Senator George McGovern was 90 years old when he died Sunday last. In some ways, it seems to me, Dr. McGovern (Ph.D. from Northwestern U.) was quintessentially United Methodist. Pondering how produces some worthwhile reflection about the church’s current identity and future impact.
So, let me try this thesis, using Senator McGovern’s legacy as a lens for some denominational self-examination and let’s see where it takes us: United Methodism institutionally (and that’s a critical descriptive qualifier) is strong where Mr. McGovern was strong and non-descript where he (seemingly) was non-descript. And that fuzziness is a big part of our problem.
McGovern grew up in the Wesleyan Methodist Church – a denomination that split from mainstream Methodism back in the early 1840s. Wesleyans held to a version of John Wesley’s doctrine of sanctification that mainstream Methodists – at least the more educated, middle class, respectable, urban Methodists – had largely dropped. The new scientific thinking about human development was beginning to take hold, so the old crisis moment of the second blessing seemed intellectually shaky at best. The process of growth toward adulthood – which could be understood in exclusively psychological terms – took its place. Believe what you may religiously, what really mattered was this new view of human experience.
McGovern apparently liked this brand of Methodism better than his boyhood faith. And the causes Senator McGovern promoted fit well with United Methodism’s ethos. He spoke tirelessly against the Vietnam War. He worked all his career and well into retirement to find ways to overcome hunger. If you read the Social Principles from the 1972 Book of Discipline (or 2008), you’ll see how United Methodist he was.
In terms of day-to-day, on the ground experience, our institutional ethos severely downplays doctrine and emphasizes ethics. Still. Institutionally, we’re really not all that different from our Social Gospel forbears. No need to argue about controversial doctrinal matters like the nature and work of Jesus. You might be a Chalcedonian and I might be an Adoptionist, but we both love Jesus. So let’s not argue. Let’s just go get something done.
Senator McGovern – as a loyal (I’m assuming) United Methodist – had a framework inside government that provided conceptual support for his vision. I know nothing about his personal theological convictions. I do think it is legitimate to speculate whether or not he actually needed the church’s teachings to work for the causes he believed in. He may have appreciated them and used them in some way, but did he need them?
These questions get to my point about the fuzziness. Our activism and pragmatism do not give us a clear enough vision that people actually know who United Methodists are. This is one of the reasons people either loved or hated the slogan, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” The slogan wasn’t the problem. Our lack of clear theological center and identity is.
I am NOT (yes, I’m shouting) suggesting that we try to tie everything down. But we need some clarity. Because, the truth is, the lack of shared theological vision is one of the reasons we’re having such terrible fights and such gridlock in meetings like General Conference. It turns out, as I’ve said before, our pragmatism leads to our ineffectiveness. We should not miss the irony.
Shared theological vision actually matters. I won’t try to develop the argument here, because I’m already going on too long, but I think whether you believe that Jesus is the Word of God Incarnate, the Son of the Living God who really died on a cross and really, bodily rose from the dead…I think that matters. In practical ways.
And I think it matters to people who might join us if we had that kind of clarity. I think I know quite a few people who love our generosity and commitment to inclusiveness (I know this is a contested term) and justice. But they don’t know what we stand for otherwise. Not knowing what we stand for, they’re not sure we know who we are. And if we don’t know who we are, then why would anyone want to join us?
Thank you, Senator McGovern, for your legacy. It would be interesting to have known more of your personal theological commitments and how they drove your social vision. And maybe, thinking about your legacy, we United Methodists can see why it matters that we gain more theological clarity – and identity.