George McGovern the Quintessential Methodist?

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.










About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.


  1. I would argue that maybe we’re more liturgically fuzzy than theologically fuzzy, although I do realize the two concepts are closely related. We have a clear concept of grace; the nature of communion as a sacrament; the doctrine of the Trinity, the Virgin birth, and the Resurrection; and of how to ascertain God’s truth (Wesleyan quadrilateral). So long as we teach Wesleyan theology, I do not think our vision and mission are unduly vague. Liturgically, though, we can be weak–liturically, with modern “praise” services, the message of the sermon is often unrecognizable as Wesleyan, and the creeds are missing as well (not to mention the traditional psalm reading, and so forth). In this regard, I strongly wish that Methodist churches would not try to compete with Evangelical megachurches. Our traditional liturgy is much better than that. I’m not against liturgical innovation at all, but I do not like liturgies that are weak, uninspiring, fluffy, and not theologically on-point.

    • I’m not so sure we have a clear concept of grace, though lots of people can recite the prevenient, justifying and sanctifying synopsis. I think many UMs think of grace as a kind of divine indulgence, a 2nd, 3rd, 4th…chance. But your point about liturgy is well taken. I would guess that many UMs in the pews hold to a de facto memorial meal view of the sacrament rather than a more Wesleyan view. Doctrinally hungry UMs listen to radio, TV, podcasts, etc. and get, I think, a much more Zwinglian view of grace than we realize.

  2. This post reminded me of our discussion about what the early Methodists talked about at their conferences as opposed to what we talk about today. As I recall, the only theological discussion we had on the floor was over the valid of Romans 8:38 and whether or not God loves everybody.

    • Thanks, Ethan. Your comment suggests how little we actually trust each other across the well-known divisions, if we’re actually discussing whether or not God loves everybody. Was there any kind of second or third step thinking that dug into the implications of what it means for God to love everyone?

      • The debate stemmed from an amendment to the preamble to the Social Principles, so there were definitely some human sexuality undertones.

        Thinking about your post more, I think part of the reason for our wide array of theological viewpoints comes from the global nature of our denomination. A post I read after GC highlighted the fact that we are essentially operating under three different ways of thinking. Our friends in Africa are still in a more premodern mindset. The majority of our friends in the SEJ and SCJ reflect a more modern mindset, and a majority of our friends in the WJ, NCJ, and NEJ a more postmodern mindset. I think our vast array of cultures and thought contribute to our theological differences. With this in mind, I do think it is important for us to have a clearer sense of our shared theology that transcends cultures and environments, but I also think it is right and appropriate for cultural differences to be a part of who we are. This is why I think The UMC needs regional conferences to facilitate these differences.

  3. Lewis Archer says:

    Thank you for your thoughts. The dysfunction of our denomination is so multifaceted it is hard to know where to begin. Structural reform, specific social issues and many other debating points get our attention while our lack of cohesiveness theologically makes everything we try to do empty and tentative. I have difficulty believing it will get better rather than leading to schism if we need to come to a theological consensus. Maybe we should have the conversation on theology, what kinds of boundaries do you think define who United Methodists are as a community of faith.
    Just a word on the Wesleyans, they did and still do have strong views on Sanctification but they also left because of the Methodist church’s increasing domination by the wealthy as well as incipient tolerance of slave holding church members. Many of the reasons they left had to do with social justice issues. The same is true of Free Methodists who were holding to Sanctification but also were demanding the church continue its historic emphasis on ministry to the poor when their leader was expelled from the denomination.

    Thanks for your interesting post!

    • Yes, with these references to Wesleyans and Free Methodists, you raise the tantalizing link between a specific doctrine and specific social justice concerns. I find it fascinating that the more we dig into these questions, the more we see the “hand-in-handness” of theological convictions and actions in the world.

  4. Sir, you are considerably off on your explanation of the separation of the Wesleyan Methodist from the Methodists. It had nothing to do with sanctification and everything to do with slavery.

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