Confusing the Gospel with Party Platform

This post is adapted from a section in my thesis for Wesley Seminary, “Parallel Frontiers: Looking to Early Methodists in America for Insights on Church Multiplication in a Postmodern Culture.”

During the early 19th century in the United States, political parties were born and died. It was during this era that the current concept of a two-party system would come to fruition. While the issue of slavery was being debated at every level of political theater, some parties took stronger stances on the issues. While there were several political parties during the early 19th century, I will be focusing on two parties which had a unique intersection with Methodism—the Democratic Party and the Whig Party.

Both the Democrats and the Whigs came from the Democratic Republicans, but they would end up pursuing very different ideals. In general, Democrats wanted more states’ rights and Whigs wanted greater federal government with most power being held in the congress. Wesleyan Methodists, who split from the Methodist Episcopal Church over the issue of slavery were largely supporters of the Whig Party, while the remaining Methodists tended to be divided by Whig or Democratic influence depending on their geographic location.[1] Interestingly, in the South, Methodists tended more often to be Democrats if there was a greater competition from Baptists.[2]

Evangelicals were often aligned with the Whig party, as it was a party of progress, but Democrats offered greater religious freedom.[3] This was particularly unique that evangelicals preferred greater government involvement, as it was actually the religious freedom of the American frontier that allowed these groups to grow. Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics were drawn to the Democratic party. However, as Methodists in the South split from the rest of the Connexion in 1844, they too would gravitate toward the stronger party in the South, the Democrats.

In 1844, the Methodist General Conference voted to discipline Rev. James O. Andrew for personally owning multiple slaves.[4] He was required to manumit the slaves or remain suspended from his bishopric. Southern Methodists felt like it was unjust for the General Conference to make a decision about this issue. Interestingly, one can see striking similarities between this issue and political stage regarding slavery. Northern Methodists favored the Whigs, abolition, and a stronger federal government, whereas Southern Methodists favored the Democrats, slavery, and greater states’ rights.

Slavery was the most significant political issue affecting Methodists, but this subject led to a greater disagreement on political issues. This political rift would exist in the Methodist Movement for many years and would impact future attempts to reunite, such as the Methodist Church merger of 1939.[5] Politics affected more than just the Methodists during the 19th century, spreading into many other groups.

The political landscape of the United States today is not much different than the 19th century, other than the issues being somewhat different. Two major parties still exist today: the Democrats and the Republicans. While the Democrats are technically descended of the same party of the 19th century Democrats, they are ideologically more similar to the 19th century Republicans. The Republican Party was created in the era leading up to the American Civil, being an abolitionist party. Following in the footsteps of its predecessor, the Whig Party, the Republican Party was more in favor of a stronger federal government.

Sometime between 1920 – 1940, the Democratic and Republican parties essentially switched ideologies.[6] Today, Democrats are both fiscally and socially liberal, while Republicans are both fiscally and socially conservative. During the 20th century, American Evangelicalism developed in modern form, even though evangelicalism had existed essentially since the First Great Awakening. Evangelicalism became intertwined with politics and eventually became integrally connected with conservative politics.[7] The challenge facing the church today is that some evangelical voices are preaching a political gospel rather than a biblical gospel.

The church has to be careful about taking firm political positions, when the gospel calls us to a kingdom that is greater than this world. Using the once-respected office of clergy to tell parishioners how “Jesus would vote” seems to be counter-productive to the gospel. The political actions of many churches are some of the reasons that younger generations are turning away from the church. I believe that the church has an important role to play in this world, but we have to be careful to not confuse the gospel with a party platform: Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Green, etc. As we attempt to reimagine what churches look like in the 21st century, we cannot let politics drive our mission.

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” — John 18:36, NRSV

References
[1] Swift, Donald Charles. Religion and the American Experience: A Social and Cultural History, 1765-1997. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1998. https://books.google.com/books?id=JqcFUxE8stAC&pg=PA140&lpg=PA140&dq=whig party and methodism&source=bl&ots=24y_wKANEG&sig=Q7V6UA2I6ICWOIstej-7BMSUHWo&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwizy-rPmc7OAhVGqR4KHR5NBekQ6AEIQjAI#v=onepage&q=whig party and methodism&f=false, 140
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/the-slavery-question-and-civil-war
[5] “History of the Southern Methodist Church.” About Us. http://www.thesmc.org/aboutus.html
[6] http://www.businessinsider.com/map-how-democrats-and-republicans-changed-2014-6
[7] https://books.google.com/books?id=umAbK0b0OLUC&pg=PA122&dq=evangelicalism+and+republicans&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjt9eWN787PAhWLdz4KHaYyA5QQ6AEILjAD#v=onepage&q=evangelicalism%20and%20republicans&f=false

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