The Rise of Liberalism in the United Methodist Church

Between my undergraduate years in the late 1990s and his death in the late 2010s, I got to know John Wesley Hardt, a bishop in the United Methodist Church.

He knew my grandmother. She was the secretary to the United Methodist district superintendent while John was pastor at First United Methodist Church of Beaumont, Texas. The district superintendent’s office was at this church.

I didn’t really dig into theological or church-organizational matters with him as much as I should have. My role in his life was mostly to help him with technology issues. I experienced him as a wise man who bore years of reflection and experience.

Once he shared a Sunday school lesson with me, titled “The Rise of Liberalism in the UMC”. Some errors are original, other are probably where I missed a problem with OCR of his original text. Here it is:

Let me thank you for giving me a topic which has required more than ordinary study and preparation which I have found most stimulating and challenging. I have talked with David Watson and understand that today’s topic is to provide the background for David’s presentation next Sunday on Post Liberal Theology. While I am honored by your invitation to lead this discussion today, I can only offer my personal observations, and I am sure that anyone else would put a different slant on the topic than you are likely to get from my remarks.

First let us begin with a call to clarify the definition of liberalism. It is my personal conviction that the popular understanding of terms liberal and conservative is a tragic distortion. If you listen to the talk show hosts on radio, you get the idea that liberal is a dirty word. As I have listened to some of the angry voices, I have decided that most of the persons have no basic convictions themselves but are simply entertainers who have been hired to build up an audience and they are willing to use any means to agitate and inflame an audience. One of the several persons whom I have consulted in preparing this lesson is my son who is a history teacher and published author of curriculum materials, and his observation was this: “in the current climate one side has been able to define and determine the terms of the debate” which has resulted in a total abandonment of the meaning of the words Liberal and Conservative that you will find in the dictionary.

So early on I began to look at the dictionary and discovered that the root meaning of the term liberal may be traced to the Roman god Liber, who was known as the God of growth. From this root meaning, several pages of the dictionary are taken to list the variety of meanings that have been derived from this grand idea: liberal arts and concepts of freedom include an attitude that involves growth and change leading to words like generous, bounteous, openhanded may be found in various connotations of the term liberal. One meaning that especially appealed to me was “to grow up”. The meaning of “Liberal” may be contrasted with such concepts stingy, mean, bigoted, grudging.

The word conservative has equally positive associations such as conserving or preserving the institutions and values which have built upon the lessons of the past.

To trace the rise of liberalism I would suggest that we go back to 1776 and the Declaration of Independence which advanced the radical idea that human society could be organized without the domination of rulers who would carry on the autocratic reign of kings that would become role models for dictators who would become the enemies of mankind in the 20th century. The old kingdoms of Europe would go through revolutions to replace the old power structures of Europe, and some of those visions of freedom and liberal patterns of government would become unfortunate detours that produced both dictators and Communist governments. Historians remind us that today the government of the United States of America is now the oldest continuous government on the face of the earth that has not undergone some kind of radical revolution.

At the same time this political and social experiment was beginning in America, the Methodist church was organized as the first religious denomination to be organized in the New World. By the middle of the 19th century at the time of the war between the states, which some southerners call it rather than a civil war, the Methodist Church was the largest and most representative religious body within the nation, and historians have described Methodism as the most typical “American religion”.

The study of this reality is now attracting the attention of historians who are not Methodists, and one such writer Nathan Hatch based at Notre Dame university has written in a most illuminating manner in this manner. Toward the end of the 19th century the visions of Utopia captured the imagination of many Americans. [Aren: It is behind why my Cambre ancestors came to the USA.] The YMCA and the YWCA along with the student volunteer movement brought a vision of making this world into God’s Kingdom on earth. When my parents went to college early in the 20th century they were swept up by a popular phrase: “The Evangelization of the World in our Generation.” So the doctrines and theology of Methodism became a reflection of the culture of that time.

By strange coincidence in the midst of this reflection I picked up a little book published in 1947 two years after end of World War II. Written by Bernard Iddings Bell, and entitled, ” A Man Can Live” let me share a few lines from the Foreword:

“On December 31, 1899 my father called his young children together. I had entered high school that year … he reminded us that a new century would begin the next morning, and that we should be thankful that we would live in a century when science and education would eliminate the major enemies of mankind. We could expect to conquer disease and the world would be too enlightened to ever engage in war again.”

With that kind of utopian visions, when war did come it was fought to “make the world safe for democracy”, and the dream of a League of Nations would guarantee a peaceful future. This spirit of idealism might be traced in two landmark constitutional amendments: the 18th Amendment which envisioned a time when society would be free from the demons of drugs and alcohol, and the 20th amendment which for the first time guaranteed women the right to vote. A decade earlier the Methodist Episcopal Church had included in its Book of Discipline, a Social Creed in 1908 for the first time. It was in that kind of social and cultural climate that the Methodist church began to build theological schools for the training of pastors. Would you believe that my generation was the first, after World War II when the normal expectation for Methodist preachers included seminary training? Prior to World War II only a minority of Methodist preachers went to seminary.

The premier Methodist seminary was in Boston, and late in the 19th century the most influential teacher there was a man by the name of Borden Parker Bowne, and he organized Christian doctrine around a philosophy of Personalism, and most of the teachers in other Methodist seminaries studied at Boston. That influence was quite evident when I entered seminary in 1942, and our basic text for studying doctrine was written by a Boston successor to Bowne by the name of Edgar Sheffield Brightman.

The study of the scriptures developed a pattern which was called Biblical criticism: lower criticism was devoted to a word by word analysis of the meaning of the scripture, and higher criticism was devoted to the background of each book in the Bible: who wrote it? When was it written? To whom was it written? And the interpretation attempted to recapture something of the meaning which it had when it was first written. This might be called a very hasty and brief description of the Rise of Liberalism.

Most universities would have focused upon what was sometimes called “a liberal education”. Within college curriculums, a broad based variety of disciplines was termed “liberal arts” in contrast to the specialized studies of narrow professional or exclusive systems of study.

The proliferation of translations of the Bible across the 20th century might be considered one of the fruits of this general progressive understanding of religion, along with the rapidly developing ecumenical movement which brought most mainline denominations into more and more common ventures.

When the dreams of an almost utopian paradise were shattered by the great depression, and the horrors of World War II and the holocaust, it became obvious that something was missing from the promises of this liberal progressive dream. The reality of human sin and evil forced thoughtful people to reconsider the realities of any dream of heaven on earth. The theological movement that began to offer a different interpretation of the human condition was called “”neo-orthodoxy” with Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Paul Tillich, and Reinhold Neibuhr were among the most prominent spokesmen. With this emerging and changing world view, Albert Outler arrived at SMU, and the center of Methodist theological study began to shift from the Boston power base to Harvard, Yale, and seminaries at Duke, Emory and SMU. You will hear more of this next Sunday from David Watson as he talks about Post Liberal Theology. The influence of Outler at SMU was most widely recognized when in 1972 after the merger with the EUB denomination, a theological understanding was written in our Book of Discipline which was called the quadrilateral, with Methodist doctrine founded upon Scripture, reason, tradition and experience. In 1988 that understanding was modified to make it clear that our doctrines are based upon one basic source, the Bible to be confirmed by tradition, tested by reason and confirmed by experience.

As already indicated it is my observation that religion in America may be understood as something of a reflection of the culture in which we live and when any one interpretation becomes the primary understanding, there will be inevitable and very understandable reactions. This is what we have witnessed in the latter half of the 20th century as the Liberal spirit of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century has been confronted by the reactionary groups which are now all around us in organizations such as the Good News Movement, The Confessing Movement or the Institute for Religion and Democracy. Each of these movements owes it origin to some reaction against the over zealous social and liberal power blocs which have attempted to define the church in narrow terms that ignored some of the traditional and time honored values of the Christian faith.

Every generation is given its own peculiar and unique challenges. The lessons of history are so quickly forgotten. A great Spanish philosopher, Santyana, was credited with saying: “Those who refuse to learn the lessons of the past are condemned to repeat them.”

Many of the beloved hymns came out of the dreams of this visionary period of the church. The great missionary hymns, We’ve a Story to tell to the Nations, I love to tell the story of Jesus and his love. When I was a youth the theme song for many a youth conference was “Are ye able said, the Master?” written by Earl Marlatt who after retiring from Boston, came to teach at SMU. In more mature years I came to realize that as challenging as I found that hymn in my youth, the emphasis was wrong. For the question, Are ye able, must be answered, not “WE are able” But “He is Able” Some great texts from the New Testament make it clear that our hope is not in what we may do but in what Jesus Christ may do through us. In Timothy Paul offers his testimony, concerning death: “He is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.” And in Ephesians the focus is the great benediction: “Unto Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to Him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.”

So let us reclaim the positive meaning of liberal and conservative and find a healthy balance between the partnership between the human and the Divine. While Liberalism may have over rated what human kind might accomplish, the Biblical story of creation makes it clear that God’s crowning creation was the creation of creature “made in the image and likeness of the Creator:” and” He is able to do far more abundantly than all that we can ask or think.”

John Wesley Hardt
First UMC
May 8, 2004

Left wing tripe

My church, First United Methodist Church of Dallas, has a Sunday school class afflicted with a radical left winger.

If you’re one of my Facebook buddies, you’ll remember this from January 9, 2011:

Wonderful, call a substantial portion of the electorate “stupid people”…

Now it gets more nerdy and nuanced. The same class now has this on its tackboard:

The point here is to get sympathetic liberals to hand-wring over military spending.

Except it’s a lie. It conveniently omits about 2/3 of federal spending!

Here’s a truer picture of federal spending:
(image source: Wikipedia image and article)

It’s more like 20% of federal spending!

Now, to be frank, while I believe in a strong defense, I am uncomfortable that the United States alone accounts for about 40% of worldwide defense spending. I’d like to scrutinize our defense spending, but I’m not going to lie about it with convenient numbers.

And I’m also not going to lie and slander in church.

Seriously, that’s all Libertarians could do in Texas 107?

(MARCH 2011 UPDATE: The bigoted atheist videos have been removed from Facebook.)

(CORRECTION: The site mentioned at bottom is in fact about Brandon’s wife’s current campaign for the State Board of Education. Her Dallas Morning News profile is much better than Brandon’s but omits her affiliation with anti-religious bigots. She’s in the video linked below.)

Texas House District 107 has the typical Republican and Democrat candidates. It also has an oddball Libertarian, Brandon Parsons.

Brandon Parsons's atheist and anti-religious clubs on FacebookI am scratching my head that the Texas Libertarian Party fielded this guy.

First problem: he’s an avowed atheist. That doesn’t work in Texas. Worse, most his Facebook “likes” suggest anti-religious bigotry. His “likes” are at right (assembled from his Facebook profile). Let me explain some code words:

  • Free-thinkersfreethought, and skeptics refer to bigoted people or belief systems. Not only do they deny the possibility of God’s existence, they think believers are delusional (fast forward to 3:14 in this video of Brandon’s “pastor”–yes, some kind of atheist “church”!).
  • Center for Inquiry is a freethought group that tries to debunk religion.
  • Camp Quest is where atheists get their kids indoctrinated with secularist dogma and anti-religion.
  • Reason, at least in the context of Brandon’s Facebook “likes”, generally means toned down, professorial anti-religious bigotry.

Now look at Brandon’s flippant, ignorant, or wordy responses to the Dallas Morning News’s candidate profiles for 107:

Come on, man! You didn’t answer many questions!

The ones he bothered to answer stroll past the subject. For example, on the rainy day fund, he gave this 41 word humdinger of a sentence:

I think it may be reasonable in some of the worst economic times to use a portion of the funds if they can be exceeded with long-term proposals to reduce expenses by a larger amount to avoid returning to these circumstances.

Or how about this meander through the death penalty, brought to you with a 40 word sentence:

Given recent history of releases due to wrongful convictions, the sensible action in the short-term would be a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, and a thorough review of any present death-penalty inmates at minimum before re-instating it.

Huh. Bold proposal. (snicker)

This isn’t communicating. These are sleep aids!

But wait, there’s less! He’s even ideologically inconsistent with his own party.

Libertarians are very anti-government. They believe in dismantling the vast majority of today’s government.

An example: the Libertarian position on schooling is basically “separation of education and state,” that public schools shouldn’t even exist. Tell me, how much of that position is in his treatises on measuring achievement and dropouts?

No, I think the measurement system the state is using impacts that which they are measuring far too greatly to be of much use–far too much class time is devoted specifically to the existing measurement scheme. I understand the desire to measure performance, but if a measurement scheme impacts what you are measuring by more than 5%–maybe a little more if it can be demonstrated that the benefits far outweigh the costs–then it isn’t worth it. Furthermore, one has to consider what incentives are being created, and ensure that the incentives create the desired behavior. Measuring teacher and school performance isn’t an easy task, I admit, so it’s one that requires careful consideration before implementing. I think the best approach here is to take a timeout and research new or existing alternatives.

We should face the realization that a large portion of even the students who graduate do not go to college, and take steps to ensure that our education system is relevant to those students as well.



(snort) wha… what? Oh, I fell asleep. What did you say?

Let me summarize with two points:

First, don’t waste your vote on Brandon Parsons. He’s an atheist and possibly an anti-religious bigot, he can’t communicate as one should expect of a politician, he apparently doesn’t take voter education seriously, and he’s ideologically inconsistent with his own party. Voting for Brandon is not “making a statement”, it’s just squandering your vote. If you want to make a statement, participate in the Republican or Democrat primaries in spring 2012!

Second, the Libertarian Party doesn’t field quality candidates. The Libertarian Party is a dumping ground for disaffected um….well, I don’t know what Brandon is! But it’s apparently not where you go to find electable candidates!

Disagree? Check out his campaign site at Oops, sorry, he hasn’t taken down his prior campaign site yet.

Why the United Methodist Church withdrew from the “One Nation” rally

A family member and I may be much of why the United Methodist Church withdrew from the Oct. 2 Democrat One Nation Rally. I am proud that, per the Weekly Standard, the UMC was “the only major group publicly to withdraw from the rally.”

On Thursday, Sept. 30, 2 days before the rally, a family member tipped me off that the United Methodist Church’s General Board on Church and Society (GBCS) endorsed the rally.

I was skeptical at first, pushing back on the relative. But later that day, I called Wayne Rhodes, the GBCS’s Director of Communications. Wayne played the “what, me?” card, sticking to a ridiculous notion that this is a nonpartisan rally. At one point he even denied that NPR repeatedly characterized this as a left wing political rally. It took many minutes to explain to him that a pig with lipstick is still a pig–even if there is some alleged factual basis for the rally’s nonpartisanship, it is a de facto Democrat rally. Therefore, the United Methodist Church’s name should not be part of it.

Wayne’s bio suggests a good deal of journalistic experience. All I can figure is he is intentionally playing fast and loose with the truth, like a political press secretary whose boss is in hot water. Not like an employee of a church.

I was so frustrated with Wayne’s obfuscation  that I send this email a few hours later. It went to the GBCS’s director Jim Winkler, CCing Wayne and also Mark W. Harrison, the GBCS employee who sought the UMC’s endorsement:


I have a bone to pick with you.

I am a lifelong United Methodist, and I am embarrassed and angry that the General Board on Church and Society, which you direct, recklessly and naively lent the UMC’s name to a left wing, partisan pep rally (per

Let me deconstruct this statement:

“left wing, partisan pep rally”

It doesn’t take much to read through the event’s marketing. The One Nation Working Together Rally is a national-scope, left wing, Democrat-supporting, partisan pep rally. It is a knee-jerk reaction to the recent Tea Party-aligned, Republican-supporting, conservative, Glenn Beck event.

The media clearly sees this. Here’s a couple of NPR pieces that affirm the pep rally’s partisanship: and (just listen to the first 25 seconds). Google News has many other references (link), cementing this obvious purpose.

Guess what? Almost all of the pep rally’s “endorsing organizations” ( are left wing or Democrat groups. Some are even notorious extremists like the Communist Party. Only a small remainder are prima facie politically unaligned.


Over the phone yesterday, GBCS communications director Wayne Rhodes argued that this is simply a nonpartisan event about social justice. He said that one of your employees sought GBCS endorsement because he claimed this pep rally is about nonpartisan principles. He passionately denied that the media portrayed this as a Democrat-aligned or even left wing event.

Um, what? Is the GBCS that naive?

Let’s suppose the impossible is true, that this is really nonpartisan? Two important facts:

  1. This pep rally is perceived, portrayed, and organized as a partisan, left wing event.
  2. Endorsing a highly partisan pep rally links one with the rally’s partisan flavor.

These facts matter a lot more than a legalistic, disingenuous appeal to the pep rally’s alleged nonpartisan roots.


Given that the UMC laity has diverse political views and that the denomination is bleeding members, the UMC should be wary of wedges that could alienate members.

The GBCS was reckless to create a wedge over non-church, partisan politics. Supporting a Democrat-aligned, left wing pep rally does not serve Jesus Christ or stop the UMC’s membership losses. It just feeds political machines and drives away members and prospects.

Alienated members may include those who don’t agree with left wing solutions to social ills. It may also include those, from any political stripe, who agree with the spirit of tax law that separates charities from partisan events. (Yes, I know, “on paper” this is not a “Democrat” pep rally, and the tax law has some loopholes, but let’s not get into disingenuous legalism again…)


By now, you may think I want the GBCS to also endorse Republican or conservative events. No, in fact, I don’t. Several of the Republican party’s official stances also counter the UMC’s social principles.

I want the GBCS to stay out of partisan events. I don’t want my own church creating wedges between me and my Christian brothers and sisters of any partisan leaning!

Further, I want the GBCS to be open to the idea that what separates the left and right are often not the goals (fairness, equality, peace, liberty, etc.). The difference is in the methods to achieve these outcomes.

I’m confused why the GBCS didn’t have checks and balances to prevent this error? It makes me question what you guys are doing up there. What other partisan political events are you endorsing? Does the General Conference need to audit the GBCS?

Aren Cambre
Dallas, TX

I also CCed my local minister and Bishop.

By this time, my relative had found emails of United Methodist friends and many Bishops and started sending similar appeals to them.

I got no response, but that was unsurprising. Wayne made it clear they were going to cling to delusional notions about the rally’s partisanship.

The day before, Oct. 1, as I was about to start some of my own email activism, I found that the GBCS rescinded their endorsement! I was relieved, but the news release infuriated me. They still clung to their dishonest claptrap. For example:

  • “The board is disturbed by some of the overtly political and partisan statements issued by organizers of the march.” Um, it was political and partisan from the beginning!? Hello!?
  • “These goals are non-controversial and consistent with scripture and the United Methodist Social Principles.” and other garbage defending the rally. Look, it was a political rally. The non-partisan roots are a farce. Quit it!
  • “the rally was initiated by respected civil rights organizations such as the NAACP …  [but] [t]he list of endorsers, however, grew to include a variety of organizations that created enormous, unnecessary controversy.” Well, yeah, aligning with the Communist Party doesn’t help things, BUT THAT’S STILL NOT THE PROBLEM! Do you really believe that a national-scope, Washington Mall rally, pimped exclusively by Democrat front groups, could possibly be nonpartisan? Seriously?
  • “…the ‘One Nation Working Together’ rally has been portrayed by opponents as a counter-demonstration to Mr. Beck’s event.” NPR and the mainstream media are opponents of the American left? HAHAHAHA!
  • “GBCS does not support a statement reported in the Sept. 30 issue of The Washington Post made by a key organizer of the event. He said, ‘We aren’t the alternative to the tea party; we are the antidote.'” Another example of insane incompetence–is the GBCS really that blind to the unrelenting media characterization of One Nation, that started way before Sept. 30? It didn’t start the day I called Wayne!
  • “Unfortunately, discourse within the United States has grown increasingly divisive. Perhaps more troubling, discourse within The United Methodist Church has taken on a very un-Christ-like tone. E-mails and phone calls made to the board by clergy and laity have been shocking in their vitriol.” Oh, that’s wonderful, throw stones at fellow United Methodists because they called you out on your incompetence. Yeah, that’s “turning the other cheek”!
  • “The ‘One Nation Working Together’ rally began with a clean, clear message consistent with the social teachings of The United Methodist Church.” NEVER, NEVER, NEVER. This started out as a partisan pep rally. It was NEVER nonpartisan. Any alleged non-partisanship is legal fiction to comply with tax law.
  • “We pray that the rally will overcome the misguided controversies surrounding it and deliver hope for the change their presence does endorse.” That was the final statement. Yet another “we don’t get it” statement: the problem, from the beginning, is that the GBCS endorsed a political rally and declined to admit it.

I wrote another email to Jim, et al, also copying the two United Methodist bishops who serve as president and vice president of the GBCS’s board:


Thank you for rescinding the GBCS’s endorsement of this partisan pep rally:

However, I strongly object to the retraction’s tone. I don’t appreciate that in it, you are defensive, still cling to tired legalisms, and cast stones at concerned United Methodists.

Since when is passionately disagreeing with GBCS’s error the same as “very un-Christ-like tone” or “shocking … vitriol”?

Could you help me understand how any of these are Christ-like?

  1. Your Communications Director adamantly denying that the media portrayed this event as partisan, even though he admitted he listens to the same NPR radio news as me, which repeatedly covered the pep rally’s overt partisanship?
  2. Clinging to tired legalisms, such as how the retraction repeats the alleged nonpartisan basis for this event. (The Gospels say a lot about legalism…)
  3. That your staff tarnished the UMC’s good name because they declined to perform due diligence, failing to observe the terribly obvious: a national-scope rally, set up by left wing and Democrat groups, especially in a season of intense political scrutiny of the American left, will have thick partisan overtones.
  4. That you waited until the 11th hour to withdraw, only after direct media attention of the GBCS endorsement, despite weeks of media coverage of the rally’s partisan purpose.

Again, I appreciate that you did the right thing and rescinded the endorsement. But I am disappointed that your retraction shows hostility, obstinance, and defensiveness instead of humility, acceptance, and straightforwardness. That is disappointing.

Aren Cambre
Dallas, TX

Heads should roll. The GBCS, as a body, was dishonest. It may be incompetent, too.

Furthermore, if the GBCS’s de facto purpose is to shove the United Methodist Church towards a certain partisan alignment, the entire board needs to be shut down. Our resources are too precious to waste on nonsense.

Now one last note: I am also working against excessive church influence in the right wing, too. The Texas Republican Party has adopted divisive religious views, and I’ve documented this in my critique of the Texas Republican Platform.

Texas GOP’s extreme social stances are a losing strategy

The Texas GOP’s extreme social stances are a losing strategy for two reasons.

1: They are paradoxically liberal. If we fully legislated the Texas GOP platform’s social stances, we would make the government the moral compass, usurping the proper role of the church and individual wisdom. (It’s as if we want to reverse the Protestant Reformation, but that’s an issue for another blog post!)

2: They turn away mainstream conservatives and moderates. This is proven by two polls:

First is a recent Gallup Poll. It finds that conservatives are the largest single voting bloc. But they are neither a majority nor “very conservative”:


Second is a Pew survey, interpreted by Texas Monthly editor Paul Burka to show that the Republican party “hemorrhaging” voters. Indeed, party affiliation is:

  • 36% independent
  • 35% Democrat
  • 23% Republican

If the Republican Party was the mainstream conservative party, it would have more affiliates than Democrats.

But no: the Republican party is hemorrhaging voters because of its extreme social stances. Per the Pew survey: “[independents] more closely parallel the views of Democrats … on the most divisive core beliefs on social values, religion and national security.”

Juxtaposing these surveys, an inescapable conclusion: Extreme conservatism, especially extreme social conservatism, is a losing strategy.

Any winning strategy for Republican domination must not alienate moderates; we can’t win without them.