will bear social stigma and shame, decreased economic opportunity, and perhaps even martyrdom.
Again, if historical references serve as any guide, these costs will not be paid because anti-democratic powers come directly for United Methodists, who have historically in the USA and abroad found themselves at the intersection of cultural, political, and economic power. Rather, these kinds of witnesses will be called for when other marginalized communities, such as migrants, ethnic, racial, religious minorities, the economically marginalized, or LGBTQ+ persons, are targeted first as victims of regimes whose vision of power and prosperity deny the basically inclusive vision of democracy. If United Methodists speak up for those who are least and lost, they can be expected to be counted with them, not only at the sorting of sheep and goats, but by the brutal tendencies of societies sliding toward authoritarianism, intolerance, and hate.
This is not in the slightest to suggest, however, that United Methodists should understand the potential future depicted here as bleak. All these things, even at their worst, would only be consistent with the working of an abiding, contingent God present with God’s people to perfect God’s love in them, and through them to enfold all creation. The ultimate arc of history, no matter the fate of democracy, for Methodists is found to point toward the unfolding relationship with God for all creation, even if this arc must pass by the cross and other bearings of the burden of this holy, sacrificial witness of truth and love when the structures of our fleeting time stand broken.