By Dr. Riley B. Case
The national elections are over and for many of us, none too soon. The ugliness that accompanied the run-up to the election can only be described as depressing. Regardless of how one voted there can be genuine rejoicing that the election of an African-American represents advancement and hope, not just in the area of race relations but for a nation where opportunity is open to all persons. Fears that there would be a white racial backlash against Obama because he is African-American appear to be unfounded, except perhaps in isolated pockets. It is hoped that all Americans will now support president-elect Obama and the new congress and work together for a better America.
At the same time, we should not overlook the fissures that still exist in American society, especially around issues relating to Christian faith. The exit polls are a good indicator of political and social trends. For example, African-Americans voted overwhelmingly for Obama. These same voters, however, when issues of homosexuality and abortion were on the ballot, tended to vote in favor of the sanctity of life and traditional morality in sexual matters.
It should also be noted that white Christians tend to be more conservative than the rest of the nation in their voting patterns. White evangelicals voted strongly for McCain, 74% to 24% (AP exit polls). White Protestants as a whole favored McCain 65% to 34%. This group includes not just evangelicals but members of mainline churches, including United Methodists (African-Americans make up only 4% of United Methodist membership, a percentage that has decreased significantly over the past 175 years). This is no surprise because white Protestants traditionally, whether considered evangelical or mainline, are among the few demographic groups with a higher percentage of registered Republicans than Democrats.
By way of contrast, self-identified atheists and agnostics, who represent about 10% of the voters, voted 76% to 23% for Obama (Barna Research figures) in the 2008 election and by even larger margins for more permissive stances in regard to homosexuality and abortion.
Does any of this carry meaning for United Methodists as a denomination? We believe it does. The United Methodist Church is imaged as a “liberal” denomination, not only in regard to national politics but matters of social and moral issues. It is of some embarrassment to most United Methodists across the land that in California’s Proposition 8, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, both United Methodist annual conferences in California openly opposed the proposition. In this they stood against all the rest of the Christian community, including almost all of the ethnic churches, and allied themselves with gay and lesbian activist groups, Hollywood, the media, and, if one wants to go even farther, with self-identified atheists and agnostics. This hardly bodes well for unity in the church or for believing that we share a common vision as a denomination. United Methodists outside California have to explain how it is that these things take place. It is one thing to disagree in matters of politics; it is another issue when the name United Methodist is linked with positions that are in clear defiance of our agreed-upon moral statements as delineated in the church’s Discipline. There is no way of knowing whether ordinary California United Methodists in the pew supported the conference resolutions or not, but reports would seem to indicate they did not.
These are troubled times for the church. The truth is that ordinary United Methodists are much more conservative than the church’s leadership. The result is that many United Methodists feel the “hierarchy” is working at cross purposes with the ministry and outreach and convictions of their own local churches. Newscope (Nov. 12) reports that the Council of Bishops “rejoiced” and celebrated when the election results were in indicating that the Democrats had won a clear victory. While there is reason to rejoice that an African-American had broken through what many considered the biggest racial barrier of all, the implication of the article was that the rejoicing was for much more than that.
Barak Obama has indicated he wants to be the president of all the people and he wants to bring unity, hope, and change. Can the leaders of The United Methodist church do the same in matters relating to the church?