Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The United Methodist Church and Declining Democracy

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.

Last week, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance released their annual report, “The Global State of Democracy Report 2021 - Building Resilience in a Pandemic Era." For those who support democracy, the report was not encouraging. The title of the accompanying press release put it bluntly: "Democracy Faces Perfect Storm as the World Becomes More Authoritarian."

As I read through the report, I was struck not only by how democracy in general is imperiled in 2021, but how much that is true for countries that contain significant numbers of United Methodists. Out of countries that contain at least 100,000 United Methodists, the report called out the United States, the Philippines, Cote d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe for recent declines in democracy, though Zambia was also the one bright spot in the report, after the opposition party successfully won elections there this year.

According to the report, the DRC, Burundi, and Zimbabwe are all classified as authoritarian regimes. Angola, Cote d'Ivoire, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia are all classified as hybrid regimes and not full democracies. The only strongly United Methodist countries where democracy existed and was not in recent decline, according to this report, were Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, all classified as weak democracies.

A number of other countries with historically-related Methodist bodies, including Brazil and India, have also seen notable recent declines in democracy, and several countries in Eastern Europe with small United Methodist populations (Poland, Hungary, Serbia, and Russia) have also seen recent declines in democracy. Russia, home to a small population of United Methodists, was also just declared by the US State Department to be a significant violator of religious freedom.

The challenges to democracy can be bemoaned for political reasons, but these trends also raise a religious question: What is the impact of declining democracy likely to be on Methodism as a religious system and on The United Methodist Church in particular?

The relationships between Methodism and democracy has been historically complicated, and especially early in its history, Methodism tended towards populist authoritarianism, the direction of much of the world today.

John Wesley was a noted royalist and opposed the American revolution, a stance which caused Methodists in the American colonies some considerable difficulties. Nathan Hatch, in The Democratization of American Christianity, identifies Methodism as one of the religious traditions that really embraced a form of populism in keeping with the democratic spirits of the new United States, while at the same time he notes the authoritarian style of Francis Asbury as a leader of the movement.

David Hempton, in Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, notes that Methodism globally was all too happy to ride the coattails of expanding British political empire and American commercial empire, systems which boasted of the benefits of democracy while largely withholding the opportunity to participate in democracy from those in its subjugated territories.

By the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the situation had changed. By then, Methodism, especially American Methodism, had emerged as a system of promoting democracy around the world.

In my book Mission as Globalization: Methodists in Southeast Asia at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, I argue that through mission, "Methodist polity spread modern, American ideas about democracy as a means of collective self-determination" (p. 66). At the same time, as Robbie B. H. Goh notes in Sparks of Grace: The Story of Methodism in Asia, "The work of Methodism in Asia was significantly hampered in certain areas by totalitarian politics" (26).

In 1918, the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States published Christian Democracy for America and The Christian Crusade for World Democracy. Commenting on these books in Methodist Evangelism, American Salvation: The Home Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1860-1920, Mark Teasdale writes, "Both sets of authors argued that by the beginning of the twentieth century this Methodist-forged nation [the United States] needed to take leadership in spreading its Christian American civilization to the rest of the world in the form [of] democracy" (227).

In more recent years, it is noteworthy that the early 1990s were both a surge in democracy world-wide and a boom time for The United Methodist Church globally. While I know of no systematic work exploring that connection, in some specific instances, such as the revival of Methodism in Russia and Eastern Europe, the connection is obvious.

The UMC's Social Principles currently state, "While our allegiance to God takes precedence over our allegiance to any state, we acknowledge the vital function of government as a principle vehicle for the ordering of society," and assert, "The strength of a political system depends upon the full and willing participation of its citizens," a strong endorsement of democracy without directly using the term.

Much of recent United Methodist attention to democracy, however, has been to questions about our own internal democratic systems, including issues of representation, access, voting credentials, and of course, the uncertainty over when General Conference will next meet.

But if mission history teaches us anything, it is that contexts matter for the success or struggles of religious systems. Internal factors matter, too, but focusing entirely internally misses half the picture.

Therefore, issues surrounding democratic decline or the related issue of religious freedom are issues that should matter to United Methodists. The state of the world and the societies within which the church operates have an impact on the church, and the system of government in those societies is one component of that societal impact.

While I know that declining democracy will likely affect the UMC, at this point, I cannot tell you what that effect will be. That is too far beyond my field of expertise. But if you have a take of 700-1200 words on how declining democracy is likely to impact The United Methodist Church, please share it with me at dscott (at) umcmission dot org, and it may be published here on UM & Global.


  1. The question of how authoritarianism will impact Methodism is a good one. We've already seen such regimes begin to restrict freedom of religion, notably today in the banning of Jehovah's Witnesses in Kazakstan. But an equally good question is whether Methodists make any impact in opposing authoritarian regimes and promoting democracy. Without engaging in a country by country survey I suspect that most Methodist leaders and their followers are either disengaged from politics or are actually comfortable with authoritarian leaders - so long as they don't directly impact Methodist life.

  2. Sad to agree with Dr. Hunt's assumption that church leaders today are probably fine with trends toward authoritarian governments as long as they continue to benefit or refrain from much interference with religious practices or services. There were however moments in United Methodist Church history when the opposite was true.

    Liberation movements in the late colonial period were supported and even led by church leaders in their struggle to define and realize self determining rule as their post colonial reality. There was not great confidence in democracy becoming the antidote to colonialism given the history of collaboration between democracies and colonial authorities. So independence movements looked to indigenous sources for inspired leaders and found some in mission established churches like the UMC with successful educational programs to produce them.

    In Mozambique, UM educated Eduardo Chivambo Mondlane became the first of his generation to enroll at the University of Lisbon where he collaborated with other African students involved in the formation of national liberation movements. He was the founder and first president of the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique FRELIMO, the political and military movement that was eventually successful in deposing the Portuguese dictator Salazar and establishing the first post colonial government. The UMC experienced new opportunities for cooperation with the new government benefiting their educational and social outreach programs. The indebtedness to the Methodist Mondlane who fell to an assassin, has often been recognized on ceremonial occasions when country UM leaders and government officials have shared the same public platforms.

    In Angola, Dr. Agoutino Neto, medical doctor and son of a UM pastor and a former Crusade Scholar like Mondlane, became head of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola. He had a profound vision for a self determining alternative to Portuguese control and worked to implant it village by village in which countless UMs gave leadership resulting in deaths and imprisonment. Along with Neto's imprisonment was that of the Reverend Emilio de Carvalho the first indigenous bishop of the UMC in Angola. MPLA became and remains the ruling party today in spite of protracted civil and insurgent challenges reflecting Cold War political interests in the region.

    The governments of neither country today ranks high on the scale of democratic influence, but are trending in that direction with each passing decade. But it is their movement away from the controlling colonial authority to which leadership arose from the ranks of church leaders and members who sacrificed their lives for a new and hopeful futures for their people that is worthy of remembrance as we look at current trends in patterns of governance that may seem discouraging.

    Will this history find recurrence in critical contexts where UMC is engaged? One would hope that the activity within the denomination's base in the US would provide some signs of awakening to the drift into nationalism. If the charism of a church leader is required, we should be praying for return of the likes of Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam who was a militant against political repression in the Red Scare period of the late 40's and 50's.

    But the current trend toward authoritarianism is embraced and successfully led by Evangelical groups that harbor no shame in endorsing self benefitting political strategies rather than advocating / protecting the goodwill of all the governed. They have yet to be challenged by mainstream churches that bear the Oxnam legacy but choose silence.