Methodism was once the largest denomination in America. The faith grew rapidly from America’s beginning and has traditionally been characterized by aggressive evangelism and revival. It has carried a vibrant social witness, too. Methodist Church pronouncements once garnered front page headlines in The New York Times. Its high water mark undoubtedly came during prohibition, the greatest modern political cause of the denomination. Methodists even built and staffed a lobbying building next to Capitol Hill believing a dry country could remake society.

In Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, Mark Tooley has chronicled Methodism’s denominational political pronouncements from William McKinley, America’s first Methodist president, to 9-11. Tooley has unearthed a staggering amount of official and unofficial Methodist declarations and musings on everything from economics, war, civil rights, the Cold War, abortion, marriage, and politics.

Tooley, who is also the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church, offers very little of his own commentary on the issues in Methodism and Politics, instead allowing Methodism’s voice for over a century to speak for itself. Ultimately what emerges is a denomination that begins to recede in significance, perhaps because of the sheer saturation of their witness in the public square. But its leadership often trades in a prophetic voice for a partisan political one, and sadly at times, even a treasonous voice.

Methodists not only led on prohibition, but were out in front on issues like women’s suffrage, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Movement. While they did not always carry a unified voice on these issues, even many Southern annual conferences and bishops broke with the popular political position of defending segregation in their home states.

While support for the New Deal and greater federal intervention in the economy was not rubber stamped by all Methodists, an emerging and often biting anti-free market voice would dominate official pronouncements. This continues to this day with declarations calling to support greater government regulations, single payer health care, and a host of measures calling for government wage and price controls. Way back in 1936, one Oklahoma Methodist pastor offered his own advice to some of his brethren:

Why do [these Methodist Reds] not get passports, emigrate to Russia where they can prostrate themselves daily before the sacred mummy of Lenin and submit themselves to the commands of Joseph Stalin?

Tooley chronicles the pacifist sentiment that begins to overtake the denomination. This amounted to the equivocating of a denomination that once was harsh in its critique of communism to one where a committee of bishops would pronounce by the 1980s, that “actions which are seen as ‘Marxist-Leninist’ by one group are seen as the core of the Christian message by others.”

Perhaps most shameful was the action of several bishops during the American hostage crisis in Tehran, Iran, from 1979 – 1981. United Methodist Bishop Dale White said of the new Islamic fundamentalist regime, “I know there are individuals in the Iranian power structure who do trust The United Methodist Church.” White offered assessments of the new regime being “democratic.” The General conference sent a message to Ayatollah Khomeni declaring that it hears the “cries of freedom from foreign domination, from cultural imperialism, from economic exploitation.” Methodist officials participated in pro-Khomeni student demonstrations in Washington D.C. and met with and offered praise for officials in the new Iranian government. One former hostage recalled:

Some of the people who came over especially the clergy were hypocrites because they came to aid and comfort the hostages but ended up giving aid and comfort to the Iranians and actually making it worse for us.

The election of President Ronald Reagan naturally sent many United Methodist Church officials into a tizzy. “People voted their self interest instead of the Social Principles of the church. It looks like United Methodists with everybody else forsook their Christian idealism at the ballot box,” said Bishop James Armstrong. Some United Methodist Bishops had already declared their denomination much more aligned with the Democratic Party. It was downhill from there for many Methodist leaders, as they coddled the Sandanistas and “Brother Ortega” in Nicaragua and dove head first into the nuclear freeze movement.

In the 1990s one General Board of Global Ministry official bewailed the Republican Congress by saying, “White, male supremacists now wear suits. They talk states rights and anti-taxes. The climate of hate and violence is a challenge to us.” General Board of Church and Society official Robert McLean declared that the GOP Contract with America effectively “cancels” the Sermon on the Mount.

Hyperventilating over partisan politics would continue in The United Methodist Church and continues to this day by American officials. Most recently many have joined forces with the “What Would Jesus Cut Campaign?” But because Methodism is a connectional denomination, the growing African influence is counter balancing what Methodist progressives and political liberals can accomplish. They have already reached the pinnacle of their power, which has been shrinking for decades. And because progressives have made so many predictable pronouncements, they no longer speak with the weighty spiritual authority they once held. It is a lesson for all churches and those that wish to bring their faith into the public square. At the 1934 Illinois Annual Conference one lay delegate offered what can be seen only as prophetic now when he declared, “It is time for churches to stop adopting resolutions and then finding out what they mean afterward.”

Just a few weeks ago, The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church & Society heaped praise on President Obama’s HHS mandate with no mention of the measure’s threat to religious liberty, deciding to only view it as a partisan measure to defend for furthering the role of government in health care.

At the conclusion of the book, after reading through 100 years of political pronouncements, Tooley finally offers just a hint of his own assessment,

American Methodism in 1900 was growing, confident, largely unified, and politically formidable. One hundred years later, it had already endured several decades of steep membership decline and accompanying political marginalization as church officials were no longer presumed to speak for most church members.

Tooley, through the myriad of voices that he has chronicled over such a lengthy period, understands those voices only need to speak for themselves to make his point.

In the 1920s Calvin Coolidge once said of Francis Asbury, one of the first two Methodist Bishops in early America, that “he did not come [to America] for political motives,” but came to bear “the testimony of truth.” One wishes Methodist denominational officials would not only follow more of Asbury’s doctrine, but his praxis as well.

Daniel Hannan, a British Member of the European Parliament, issued a strong warning to conservative Americans worried about their country’s future in a speech he delivered at the CPAC rally last week in Washington.

The self-proclaimed Euroskeptic and author of The New Road to Serfdom, warned U.S. political conservatives not to follow in Europe’s tragic footsteps by allowing their governments to seize too much power and create dependency on mismanaged socialized government programs — the very Welfare State culture that has a strangle hold on the Old Continent’s major economies such as Britain, France, Germany and Italy.

In Hannan’s opinion, Europe is “in the grip of a prolonged winter … of discontent” where there are nation-wide protests and grumbling every day against political and economic liberalization — but with little hope for actual change.  Europe is in such a dire state, he says, because it is has long lost its culture of enterprise and self-responsibility.

Hannan said he always admired Americans for their optimism and “anything’s possible” attitude, but they need to make sure their “rulers remember they are not rulers but representatives.”  He humorously noted that in Belgium, where he works in European Parliament, the country was without a government for nearly two years “and it was working brilliantly!”

Below you can watch Hannan’s interview and full speech delivered at CPAC.

The Catholic High School Honor Roll, a biennial list of America’s top 50 Catholic high schools, will now be sponsored by The Cardinal Newman Society, beginning with the 2012-13 Honor Roll application period.  The Acton Institute, which has sponsored the Honor Roll since its inception in 2004, is turning the program over to The Cardinal Newman Society.

“It has been gratifying to see how the Catholic High School Honor Roll has grown to be a reliable standard for faithful Catholic education. In order to insure its continued growth, it seems logical to us that its mission be entrusted to a fine organization with a solid track record to take it to the next level,” states Fr. Robert Sirico, president and co- founder of the Acton Institute.

The Acton Institute encourages all past participants to continue utilizing the Catholic High School Honor Roll as a means of measuring academic excellence, Catholic identity, and civic education, and congratulates The Cardinal Newman Society for its on-going efforts to renew and strengthen Catholic identity in Catholic education.  Please watch the Catholic High School Honor Roll website for further updates and announcements.

Also, please note that the new Honor Roll project manager, Mr. Bob Laird, will be sending a separate e-mail introducing himself to the Honor Roll schools.  He is available at HonorRoll@CardinalNewmanSociety.org, 703/367-0333, ext. 103.

On Jan. 20, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius ordered most employers and insurers to provide contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs (the “morning after” pill) free of charge under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Yesterday, President Obama — reacting to a firestorm of criticism that this new mandate violates freedom of religion and conscience protections — announced a compromise that shifted the cost of the mandate to insurers. That, however, has done little to allay fears about the erosion of constitutional rights from many religious leaders. Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Pates in Des Moines, for example, told the local paper the compromise didn’t go far enough and asked parishes in his diocese to publish a letter tomorrow titled, “At stake: Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Conscience.”

A number of economists and other critics of the HHS mandate are equally unimpressed with the cost shifting at the heart of the president’s revised plan.

In a LifeSiteNews.com report, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg observes that “Someone has to pay. And it would be entirely reasonable – and very probable – for the insurance companies to simply charge religious institutions extra for their overall insurance policies in order to cover their not-so-free costs.”

Read more from Gregg and other experts in “‘Birth control pills don’t fall out of the sky like manna’: economic experts blast revised mandate” by Ben Johnson on LifeSiteNews.com.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, February 10, 2012
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As promised in the context of yesterday’s discussion here and at First Thoughts, my piece on the future of fusionism is up over at the Comment site, “Small is Beautiful (Except When it Isn’t.)” I take my point of departure in the “crunchy” or “communitarian” conservatism of Rod Dreher, recently profiled by the NYT’s David Brooks.

My basic point is that the social or communitarian conservatives generally have a great deal to learn about economics and the way that economic development underpins the very lifestyles they manifest. But on the other hand, economic or “market” conservatives have a great deal to learn about the cultivation of virtue and the value of communities and civil society from social conservatives. So in contrast to those who perennially herald the divorce between economic and social conservatives, I find that they are “deeply interdependent in many often overlooked ways.” I conclude that in this time of crisis (financial, moral, and spiritual), “Perhaps now more than ever communitarian and market conservatives need each other’s insights to mutually test their respective assumptions and the practical implications of their views.”

One of the distinctive features of the fusionist project over the last couple decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union is the absence of anti-communism as a unifying force. Instead, the dynamic of globalization, and the generally differing evaluations of globalization between social and economic conservatives, has served as a centrifugal rather than centripetal force for the fusionist project.

In this regard I think it is worth taking note of a paper given by then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in 1985 (PDF) about the relationship between ethics and the market economy. He lays out in brief but brilliant fashion a framework for fusionism in his concluding paragraph:

A morality that believes itself able to dispense with the technical knowledge of economic laws is not morality but moralism. As such it is the antithesis of morality. A scientific approach that believes itself capable of managing without an ethos misunderstands the reality of man. Therefore it is not scientific. Today we need a maximum of specialized economic understanding, but also a maximum of ethos so that specialized economic understanding may enter the service of the right goals. Only in this way will its knowledge be both politically practicable and socially tolerable.

I think “a morality that believes itself able to dispense with the technical knowledge of economic laws” sometimes too painfully represents the position of social conservatives, including Rod Dreher, as I note in the Comment piece. But all too often economic conservatives take a “scientific approach that believes itself capable of managing without an ethos.” The union of these two wings of the conservative movement is the fruitful, and indeed necessary, basis for fusionism, which still, I believe, represents the most hopeful way forward for conservatism in America.

Acton On The AirA couple of Acton radio appearances to let you know about: First of all, Acton’s Director of Research Dr. Samuel Gregg joined host Al Kresta yesterday to discuss the modern papacy on Kresta in the Afternoon. He focused on the social and political thought of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. You can listen to the interview by using the audio player below:

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Additionally, Acton’s Director of Media Michael Matheson Miller provided some additional commentary on the controversy surrounding the Obama Administration’s contraception mandate decision on America’s Radio News, which you can listen to below:

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Joe Knippenberg raises a couple of important points over at the First Things site in response to my post earlier today about the relationship between conservatism and libertarianism. First, he questions the validity of my “distinction between political philosophy and worldview.” Second, he questions “the place of liberty as our highest political good.”

I’ve posted a comment over there that deals with, in part, Lord Acton’s identification of liberty as man’s highest political end. Check out Joe’s post and the ongoing discussion for some provisional considerations aiming at “comprehensive reflection on the human good.”

Following my blog post and Acton News and Commentary piece “Obama vs. the Catholic Bishops,” I’d like to draw your attention to two Wall Street Journal editorial page articles in today’s edition that also criticize the bishops for their political and economic naivete.

WSJ columnist Daniel Henninger writes:

Politically bloodless liberals would respond that, net-net, government forcings do much social good despite breaking a few eggs, such as the Catholic Church’s First Amendment sensibilities. That is one view. But the depth of anger among Catholics over this suggests they recognize more is at stake here than political results. They are right. The question raised by the Catholic Church’s battle with ObamaCare is whether anyone can remain free of a U.S. government determined to do what it wants to do, at whatever cost.
[….]
With the transformers, it never stops. In September, the Obama Labor Department proposed rules to govern what work children can do on farms. After an outcry from rural communities over the realities of farm traditions, the department is now reconsidering a “parental exemption.” Good luck to the farmers.

The Catholic Church has stumbled into the central battle of the 2012 presidential campaign: What are the limits to Barack Obama’s transformative presidency? The Catholic left has just learned one answer: When Mr. Obama says, “Everyone plays by the same set of rules,” it means they conform to his rules. What else could it mean?

Anyone who signs up for more of this deal by assuming that it will never force them to fall into line is getting what they deserve.

And here’s University of Chicago professor John Cochrane:

Our nation is divided on social issues. The natural compromise is simple: Birth control, abortion and other contentious practices are permitted. But those who object don’t have to pay for them. The federal takeover of medicine prevents us from reaching these natural compromises and needlessly divides our society.

The critics fell for a trap. By focusing on an exemption for church-related institutions, critics effectively admit that it is right for the rest of us to be subjected to this sort of mandate. They accept the horribly misnamed Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and they resign themselves to chipping away at its edges. No, we should throw it out, and fix the terrible distortions in the health-insurance and health-care markets.

Sure, churches should be exempt. We should all be exempt.

Both articles claim that the Catholic bishops were exclusively and overly concerned with getting exemptions for Catholic institutions and did not adequately focus on the larger political and economic problems brought on by Obamacare and the entitlement state in general, i.e. a growing dependence on the state and a convoluted tax code that attempts to direct our individual choices towards “socially optimal” ends, regardless of the inevitable, unintended consequences.

Henninger also points out that the bishops initially opposed Obamacare because of the threat of federal funding of abortion, which ought to make one wonder: Are the bishops capable of applying the principles of Catholic social teaching beyond the obvious “non-negotiable” issues of Catholic teaching (abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, etc.) and speaking coherently, intelligently and persuasively on prudential matters that are still of great political importance? Should they? Or should this be the responsibility of the Catholic laity, who may be better formed in politics and economics but lack the authority of episcopal office?

In my opinion, these are open and difficult questions that require us to think more seriously about the role of Catholic leadership in a liberal democratic society.

Yesterday AEI hosted a lively discussion between Jonah Goldberg and Matt Welch on the question, “Are Libertarians Part of the Conservative Movement?” I’ve got a piece appearing tomorrow at Comment that will discuss the “fusionist” project and the relationship between so-called economic or “market” conservatives and social or “communitarian” conservatives.

At this point, though, I’ll simply point out a distinction I’ve made in the past between libertarianism as a political philosophy and libertarianism as a world-and-life view. The former, I think, is largely compatible with and an important part of the broader conservative political movement. The latter, however, is much more problematic. Libertarianism as a political philosophy emphasizes the proper role and functions of a limited government, and asks critically of each policy, as Goldberg notes, “Should government really be doing this?” This question is one that is, in my view, an absolutely indispensable and welcome component of the conservative movement.

Libertarianism as a world-and-life view, however, understands personal choice as the highest good and interprets everything else in light of that single guiding principle. These kinds of libertarians do not hold to a view of the world in which choice must be directed to any objective good or correspond to the moral order. No, rather, choice itself is opposed to any form of constraint, moral or otherwise. The exercise of the will is itself the supreme act of human freedom. (These, I think, are Kirk’s “chirping sectaries.”) This kind of libertarianism is much less compatible with a conservative vision of the good society, although there are probably still cases in which such libertarians and conservatives can be effective co-belligerents. I would add that this kind of libertarianism is much less compatible with the Christian faith, and in many cases much more likely to be substituted for or conflated with Christianity. Libertarianism as a world-and-life view is an ideological competitor to the Christian faith.

Respective definitions of liberty are absolutely essential to distinguishing various strands of libertarianism. Are we simply free to choose, or free to choose the good? How is the good defined, and in relation to what (the moral order?) or who (myself? God?) is it defined? Here I’ll submit Lord Acton’s definition as representative of a good answer, from the kind of classical liberal who oriented freedom to the good: “Liberty is not the ability to do what you want, but the right to do what you ought.”

When we are asking the kinds of questions raised by last night’s AEI discussion, it’s important to define our terms and clarify precisely who and what we are discussing. Libertarianism is an inherently diverse phenomenon, with a rather dizzying spectrum of perspectives unified around some core commitments. But precisely how these core commitments animate and are placed in relationship to the broader vision of the common good (if there even is such a vision) is widely divergent. A presentation by Nigel Ashford at an IHS event once outlined at least 5 basic types (with attendant subgroupings) on a continuum, you might say, of libertarianism. (It so happens, usually, that whoever is to the left of you on the spectrum is cast as a “socialist” of some form or another.)

I’ll have some more to say related to my piece tomorrow at Comment, but here I’ll just note that my conclusions about the prospects for fusionism (social and economic conservatives need each other now perhaps more than ever) are largely shared with those in Hunter Baker’s essay, “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives Find Common Ground?” and commend Baker’s article to your attention.

While reading the Wall Street Journal not so long ago, I came across an article and two opinion pieces that, each in their way, told a story far different than one rendered in Bruce Springsteen’s forthcoming album, Wrecking Ball.

At first listening, Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own”  chugs along with some of the best of the Boss’ rock anthems. But the song’s lyrics convey a deeply cynical despair about our nation’s charitable nature. Springsteen says we in the United States simply don’t do enough to tend to the less fortunate. And, in his Albert Schweitzer meets Florence Nightingale way, he invokes our nation’s predominantly Judeo-Christian heritage.

In “We Take Care of Our Own,” Springsteen lyrically conjures God’s sacrifice of Christ for humankind’s redemption. “I’ve been knocking on the door” – a nod to Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” – “that holds the throne,” presumably the one occupied by God. “I’ve been stumblin’ on good hearts turned to stone/The road of good intentions has gone dry as bone.” Never  mind that Springsteen inadvertently forgets it’s the road to hell, not heaven, which is paved with those good intentions.

“From the shotgun shack to the Superdome/We yelled ‘help’ but the cavalry stayed home/There ain’t no-one hearing the bugle blown.” In this verse, Springsteen conveniently ignores the churches, faith-based relief agencies, private companies and millions of individuals who opened their hearts and wallets to help those impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Listening deeper into the song, the audience may discern biblical allusions – the cavalry representing the location where God sacrificed his only Son, and the bugle no one hears belonging to Gabriel. In other words, for all of our religious talk in the United States, according to Springsteen, we simply don’t put our money where our mouths are.

Springsteen’s manager told Rolling Stone that his new LP has “social overtones” and a “very pronounced spiritual dimension.” The magazine cited another source who confided that the rocker “gets into economic justice quite a bit.”

But is Springsteen’s “economic justice” based on sound “spiritual” footings?

In the issue of the January 30 issue of the Wall Street Journal, Rabbi Aryeh Spero writes: “[T]he Bible’s prescription of equality means equality under the law, as in Deuteronomy’s saying that ‘Judges and officers … shall judge the people with a just judgment: Do not … favor one over the other.’ Nowhere does the Bible refer to a utopian equality that is contrary to human nature and has never been achieved.”

If Springsteen missed the Rabbi’s essay, he might’ve read Warren Kozak’s opinion piece in the Journal, which appeared on the same page. Kozak writes that the “U.S. government spends close to $1 trillion a year providing cash, food, housing, medical care and services to poor and near-poor people. Of that figure, about $111 billion is spent on food in federal and state programs.” Kozak quotes 2009 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, which reveal that nearly 50 million U.S. citizens are classified as poor. However, the Census Bureau also finds that 96 percent of poor parents assert that “their children were never hungry” and 83 percent “of poor families reported having enough food to eat, and 82 percent of poor adults said they were never hungry at any time in 2009 due to a lack of food or money.”

One hopes these statistics, in part, answer Springsteen’s closing questions in “We Take Care of Our Own”: “Where the eyes, the eyes with the will to see/Where’re the hearts that run over with mercy/Where’s the love that has not forsaken me/Where’s the work that set my hands, my soul free/Where’s the spirit that’ll reign, reign over me/Where’s the promise, from sea to shining sea?”

If not, perhaps the following facts may reacquaint Springsteen with the spirit of American giving. Left unmentioned in Kozak’s essay are the results of the 2010 Charities Aid Foundation global survey, which, like many other suveys, singles out the United States as one of the most generous nations in private giving and volunteer activity.  Of the 150,000 citizens from 153 countries surveyed by the Gallup organization, 65 percent of Americans donated money; 43 percent of Americans volunteered their time; and 73 percent of Americans helped a stranger.

Maybe Springsteen doesn’t read the Wall Street Journal, or avoids newspaper opinion pieces altogether. Had he read a straight news story in the same issue of the Journal, however, he may have learned something new in an article titled “Charities Ended 2011 on High Note.” Journalist Melanie Grayce West reports that The Salvation Army raised $147.6 million in its Red Kettle campaign – up nearly 4 percent from 2010 and 6 percent from 2009.

Alas, this amount is still $100 million less than Springsteen’s estimated net worth. While the rocker is recognized often for his generous charitable giving – I did that too  in an Acton Institute article in 2004 – it’s more than a little strange to be lectured about our “fair share” by an extremely wealthy American celebrity.

Springsteen is entitled to his opinions and all that, and, further, he is guaranteed the freedom to publish whatever agitprop he wishes — especially if it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. But “We Take Care of Our Own” just doesn’t pass muster with the information readily available on any given day in any reputable news source.

At some point in the past few decades, Springsteen began patterning his songwriting on the supposed social consciousness of folksingers Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs. Ochs once recorded an album titled All the News That’s Fit to Sing. Springsteen would perform a tremendous favor to the better-informed members of his enormous fan base – this writer included – by actually reading a newspaper.

Bruce Edward Walker writes on the arts from Midland, Michigan.