The dominant religion theme in the U.S. news media across the past two years, without question, has been political fealty to Donald Trump and his works among grassroots evangelical Protestants and a like-minded coterie of old-guard clergy celebrities.
In the same period, “mainline” Protestant groups have been ardent in politicking for leftward and anti-Trump causes, perhaps even moreso than with the typical evangelical congregation.
You would barely know this, if at all, from reading or viewing most news media reports.
Take the United Methodist Church (UMC), America’s second-largest Protestant body with 7.7 million members and millions more in overseas jurisdictions. Yes, the UMC is much in the news but only regarding its internal doctrinal dispute over whether to liberalize LGBTQ policy, per last week’s Guy Memo.
UMC proclamations come from the General Board of Church and Society, whose office hard by Capitol Hill is more than strangely warmed (to quote John Wesley) about President Donald Trump. The board has issued repeated directives urging churchgoers to phone or e-mail protests against Trump's actions to members of the House and Senate. (Years ago its former leader Jim Winkler, now National Council of Churches president, called for impeachment of President George W. Bush, a fellow Methodist, over his war policy.)
Recently, U.S. religious bodies across the board denounced the Trump policy, now rescinded, of separating “undocumented” immigrants from their children. But the UMC went further, urging funding cuts for immigration enforcement and border protection, and an immediate halt to all arrests and detentions of undocumented border-crossers.
The Methodists were aggrieved at the U.S. Supreme Court for upholding Trump’s travel ban against seven nations, five of them majority Muslim. Rejecting the court’s reasoning and the government’s national-security rationale, the church charged that the policy “institutionalizes Islamophobia, religious intolerance, and racism.”
In a rare instance of favoring Trump’s deeds, the UMC welcomed his disputed Singapore summit with North Korea’s Communist dictator as a step toward peace. That ties into the church's advocacy of full reunification of South Korea with the North.
On other foreign policy matters, board General Secretary Susan Henry-Crowe denounced Trump’s pullout from the Iran deal, arguing that President Barack Obama’s plan was “working” and provided “international safeguards” on nuclear weapons.
The board opposed Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, said to constitute “reckless disregard” for affected communities that undercuts “climate justice.”
Another target is the president’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which the church believes adds a “huge stumbling block in the path towards just peace.” The UMC instead wants Jerusalem to be “an international city” in order to enable “just and lasting peace” with the Palestinians.
After the ruinous Puerto Rico hurricane, the UMC urged more spending than the Trump administration authorized, but in doing so depicted the self-governing commonwealth as “an American colony.”
These and other pronouncements far outnumber those from conservative or evangelical Protestant denominations.
Why little or no news coverage? Journalists should ask themselves and consider a story on this.
The Guy's theory is that evangelicalism has a larger following than today’s “mainline” and conveys more dynamism, aided by effective communication networks. Most importantly, though, politicians and editors may wonder whether what, say, those Methodist officials proclaim echoes political beliefs across the nation’s 33,583 UMC congregations (compared with 14,000 McDonald's outlets). If not, few at the nearby U.S. Capitol will listen.
On abortion, however, UMC pronouncements reflect parishioner thinking. The UMC board, for instance, decries Title X budget cuts to “reproductive medicine” clinics, and Trump’s restoration of President Ronald Reagan’s “Mexico City policy” that denies funding to groups that perform or promote abortions internationally.
A January Pew Research Center polling report showed 57 percent of United Methodists favor legalized abortion in “all or most cases” vs. 38 percent who oppose it in “all or most cases.”
Abortion is, of course, a major concern of liberals and Democrats opposed to Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Pew’s huge sample (35,000) allows such precise breakdowns by religious denomination. Other “mainline” memberships were more liberal than the Methodists in this ascending order: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), United Church of Christ, and Episcopal Church (exceeded by Buddhists, Jews over-all, agnostics, atheists and Unitarian Universalists).
The following were more conservative than the national average, in increasing order: Anglicans, Muslims, Presbyterian Church in America and Eastern Orthodox Christians, followed by Catholics and American Baptists who were evenly split between the two options. Then with these groups “illegal” outnumbered “legal” preference: Missouri Synod Lutheran, Seventh-day Adventist, Church of God in Christ, churches of Christ, Southern Baptist, Mormon, Nazarene, Assemblies of God, Church of God and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Among all Americans self-identified as “evangelical,” the numbers were 63 percent “illegal” vs. 33 percent “legal.”
Pew reported that over-all public opinion was virtually identical to that among Methodists, at 57 percent “legal” vs. 40 percent “illegal.” Compare that with Gallup numbers for the U.S. population (per National Review). Broad sentiment is evenly divided between “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” Small majorities consistently think abortion should either be banned or only legal in “rare” cases. Currently, 29 percent favor allowing abortion in all circumstances.