The Curse of the (Social) Creed

We have turned humanity into an object of Christian faith, and social behaviors into essential Christian practices.

A couple of decades ago I sat visiting over lunch with my fellow students at the University of Malaya.  The conversation turned to our professors. A young woman with her hair wrapped tightly beneath her headscarf and wearing a long, shapeless baju kurong, asked about the religion of my thesis supervisor. I told her that he was Muslim, but that he seemed to have some unusual ideas and did not pray five times a day.

She and her friend responded almost as a chorus: “Islam is a belief and a practice. If you do not believe what Islam teaches and do not practice what Shari’a demands you are not a Muslim.”

At the time I simply noted that this seemed rather rigid and judgmental. Later in my studies I would realize that they were the end point of an arc of reasoning that stretches from Ibn Taymiyya to Sayyid Qutb to contemporary jihadists including Osama bin Laden. It is an arc defined by the realization of the idea that “bad Muslim” or “non-practicing Muslim” or even “ignorant Muslim” is simply “non-Muslim.” Ultimately it is the arc of reasoning that allows the Muslim-on-Muslim terrorism that is ubiquitous in much of the Muslim world. A terrorist can kill, without compunction, people who understand themselves to be Muslim but whom he judges to be non-Muslim on the basis of their flawed beliefs or lackadaisical practice.

A belief and a practice.

For centuries these terms in Christianity referred to the beliefs about God specified in the creeds, and the sacramental practices of the church. You were a Christian if you believed certain things about God and you joined in the ritual practices of the church (at least annually!)

Of course Christians could and did shed blood over disagreements related to both of these. Heretics could be sought out and killed, and whole communities that deviated from Catholic (or later Protestant) practice could be slaughtered.

But this changed in Christendom as it emerged into the modern West. A new kind of society was forged in which the coercive power of government made itself unavailable to religious causes. And even the Catholic church eventually recognized that trying to sort Christians from non-Christians on the basis of belief and practice was conducive only to bloodshed and the splintering of ever more groups from the Church and one another.

So the separation of church and state has taken some of the fangs out of inter and intra-religious disagreements, and concepts of freedom of religion and conscience have even led to government protection of religious minorities.

But United Methodists have contrived, in the last century and particularly the last half century, to reinstate the full divisive power of the concept “belief and practice.” They have done it, however, without an insistence on the classic creeds of the church and attendance upon its established rituals.

No, United Methodists (and indeed American Protestants more generally if less formally) have decided to place a Social Creed and Social Principals at the heart of their identity. We have thus supplemented the classic beliefs and practices of a church seeking to know God and give God apt praise with beliefs and practices revolving around the nature of humanity and human behavior toward fellow humans.

The result has been a disaster, and is largely responsible for the decline of the United Methodism. What was intended to complete us as Christians concerned with love of God and neighbor, and to give our church clout in the realm of politics, has in fact turned us on ourselves. It has destroyed our political credibility and reduced us in many instances to nothing more than a humanitarian club meeting on Sunday morning instead of Wednesday at lunch.

A study of church history should have shown us that this was coming.

The brilliance of the separation of church and state in modern Western history lay in the way that it freed religions groups from the temptation of engaging political power to establish authentic faith. Intellectual and moral persuasion would form voluntary religious societies capable of both robust faith and doing practical good. Beliefs about God, formally stated, could be privately interpreted even as clear consistent teaching led people to greater understanding and unity. Ritual practices could be adapted to changing senses of aesthetics and differences in psychological and spiritual development while seeking to preserve the best of Christian tradition.

Arguably this would lead to the birth of the modern seminary – a place where churches sent clergy to be the kinds of leaders that didn’t merely enforce traditional demands for belief and practice, but actually trained to lead people into a deeper, more personal, assimilation of both into their lives. They would lead churches that transformed society through the transformative power of transformed individuals with a right to vote in a free society.

But then we turned a particular view of humanity into an object of Christian faith, and social behaviors into essential Christian practices.

For seminaries this  leads to an instant doubling of the requirements for training clergy, since now they need to lead their congregations into not merely theological, but sociological, political, and anthropological reflection as well as political organizing and community action. As one member of our own Perkins faculty put it in a recent meeting, “social justice must run through the whole curriculum.”

That is a challenge. But the real problem is the in United Methodist Church and its Protestant (and indeed Catholic) peers. Social principles are inevitably political. They demand action in the public realm; to be enacted in law. Social principles  are intrinsically worthless unless they entail a commitment by the church to engage in action to implement them.

This is why Methodists have a Board of Church and Society based in Washington D.C. Our Social Creed and Social Principals make us a political organization little different (except in complete ineffectiveness) from any other lobbying group.

With a Social Creed and Social Principles every disagreement about their meaning inevitably becomes a disagreement about legislation within the church regulating behavior of church members and leaders. And every disagreement about their meaning inevitably becomes a political disagreement in the larger society over how they should be implemented and enforced at a social level.

People may disagree, and do, on just what it means to affirm that God is “father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” But they don’t need to, and indeed cannot, translate these disagreements into commanded or forbidden behavior. The same is not true of the statement “We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman.” Taken seriously it both permits and prohibits certain acts in the church and in society at large.

The result has been obvious now for over 40 years as United Methodists have fought bitterly, and with increasing divisiveness, over what it means to enact our social principles both within the church and in the action of the church in the larger political realm. The Social Principles and Social Creed have placed an impossible burden on both seminaries and the clergy they prepare, to the detriment of both. But mostly they have insured that the inevitable disagreements that come (as John Wesley recognized) because of our human fallibility and finiteness are now heightened by the heady prospect of gaining political power within and outside the church. For one cannot dream of creating the Reign of God on earth without imagining ones’ self, if not as President, than at least as a member of his cabinet or a close advisor.

At the Last Supper the disciples argued over who would sit at the right hand of Christ when he came into his Kingdom. And so now we United Methodists also argue, aligning ourselves with this or that political action committee and the seductive allure of political power. And as we do we join the drumbeat of passion that leads not to the New Jerusalem, but only Golgotha. Of course the resurrected Jesus being unavailable, we will crucify him in the form of our fellow United Methodists.

  • anon

    “Intellectual and moral persuasion would form voluntary religious societies capable of both robust faith and doing practical good.”—-well said!

    “Social principles are inevitably political. They demand action in the public realm; to be enacted in law. Social principles are intrinsically worthless unless they entail a commitment by the church to engage in action to implement them.”—I disagree. In a pluralistic society, what one person may consider s “social principle” another would consider oppression or injustice. “Social principles” are not necessarily universally same—Therefore, if one lives in a pluralistic society—then it is important to consider two aspects of “law”—the ones for the “Church” separate from the State and the ones for the State separate from the Church—-therefore any religion can come up with rules and rituals that their followers are asked to follow—but which does not apply to those outside the group. And a state can allow for religions to convince its members to refrain from activities allowed by law but which are offensive to that particular religion.
    —for example—
    “We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman.” —-gender-specific contracts can be voluntarily practiced by whichever Christian community/church believes it—while allowing the state to practice gender neutral marriage contracts for those who do not hold the same beliefs as that particular Church.
    The same can be said of other controversial issues such as abortion, termination of life support…etc…

    This way, those who hold certain belief systems do not need to compromise their belief/social principle nor oppress or cause injustice to another in order to hold to their beliefs.

    • roberthunt

      I don’t disagree with your comments. My point was that that if a church is to adopt, as a church, a group of social principles then it is surely obligated to use its institutional power to realize these principles both within the church and in the larger society. One cannot be said to have a principle if one never actually acts on it. The problem in this case is that by identifying the principle (by a bare majority vote) and then acting on it the church then forces the minority of members who disagree with the principle to engage in, or refrain from, acting on their principles. The the United Methodist Church this is exemplified by the complete ban on clergy participation in the blessing of homosexual marriages or unions. I note, however, that if the more “liberal” principles had been adopted they would be just as much an imposition on conservative clergy who didn’t hold them.

      Voluntary organizations do, of course, make these impositions upon their members all the time, always at the risk of losing these members. But the United Methodist Church is a little different. First, its social principles have changed – but its clergy are chained by their ordination to the church and don’t really have a chance to simply go elsewhere to find a job when those principles offend their conscience. Secondly whole United Methodist congregations do not have ownership of the property on which they worship (even if they purchased it and have maintained it for decades). So if the UM church makes a change in its social principles that they find onerous, or antagonistic with their own principles, they don’t really have a chance to move out. As a result these fights over the implementation of principles become all the more brutal – since they are a zero sum game for both parties.

      You are correct that the church could live by its own rules but not interfere with the laws by which states regulate marriage, for example, and I agree. Yet here in the US we have a specific problem with marriage because of its highly prized status within our culture and because clergy are able to act as agents of the state in effecting a marriage. We have seen that gay advocacy groups are not content with the possibility of civil union contracts. They want marriage. This is true as well of gay advocacy groups in churches. They are not content with civil contracts. They want a Christian marriage. (It was different when I lived in Europe. There not even Christians (gay or straight) wanted a Christian marriage, so negative was the attitude toward the church.) And of course, if the church has social principles that address the whole of society and not just the church, then it is surely obliged to advocate for those principles in the public sphere – thus involving itself as it does in politics and advocacy for laws that restrain or oblige certain forms of personal behavior.

      Underlying all of this are the culture wars. Those in the church advocating for particular social principles are members of larger political movements (both left and right) that believe that the whole of US culture will be destroyed unless they win. They have manufactured a zero-sum game in which every form of deception and abuse is justified by the high stakes, and in which individuals are systematically denied personal freedom to decide and act upon personal principles.

      In the end the question is over the domain to which principles should apply. Principles that should be personal don’t belong in the realm of either church or state regulation. Principles that belong to the church shouldn’t necessarily be played out in the realm of the larger society. Nor should principles appropriate to the governing of society as a whole necessarily be imposed on churches. Drawing the lines between these different sets of principles will always be difficult. But the UMC hasn’t helped itself, or society, by its unwitting tromping over all these boundaries with its Social Creed and Social Principles.

  • Larry Kalajainen

    I don’t have the time to respond at great length; just a few quick observations:

    I agree that the Social Principles function the way you say they do–as a devisive and coercive drag on the church. But the deeper root issue is the notion that truth can be arrived at by a simple majority vote, i.e., “On this issue, the Holy Spirit has spoken by a 51-49 vote.” Whatever happened to mutual discernment as a Christian practice?

    Re: the issue of gay marriage. As all United Methodist clergy and some laity are aware, it’s quite clear that the only reason the UMC at its General Conference has not changed its stance on marriage to allow for gay marriages is due to the strongly antagonistic stance of the Central Conferences, particularly those from Africa and Latin America. And here, an ignorance of the interpenetration of culture and history and theology is clearly seen. Traditional cultures are not where American or Western European cultures are on this issue. American culture largely accepts gay marriage. Historically, the church has followed culture more times than it has formed it, and the question of what marriage is, is one of those examples of cultures being the dominant shaping force. Historically, it really wasn’t until the middle ages that the church really got involved much with marriage at all, and only officially so at the Council of Trent. Marriage and its sanctioning rituals, were always whatever the dominant culture or local custom determined it was. As late as the 1200′s (see Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath” tale) marriages were not solemnized in the church, but if the couple wanted it, were solemnized by the prevailing social norms and then blessed “at the church door.” If it were only American Methodists voting on the issue, gay marriage would have been accepted long before now, since it’s clear that within the last decade, our culture has undergone a sea change in defining what marriage is. And yet, because of insisting on the globalization of all belief and practice and giving cultural practices theological underpinning, driven by the same ungodly American notion of anything that America does is obviously on the side of the angels (Truth, Justice, and the American Way!), we live with a fractured and ineffective church.

    • roberthunt

      It is important to remember that the Social Creed dates to the high point of American imperial ambitions and self-confidence about representing a universal standard of social achievement and morality. At the time only a few voices thought that an American statement concerning the rights and dignity of humanity was anything less than universal. In 1974 when the Social Principles were formulated the UMC was just ending a period of consolidating the American Methodist churches into the UMC, and also notably encouraging the autonomy of other national Methodist Churches worldwide. Who then foresaw that we would, 30 years later, try to recreate a world church with a single set of social standards?

      Of course this raises deep ethical questions about which principles may be regarded as universal and timeless, and which are more strictly culture bound, and which are distinctly Christian. I would offer this note: If a social principle is in fact universal and eternal then it is not distinctly Christian and certainly not distinctly United Methodist, so articulating it doesn’t belong in a statement defining Christian or denominational identity. Unless we believe that the distinctively Christian and United Methodist is de facto universal, something which might be excused in 1908 but should at least be seen as deeply problematic in 2013. I would suggest that a universal ethic is dialogical and teleological rather than foundational, but I recognize that this isn’t in easy accord with traditional scripture-based ethical reasoning.

      • Larry Kalajainen

        Yep. I’m with you on the dialogical and teleological bit rather than a foundationalist approach. It’s why I wrote my latest book “The Bible Says. . . How Good is the Good Book?” (Just out this week from Wipf and Stock. See their website. My first copies are on the way to me now.