Friday, June 19, 2009

Back to the Future: United Methodist Anti-Gay Backlash and Dearth of Leadership in the New Administration

I’ve talked recently (and a number of times previously) about the dynamics that cause societies on the brink of important forward-moving shifts in their moral minds to lurch backwards suddenly. I’ve noted that leaders who talk progressive change based on moral imperatives, but who then ignore their own moral imperatives and fail to deliver the progressive change they’ve articulated as necessary, are central to the backwards-lurching dynamic that can set in at such moments of promise.

When such a leadership vacuum occurs at a moment of critical social change pointing to morally-grounded progress, things can end up being much worse rather than much better, despite the insistence of a critical mass in the social group that change is possible and necessary, and now is the time for change. The inactivity of leaders who have come to power with the support of that critical mass, but who ignore these progressive supporters once the leaders have been elected, can open the door to backlash that moves the society further back in key areas than it was before it elected “progressive” leaders.

I also reported recently on the voting tallies, as United Methodist annual conferences are now gathering to consider an amendment to the church’s constitution that would open the door to gay and lesbian members—to openly gay and lesbian members. I noted that this amendment, which is being called the “all means all” amendment by its supporters, is being treated by some opponents as an attempt of the UMC in developed countries to impose its standards on churches of the developing world.

But I also noted that this rationale for opposing the amendment (which is being offered, ironically, by the same United Methodists who formerly opposed inclusion of people of color in their church) disguises what is really going on with the vote re: the “all means all” amendment: it’s a vote about whether gay people are to be welcome in UMC churches. It is astonishing to hear those voting against welcoming gays to their churches now arguing that they want to exclude gay members from Methodist churches because they are defending the rights of people of color.

My previous posting about this notes the correlation between the voting patterns on the “all means all” amendment and the 1860 presidential election. In states that voted against Lincoln in 1860—that is, in slave states that wanted to uphold slavery—voting tallies at annual conferences are running strongly against the “all means all” amendment. And in states that voted for Lincoln and against slavery in 1860, UMC annual conferences are upholding the “all means all” amendment.

United Methodist churches in the church’s heartland—the Old South—are as opposed today to inclusion of gays and lesbians in their church as they were opposed in 1860 to the abolition of slavery, and as they continued to be opposed to inclusion of people of color in “white” churches. until recently. UMC churches outside the heartland of Methodism in the Old South are, in general, welcoming of gay and lesbian members, just as they were welcoming of African-American members long before “white” Methodist churches of the South opened their doors to black members.

Since I last posted about this issue, more annual conference votes have come in. And as more votes come in, they strongly confirm the analysis I offered in my previous posting about the “all means all” amendment. Called to Witness, a website sponsored by Reconciling Ministries, recently added to its final counts of annual conference votes tallies from the annual conferences of New York, southwest Texas, the Rio Grande, and Tennessee.

The Tennessee annual conference voted with its Old South brothers and sisters—285 in favor of “all means all,” and 340 in favor of “all are not welcome.” New York voted 432 in favor of welcoming gay persons to United Methodist churches and 214 against such welcome.

The southwest Texas and Rio Grande annual conference votes are interesting. They suggest a trend (borne out by other vote tallies) away from the dominance of Old South exclusionism in Methodism, as one moves away from the Old South heartland to the west. Whereas the Texas conference itself voted heavily against welcome (704 vs. 398), as did northwest Texas (179 vs. 80), and the north Texas conference also held the line against gay members (385 vs. 295), southwest Texas was almost evenly divided, if marginally against welcoming gay members (370 vs. all means all, 333 for all means all).

And the Rio Grande conference voted for welcome: 25 vs. all means all and 92 in favor of all means all. One has to ask about the influence of Latino Methodist voters in these conferences. On the basis of these figures alone, it appears possible (in my view) that UMC churches with strong Latino populations are far more gay-inclusive than UMC churches under the sway of Southern exclusionism, which do not have a significant proportion of Latino members.

A previous update had added to the tallies the votes of my home state’s UMC conference, Arkansas, which voted (unsurprisingly) to toe the Old South exclusionist line: 363 vs. welcome, 196 in favor of welcome. The Troy, Vermont, conference voted just the opposite: 62 vs. welcome, 211 in favor of welcome.

Results that have come in since the last updating of the Called to Witness spreadsheet continue to confirm the trend discussed above. North Georgia has voted overwhelmingly against inclusion of gay members (958 vs. all means all, 544 for all means all), as has the Holston conference of east Tennessee and west Virginia, and northwest Georgia (629 against including gay members in UMC churches, 361 in favor of welcome and inclusion).

Why do I belabor these points? Why focus so microscopically on one intra-church conversation about the place of gay human beings in God’s plan of salvation? As I noted last year in a number of postings (e.g., here) about the 2008 United Methodist General Conference, in this nation with the soul of a church, the United Methodist Church plays a unique role as a bellwether of the attitudes of Main Street U.S.A. As go the Methodists, so goes the nation.

For those who are gay and lesbian—for anyone in solidarity with gay and lesbian persons, for anyone who sees the issue of gay rights as a neuralgic issue in a progressive political coalition—the votes now coming in from UMC annual conferences should be deeply troubling. Some of my Methodist friends are encouraging me to read these votes in a positive light, as a sign that their church is making progress re: welcome of gay members.

I must admit that I cannot see the current annual conference voting trends in a positive light. What I see is that, in the broad heartland of the United Methodist church, churches that prominently display signs proclaiming that their minds, hearts, and doors are open, are not open to me. I read the votes of annual conferences to tell me that some two-thirds of my UMC brothers and sisters in the Methodist heartland do not want me to belong to their church.

Many of my gay and lesbian friends who are former Methodists tell me I am reading these vote tallies exactly right. They tell me that they would not dream of setting foot again in their church of origin. The handwriting on the wall is very clear, they say, despite those open minds, hearts, and doors signs.

I am not a statistician, and I do not have strong data to back up what I intend to say now, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say it anyway: I have the distinct impression, as I read the vote tallies coming in now about the “all means all” amendment, that United Methodists are sending gay and lesbian Americans an even stronger signal of unwelcome than they have in the past, when previous initiatives have been voted on within the UMC church. If I am incorrect with this impression and there are data to show me I am incorrect, I welcome the correction.

If I am correct, then something troubling may be happening in the American heartland, despite the hope and change promised by the Obama administration. And this shift may be genetically linked to the new administration and its lack of leadership re: the human rights of gay and lesbian Americans.

Make promises about progressive change based on moral imperatives and fail to fulfill them when you’re elected, fail to show decisive leadership regarding progressive change based on moral imperatives when you are elected, and you may open the door to strong backlash. And that backlash can set the progressive movement you claim to be leading further back than it found itself at the time of your election.

I have the strong impression that United Methodists in the heartland of Methodism in the United States are on the backwards curve now—and are moving along that curve decisively. This is not what we wanted to see happening, with a progressive new president promising rights to gay and lesbian Americans. Those with eyes to see need to keep a close eye on what is happening in the United Methodist church: we may see our future in these voting trends, the future to which we’re rapidly running back, with a dearth of strong leadership at the helm of the nation.