Watching the drama in the United Methodist Church reminds many of us of the trauma that overtook the Southern Baptist Convention 30 years ago. Conservatives, fundamentalists, and traditionalists in these large religious networks flexed their muscles and push their denominations away from more progressive, inclusive forms of Christianity.
Current Southern Baptist power-broker Albert Mohler wrote a piece praising the action of United Methodists: “Despite its basic theological liberalism, the UMC made history this week by upholding a biblical ethic on sexual morality.”
Former Southern Baptist Jonathan Merritt, now an award-winning journalist, also wrote a column about the matter: “Methodists should heed Southern Baptists’ story as a cautionary tale.”
Interestingly, Merritt’s father was a contemporary of mine in the doctoral program at Southern Baptist Seminary during the denominational struggle, while Mohler followed us by a few years. In spite of our almost identical educations, Drs. Merritt and Mohler went on to become leaders in the conservative resurgence among Southern Baptists while I took my place within the resistance.
There are some similarities between the Methodist and Baptist stories.
Both are illustrations of the tussle within the larger American culture related to race, sex, gender, orientation, and politics. Baptists pushed back against the demand for women to have more opportunity, and Methodists have pushed back against a similar hope for the gay community. Both involve the intersection of education and religion, with institutions of higher learning (colleges, universities, and seminaries) serving as centers for progressive thought and action.
But there are significant differences.
First, the conservative pushback within the Southern Baptist universe was (and is) tied to more powerful political movements seeking to influence national policy. In the beginning, Southern Baptist conservatives were aligned with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority; today, Falwell’s church and school are at the center of Southern Baptist life, and Southern Baptist people, led by First Baptist Church of Dallas, are at the forefront of Trump Nation.
Not so with these United Methodists. Not even the Good News Movement or the Wesleyan Covenant Association are so closely identified with the wider aspirations of Christian nationalism even if they share many of the tenets of classic evangelicalism.
Second, diversity in identity and leadership was at the center of the Southern Baptist struggle. Conservatives fought to keep women out of power, and today no female or person of color holds any executive position of influence within the Southern Baptist Convention.
United Methodist were always more diverse in terms of geography, gender, and ideology. From the first, they were a “big tent” movement, combining as they did at their inception already existing traditions. Today, this dispersion of decision-making authority is impressive and shows no sign of abatement.
Third, conservatives within the Southern Baptist Convention took hold of the levers of power and systematically excluded any person who deviated from their ideological standards. Although they were not able (with precious few exceptions) to bring the colleges and universities with them in their lurch to the right, they have maintained for 30 years an iron grip on what is professed, published, and proclaimed.
It remains to be seen whether this recent electoral victory by the traditionalists will actually win the day among United Methodists. The deciding votes were all cast by delegates from overseas; by significant majorities, American delegates favored more progressive and inclusive resolutions to their dilemmas. It will be exceedingly difficult for an American minority to hold sway over an American majority.
Furthermore, there is reason to believe that traditionalists will be the ones to abandon the United Methodist ship. The aforementioned Wesleyan Covenant Association already has detailed and expansive plans to spin off a new denomination; it will be almost impossible for people eyeing fresh opportunities of position and power to reverse course and resume places of secondary and tertiary influence.
But differences aside, this much is true: both United Methodists and Southern Baptists, regardless of whose values and theology dominate their respective religious systems, will continue to struggle with statistical decline. What has been, will be; and what has been is the growing repudiation of established brands—in business, in sport, in politics, and in religion; and that is the hardest lesson for two of the biggest brands in American religion.
It is a new world out there, and neither Southern Baptists nor United Methodists are as significant a part of it as they were or as they think they ought to be.