Methodist Politics

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Here’s an interesting reader comment on my piece on the tensions over LGBT issues in the United Methodist Church. The denomination considered schism this week, but it later decided to establish a commission to review and potentially revise their positions on gay pastors and same-sex marriage over the next four years.

This reader tells what you might call the Mainline Schadenfreude story: Conservative Christians sometimes crow about the relative decline of more progressive, mainline denominations, arguing that smaller numbers betray a thinner / weaker / less compelling / less authentic theology. The argument:

The UMC has been on this road for the past half century, and it is no coincidence that its membership has nosedived during that same period. Their wane is no mystery: Theological disputes notwithstanding, their social/political stances might be described as the “Democrat Party at prayer.”

There are many reasons to be skeptical of the Mainline Schadenfreude story wherever it pops up. A lot of different factors have contributed to the shrinking of America’s churches—plus, more conservative, evangelical denominations have been affected by this trend, too, just not as extensively. But this reader is also wrong on the numbers. According to Pew’s most recent Religious Landscapes Survey, which polls over 35,000 Americans on their religious beliefs, Methodists tend to be slightly more conservative than the American population on average.

Some details:

The denomination is getting relatively smaller. Members of the United Methodist Church were about 3.6 percent of the American population in 2014. That’s a decline from 5.1 percent in 2007. An additional 1 percent of Americans are Methodists who aren’t part of the United Methodist Church—they might identify with the African Methodist Episcopal church or as “just Methodist.” My piece was just about the UMC, but I’ll include some stats about other Methodist groups here in case it’s interesting.

They tend to identify with the Republican Party. Overall, Methodists were slightly more likely to identify as Republicans than Democrats in 2014 (48 vs. 42 percent), which tracks pretty closely with Pew’s findings on the overall percentage of Americans who leaned Republican or Democrat in the same year.

The UMC, however, is even more Republican than the rest of the country (54 percent Republican vs. 35 percent Democrat). The overall average probably got pulled to the left by Methodists who are part of historically black Protestant traditions, who were overwhelmingly likely to identify as Democrats. Strong majorities of all Methodists are likely to describe themselves as conservative or moderate, rather than liberal.

They’ve tracked the country on LGBT issues. Two years ago, 43 percent of all Methodists and 50 percent of black Methodists opposed gay marriage, slightly more than the rest of the country at that time. Like other Americans, Methodists’ views have likely shifted in the time since. In 2014, 60 percent of Methodists across groups said homosexuality should be accepted by society.

Another reader has a slightly different theory about the political leanings of the denomination:

That’s true of the top leadership. The congregations, dwindling though they are, are much more conservative.

This is harder to track, but just a couple more thoughts here. The average age of United Methodists rose to 57 in 2014, making it one of the oldest Christian denominations. Older Americans tend to have more conservative views, including on LGBT issues. UMC pastors may tend to be slightly younger than their congregations, so they may well be a little more progressive politically or on LGBT issues.

But the most important trend in the church, as I pointed out in my piece, actually doesn’t have to do with America—it has to do with Africa, and other rapidly expanding populations of Methodists abroad. These populations tend to be more conservative and more opposed to things like same-sex marriage. Those who are part of the United Methodist Church have full voting power in the body, so they can shift and shape its policies.

The thing to watch over the next four years as the denomination looks at LGBT issues is not necessarily the aging, slightly conservative congregations in the U.S.; it’s the expanding congregations on continents far away from the American culture wars.