Evangelicals, Africans, and Jews.
12:00 AM, May 20, 2008 • By MARK TOOLEY
But all 250 available cell phones were quickly picked up by overseas delegates, who reported their appreciation to the church's news service. And the Africans, far more outspoken than politically inhibited American evangelicals, hardly needed any "manipulation." What really enraged the liberals were not the cell phones per se but the growing alliance between American evangelicals and Africans. While liberal regions of the church continue to implode in membership, conservative Methodist churches are growing. And the Africans very possibly could comprise a majority of the denomination within a decade.
"We have feared this for years," reported a spokesman for gay caucus group "Reconciling Ministries Network," complaining that international delegates are in "clear alliance with the most conservative elements" of the U.S. church. "As some of us heard in speeches from the floor from some of these international delegates, they are far more conservative than even the average American conservatives, on a wide range of social issues." To counter the alliance between U.S. evangelicals and overseas United Methodists, church liberals are urging creation of a separate U.S. church conference that would potentially start n 2016.
More behind the scenes than the African-evangelical alliance was the alliance between Jewish groups and Methodist evangelicals. The denomination's lobby office had endorsed divestment from Caterpillar, Inc. because its bulldozers support Israel's occupation of the West Bank. Shortly before the General Conference, the lobby office pulled the proposal. But five regional conferences, supported by the 100 year old Methodist Federation for Social Action, had petitioned for a more comprehensive divestment, similar to what the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) tried three years ago.
The Jewish Public Affairs Council, B'nai B'rith, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center all sent staff to the General Conference in Fort Worth, as did Fair Witness, a pro-Israel group headed by a Catholic nun. But more importantly, with help from evangelicals, they had earlier enlisted local Jewish leaders to contact key swing delegates across the country about the Jewish community's concerns regarding potential anti-Israel divestment by United Methodism's $15 billion pension fund. Jewish groups were persuasive with liberal delegates, while conservative caucus groups solidified opposition by evangelicals. African delegates also opposed divestment.
"Vociferous critics of Israel attended the General Conference in large numbers," observed Ethan Felson of the Jewish Public Affairs Council. "They called delegates, sent mailings, displayed banners, and distributed flyers. But at the end of the day, our good friends in the Methodist church united with us. We have made many new friends in this journey."
After defeat in committee, the Methodist Federation for Social Action, also a key advocate for same-sex marriage, tried to revive divestment on the convention floor but failed. Divestment's resounding defeat was surprising, given the long-time anti-Israel stance by United Methodist elites. But the cooperation between evangelicals and Jewish groups, with some help from Africans, proved decisive.
Unlike the U.S.-centered Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the international United Methodist Church seems poised for a come-back. And that resurgence owes mostly to African church members. Emboldened by their growing congregations, and hardened by years of strife in their own countries, the African United Methodists are undeterred by American political correctness or threats by U.S. liberals. Almost certainly facing future vilification, the Africans are likely to show their American critics that they are made of tougher stuff than many of their ideological allies in this country.
Mark D. Tooley directs the Institute on Religion and Democracy's program for United Methodists.