What Mayor Pete Augurs for the Way Forward in the UMC

Jason Micheli —  December 12, 2019 — 8 Comments

I often joke that the Church, the UMC in particular, would be healthier if church people, pastors especially, actually read Paul’s Letters. We’re not speaking Christian when we draw lines according to some righteousness equation, for Paul tells us unequivocally in Romans that NO ONE IS RIGHTEOUS.  

We’ve muddled the Gospel into G-law-spel when we presume to have achieved a righteousness of our own through our “holy-living” (ie, the happy accident of having been born straight) or right-believing (ie, “all means all”).

Speaking of divides—

Last winter at the UMC’s Special Sex Conference (I mean, General Conference) in the aftermath of the decisive vote I watched from up above in the press box, as a rainbow-clad group of pastors and lay delegates gathered through the scrum to the center of the conference floor. They fell on their knees and wept. Only an arm’s distance away from them, another group of pastors and lay people sang and danced and clapped their hands in celebration. If you want to talk about what’s incompatible with Christianity, it’s that image I saw from high up top in the press box.

But even prior to the vote, it had become unmistakable to me and my podcast posse how at a global gathering like General Conference, where real-time translations were happening across scores of languages, the problem for which the UMC was— and still remains— at an impasse is that United Methodists, no matter their geographic origin, largely speak in two different and divergent languages. 

Or rather, the problem in the United Methodist Church’s fight about sexuality, which in my darker humors makes me dubious about any Way Forward that doesn’t resemble Marriage Story, is that we’re not ultimately fighting about sexuality. The problem in the United Methodist Church is that sexuality is the issue over which we’re discovering the irreconciliable fact that the United Methodist Church is a Church of two different religions which, if we’re honest, don’t really recognize one another as kindred creeds. 

What’s incompatible in United Methodism isn’t gay Christians. We’re a liberal denomination that’s been in decline since it’s inception in the ‘60’s. We’d kill for a horde of gay Christians to overrun our congregations. 

What’s incompatible in United Methodism isn’t gay Christians; it’s the two religions presently practiced within it. 

It was clear at General Conference:

One side spoke in terms of fidelity to Biblical tradition and another in terms of imitating Jesus’ examplar hospitality and embrace of the outcast. Not only did neither side attempt to persuade the other side— lip service aside— neither side really recognized the other side as professing and practicing their own faith. 

Friend of the podcast, David French, recently made this very point by way of Pete Buttigeg for the Dispatch:

“If Pete Buttigieg, an Episcopalian, receives the Democratic nomination for president, it’s a virtual certainty that the only churchgoing candidate—and the only candidate who speaks fluently and easily about the role of faith in his life and in his politics—will lose the churchgoing Christian vote (and lose the white Evangelical vote by a staggering margin) to a thrice-married man who bragged about grabbing women by the genitals, appeared in Playboy videos, and paid hush money to cover up an affair with a porn star.

There will be easy answers for this divide. Progressive Christians will blame partisan hypocrisy (Evangelicals object to Mayor Pete’s gay marriage but overlook Trump’s serial sexual sins? What?) Conservative Christians will simply point to Buttigieg’s position on abortion and religious liberty—and to Trump’s judges. Often the explanation is as basic as stating the truism that Republicans vote for Republicans and Democrats vote for Democrats, regardless of underlying theology.

While Mayor Pete talks about faith—he doesn’t truly connect with millions of American Christians.

When Buttigieg speaks, Evangelicals don’t hear “one of us” and then choose to reject one of their own to support Donald Trump. 

Instead, they see a man of a related, but different, faith, where the differences are so profound that we often don’t speak the same spiritual language.”

In an interview with Rolling Stone, French notes, Mayor Pete explained how he understands salvation, “My faith teaches me that salvation has to do with how I make myself useful to those who have been excluded, marginalized, and cast aside and oppressed in society.”

Says French,

“Buttigieg isn’t a theologian, but he’s a smart and effective communicator of his beliefs, but when Evangelicals read his words, they’ll hear that internal “record scratch” that makes them say, “Wait. What did he say?”

What becomes quite evident at a global gathering of the United Methodist Church, which may not be so obvious in a local congregation, particularly on the coasts, is that the UMC is the ecclessial home to both mainline liberals and conservative evangelicals. Functionally, the latter have more in common with nondenominational evangelicals and Roman Catholics than they do with theological liberals in their own denomination. 

French goes on:

“In fact, Evangelical Protestants now connect far more with Catholics than they do Mainline Protestants like Mayor Pete. In some crucial ways (such as the high view of scripture), Evangelicals connect more with Orthodox and Conservative Jews than they do with Mainline Protestants. 

The more Mayor Pete speaks, the more he highlights those differences and the more he distances himself culturally and theologically from the Christians in Trump’s base.

For example, the Evangelical mind is incredulous at the notion that any scriptural command—even a command as harsh as imposing stoning as a punishment for sexual sin—was “always wrong,” and the Evangelical mind is incredulous at the notion of salvation so inexplicably tied to human compassion.

That does not mean that Evangelicals are in favor of stoning and against compassion. The Christian church is not bound by Levitical law, and Christ himself stopped the stoning of a woman caught in adultery. Moreover, Christians are called to engage in acts of sacrificial love for their fellow man, but we don’t ever find scriptural commands to be “wrong,” nor do we find “salvation” in compassion.

It’s not that Mainline Christians view the Bible as just another book, it’s that they view it to greater or lesser degrees—to be incompatible with the notion of a God who personifies love.

In the Mainline formulation, Christ is less an instrument of salvation and more a vehicle for inspiration. The Mainline vision of salvation is alien to the Evangelical mind. 

Most Evangelical Protestants understand salvation not through works of compassion but rather through faith alone, by the grace of God alone, working through the atoning sacrifice of Christ alone.”

Presently, there are a handful of plans to reconcile the our differences in the United Methodist Church and a great deal of hope being invested in them. I’ve long thought it’s naive to think the UMC would navigate this debate more nimbly than the denominations which went before us over the brink, but David French throws cold water even on my optimism, reminding us that, even if we can resolve the LGBTQ issue, a more fundamental divide remains:

“If mainstream media figures believe that Mayor Pete speaks the same Christian language as Trump’s Evangelical base, they need to think again. He’s a sincere proponent of a faith that is very different from theirs.”

Jason Micheli

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8 responses to What Mayor Pete Augurs for the Way Forward in the UMC

  1. ‘ It’s not that Mainline Christians view the Bible as just another book, it’s that they view it to greater or lesser degrees—to be incompatible with the notion of a God who personifies love.

    In the Mainline formulation, Christ is less an instrument of salvation and more a vehicle for inspiration. The Mainline vision of salvation is alien to the Evangelical mind. ’

    I consider myself a progressive Methodist. I belong to a reconciling UMC by choice, I vote democrat, and I’m a fan of Elizabeth Warren.

    I do not recognize this ‘formulation’ as my own either. I see compassion as a result of true salvation, rather than a cause-if your faith does not create compassion in you, than your faith does not save. That is how I reconcile Paul with James.

    • Regarding hermeneutics. I stand with Augustine-if you interpret a scripture to be incompatible with the two Great Commandments, then your interpretation is incorrect. I do differ from most evangelicals in that I do not believe the scriptures were written for twentieth century Americans, but for people of a different time and place, and I do believe one needs to understand how those people saw the world in order to understand the scriptures written to them. For example, I would argue that the prohibition against homosexuality was quite appropriate for a small nation on the only one route between the ancient worlds superpowers in a world where more people=more strength, and that was struggling to set themselves apart from their neighbors.

      It is not appropriate now.

  2. You absolutely miss the point of who many traditionalists really are and why we voted for Trump and may be forced to do so again; it is not because I approve of his moral character. And you obviously missed the tipping point which forced the Wesleyan Covenant Association into being after 40 year of arguing about sexuality; it was the disobedience. Yes, we have very different views of Christianity and what it means to be the church, but in much deeper ways than you propose. One thing I have learned from all this is that I would much rather hang out with imperfect traditionalists than with enlightened progressives.

    Furthermore, the reason I do not accept Mayor Pete’s view of Christianity is because he is an Episcopalian; but I do respect his right to be an Episcopalian and disagree with my views. And my concerns for him as President is that he is young and has only been a mayor; just because he can talk nice does not mean he can function well under pressure.

  3. There aren’t two United Methodisms; there are millions. And many of us are exiles who came from evangelicalism, which still haunts our beliefs. As to whether I see myself in Pete Budagieg’s account of salvation, it depends on what part of salvation he’s talking about. Evangelicals are only able to think about salvation in terms of what gets me into heaven so it’s unsurprising for David French to presume that Pete is saying pietistic social justice gets me into heaven, but what if he’s actually saying God saves me from being a self-justifying asshole so that I can serve the oppressed. If serving the oppressed is understood as the end result of sanctification that happens as a result of justification, then we’re squarely in a Wesleyan orthodox account of Christian salvation.

    What I see as the Wesleyan distinctive is that the goal is to be perfected in love. When have I been saved? When I’ve been perfected in love (having accepted the justification and sanctification God has given me). Yes, it’s true that if we try to make ourselves perfect, we’ll screw it up and become toxic, but I think it’s important to Wesleyanism that we understand from the get-go that God doesn’t save us just to have to a pretty choir glorifying him in the clouds one day; God shows us mercy so that we will become his mercy for the world. God doesn’t want to create a gated community of people who huddle together to talk appropriately about his grace; his goal is to make his love cover everything. When you understand holiness as always pertaining to perfection in love, then a lot of nonsense can be tossed aside (without cutting sanctification out of our salvation story). People can have on-point, pristinely articulated orthodox accounts of justification and toxic accounts of holiness when they forget that love is the point. And whenever I say this to traditionalists, they say “But what does love mean?” And I say it’s all in 1 Corinthians 13, baby.

    • “Evangelicals are only able to think about salvation in terms of what gets me into heaven”. That is not a Wesleyan view of salvation at all. Evangelicals don’t focus on salvation in the future. We focus on salvation in Jesus here and now. Evangelicals would agree with most of what you said. I think our main disagreement is how to receive salvation.

      Since you bring it up, you have taken 1 Corinthians 13 out of context. Read chapters 12 and 14. Maybe it would help you to stop thinking about love as a way to act, but instead to realize that God is love.

  4. Thanks for this one, Jason, a little gem deep in the abandoned mine of United Methodism. I like your polemical style, your spunk, your sharp blade. The progressive camarilla will howl. But many of us take no cues from progressives.

  5. This is a really interesting piece, but I suggest that readers go to the Dispatch and read David French’s whole argument. He is very gracious, and I think he makes some concessions that would turn down much of the potential Progressive Christian ire directed towards him.

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