Vail Daily column: Christianity that crucifies believers
Methodist Democrat nominees have taken it on the chin in bruising presidential matches fought since the early 1970s. Richard Nixon KO’d Methodist contender George McGovern in 1972.
Ronald Reagan repeated this shellacking against Methodist Walter Mondale in 1984. Methodist Hillary Clinton fought toe-to-toe with Donald Trump but suffered a split decision in November’s presidential election. She won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College tally.
White Evangelicals overwhelmingly voted for Republican presidential candidates. White Roman Catholics sided with GOP’s nominees, too. Evangelicals and Catholics say they support Christian presidential candidates like Trump whose faith is lukewarm, at best.
Nixon choked up when he spoke of his Quaker mother. Little of her gentile demeanor rubbed off on him. He used Christianity as a political wedge to implement a strict law and order agenda.
Reagan connected with Evangelicals. Five weeks prior to the 1984 Republican National Convention, he sealed the deal with them. At the right-wing Religious Roundtable in Dallas, Reagan confessed to 17,000 Evangelicals, “I know you cannot endorse me, but I want you to know that I endorse you.”
But he was all talk and little accomplishment in enforcing their family values agenda as law of the land. Divorced and estranged from his children, Reagan for security reasons irregularly attended the Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles. He’d preferred tipping his cowboy hat on the range, horseback riding at his California ranch on Sundays.
Trump’s Presbyterian label is a bad match for his competitive instincts because Christianity’s not based on a winner/loser world of cutthroat real estate deals. Occasionally, he shows up at church for weddings and funerals but finds a greater loyalty to self than God.
In contrast, George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Hillary Clinton have practiced their Methodist faith. It forms their character and Christian identity. Methodism didn’t function as a label these presidential nominees sported. They bled Methodism, which in large part caused them to lose their presidential bids.
Methodists acquired their name because the 18th century cleric John Wesley taught his followers spiritual practices that Christ enacted. These “methods” included repenting of sins, praying, memorizing scripture and conducting honest self-examinations. Debunkers sneered at these Christians for their regimented faith, deriding them as “Methodists.”
Wesley went a step further in Christian practice beyond personal piety. He developed missions in society for helping the poor. He founded schools. He urged benevolent Methodists to fund social good.
Here’s where white Evangelicals and conservative Catholics differ from Wesley’s communal ethic. They opt for individual acts of kindness, such as working in soup kitchens. Such Christians are suspicious of aligning their humanitarian efforts with government aid.
Wesley, on the other hand, planted seeds of compassion that matured into a social gospel in which Christians and the government joined hands to restrict the powerful and protect the powerless. Today, Methodists welcome government support for sex education, battle child exploitation, raise women’s rights and work towards a just society. Uncle Sam and Christians joined forces. Critics rejected this Methodist brand of Christianity as thinly-veiled socialism.
In 1972, George McGovern, son of a Methodist minister and once a seminarian at the Methodist Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston IL, got clobbered by Nixon. Right-wing Christians distrusted his insistence on social rights for all people. President Nixon carried a record-shattering 59 percent of voting Catholics, alongside 55 percent of blue-collar voters. 37 percent of Democrats crossed-over and cast Republican ballots. Quipped McGovern, “I opened the doors of the Democratic Party and twenty million people walked out.”
Faithful Methodist Walter Mondale did worse in 1984. Son of a Methodist minister, he married a daughter of another Methodist minister, and got trounced by Reagan. Besides Evangelical support, Reagan garnered 55 percent of the Catholic vote. Mondale suffered the worst Electoral College defeat every recorded. Conservative Christians rejected his social gospel reforms because they sounded socialistic and judged America for its economic inequalities.
Methodist Hillary Clinton has always put her faith into action. She works against child labor, battles degradation of women and presses for legislation against sex trafficking.
Kenneth L. Woodward, dean of religious journalists and former religion editor at Newsweek magazine, doesn’t separate Hillary from her Methodist identity. “…Mrs. Clinton was one of those rare figures in public life whose political views cannot be separated from their religious convictions. Long before Hillary Clinton was a Democrat, a lawyer, or a Clinton, she was a Methodist,” testifies Woodward (“Getting Religion: Faith, Culture and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama”)
Most white Evangelicals and Catholics who support Trump either deny the sincerity of Clinton’s faith or slam her as a socialist who uses “Jesus language” to rob the rich.
Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist went public with his faith. He judged political and religious power-brokers, proclaiming that in Christ’s kingdom their crooked ways are made straight. John was beheaded to this public witness. A similar faith got Jesus crucified. And then three gutsy Methodist presidential nominees put their faith into practice and got crucified, too, by voters who identify with Jesus. Troubling, isn’t it?
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.