Speaking in the Public Square: A Review of Exploring a Wesleyan Political Theology

The following review was originally published on The Englewood Review of Books and is republished with permission. Reviewed by Jeanne Torrence Finley.

In October 2017 Wesley Theological Seminary hosted the Wesleyan Political Theology Project, a conference which brought together the scholars represented in Exploring a Wesleyan Political Theology  [Ryan Nicholas Danker, General Ed., Wesley’s Foundery Books, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 2020] to explore what it means as Wesleyan Christians to speak in the public square. In the online promotional video for the conference, Michael McCurry, a professor at Wesley, spoke of the bitterness, polarization, and division in our country, and said, “We want people to come away from this conference knowing how to have gentle, loving conversations within their ministry settings.” Hopefully the participants did that, but this book falls short of such a practical concern.

In his introduction, editor Ryan Nicholas Danker, who teaches Methodist studies at Wesley, acknowledges Methodism’s history of political engagement and raises the question that the essays in this book seek to address: Is it possible to identify “a distinct Wesleyan political theology or political characteristics informed by its mission to ‘spread scriptural holiness across the land’” (8). If so, it must take into account Wesley’s “overwhelmingly optimistic view of Grace,” the accountability at the heart of the early Methodist movement, and Wesley’s concern for the poor (3).

The opening essay from McCurry, former press secretary in the Clinton administration, offers a partly autobiographical “practitioner’s view” on Wesleyan political theology. Of all the writers in this volume, he appears to have the most on-the-job credibility to address the polarization in our society and the inability of many churches “to maintain membership and relevance.” He also has the courage to say, “I believe that part of the dilemma is the failure of the church to connect the good news of the gospel to the very matters that the congregation sees playing out in the controversies that swirl in the public square” (25-26).

In “Big Appetites and No Teeth,” William J. Abraham, who teaches at Perkins School of Theology, confesses that “like most United Methodists when it comes to politics, I have a big appetite and no teeth. I want to see the world transformed, but when it comes to getting my teeth into the details and into the causal stories involved, then it’s another story.” That is my favorite quote in the whole collection, but Abrabam bites off more than he can chew when he uses his 15 pages to commend Theodore Weber’s Politics in the Order of Salvation: Transforming Wesleyan Political Ethics as a way to understand the thought of Edmund Burke “refracted through a Wesleyan lens” (43).

Ryan Nicholas Danker’s chapter, “Early Methodist Societies as an Embodied Politic,” makes the case for discerning a Wesleyan political theology through studying “the political context in which early Methodism arose and the place of Methodist societies within that context . . . .”(48). They are “the key to early Methodist political engagement” and “the means by which both holiness of heart and life and concern for the other were combined in holistic, relational community” (51). He contends that politics ”was never the focus of the Wesleyan movement, but rather of Methodist politics was an aftershock of the overwhelming emphasis of early Methodists on the experience of holiness” (61). In other words, “[a] Wesleyan political vision depends on the power of transformed human hearts engaged in community”(10).

In her essay, “Salvation and Social Engagement,” Laceye Warner of Duke Divinity School describes the contributions of three Southern Methodist women –Mary McCloud Bethune, Belle Harris Bennett, and Dorothy Ripley–who exhibited an expansive view of evangelism in their ministries. Warner writes, “Evangelism at times suffers from a disconnect between its personal and social components because of too-narrow biblical interpretations and the ideological lines drawn by the Fundamentalist-Modernist split of the early twentieth century”(70). She concludes, “ The representative evangelistic practices of these women resemble the integration of ministries of word and deed commissioned by Jesus Christ in the Gospels” (95).

James Thobaben, who teaches at Asbury Theological Seminary, draws the attention of contemporary Methodists to Wesley’s main mission, the conversion of souls. Granting that the early Wesleyan-Methodist movement in England and the American colonies did result in social and economic change, he argues that “to prioritize social justice over evangelism or above the immediate faith community is to misorder Wesley’s priorities” (100). Contending that since mission of early Methodism was not “to change society but to convert people, and that would, consequently, change the culture” (115), Thobaben wants modern Methodists to practice an “engaged sectarianism,” one that is “marked by personal and local practices of purity, mercy, and justice” (123).

The last section of the book treats “Methodism and Other Traditions.” In his essay the “The Word of Reconciliation,” Edgardo Colón-Emeric, who teaches at Duke Divinity School, writes that the church’s divine vocation is to speak the word of reconciliation and engage in acts of reconciliation. As an example of one who lived out the ministry of reconciliation, Colón-Emeric lifts up Oscar Romero as “an exemplar of the practical divinity Methodists aspire to embody” (135) and comments that “like Wesley’s, Romero’s theology is grounded in the life of the church and has a popular orientation” (136). Both had a theological approach that allowed them to communicate to the academy and to non-academic people. In describing Romero’s ministry of reconciliation in El Salvador, Colón-Emeric practices the practical divinity he so admires in Wesley.

In the final and most practical, thought-provoking chapter of the book, “The Meaning of Pentecost,” Luther Oconer critiques a form of Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity in the U.S. that has “espoused an uncritical form of nationalism” (156) steming from “dominion theology,” which “teaches that Christians need to exercise full authority or ‘dominion’ in all areas of life, including politics” (169). Oconer’s critique of “dominion” theology and its drive toward “restoration of a Christian hegemony” (169) in the U.S. sheds much light on the Christian right’s support of President Trump. Oconer notes that half of the presidential evangelical advisory council is made up of people with ties to Pentecostalism, a movement with strong historical and theological links to the Wesleyan movement. Not only does Oconer critique Pentecostal/Charismatic politics, but provides an understanding of Wesley’s political theology, one in which Jesus’ incarnation as “the ultimate expression of God’s love” (169) is the motivation.

This book was written and edited before the COVID-19 pandemic, before growing awareness of the depth of our nation’s racism, and before the rancor and polarization of the 2020 election reached fever pitch. From the perspective of now, many of these essays lack passion and connection with the public square. Wesley was a practical theologian. I wish that some of these seminary professors had tried harder to expand their potential audience by following his lead.

On Being a University Church


Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

Unite the pair so long disjoin’d
Knowledge and vital piety
 — Charles Wesley, 18th century

One of the reasons my husband and I chose to live in a university town is that we wanted to be a part of a university church.  That desire comes from three formative experiences in my life that shape my vision of what that means. As a teenager bound for college, I heard my Methodist pastor say in a sermon,  “Don’t be afraid of what you’ll learn in college. All truth is God’s truth. A faith that can’t grow, can’t entertain doubt, can’t be open to new learning is no faith at all and it’s not worth having.” Later I discovered that not all my peers had been taught that.  Instead, some of them had been told to fear what they might learn in a biology class or even a religion class, where a “godless professor” would try to dismantle their faith. 

On registration day at Pfeiffer College (now University), I met my advisor, the eloquent and persuasive Dr. J. Griffin Campbell, chair of English Department, son of a South Carolina Methodist pastor, soldier in  General Patton’s army, actor, and Lutheran layperson. As I best I recall, on that day he told me I’d be an English major. I didn’t argue. I signed up for his English lit course and didn’t look back.  In my four years at Pfeiffer, I took every course he taught, and although I learned a lot about literature and writing from him, what I most appreciated was seeing how knowledge and faith were integrated in him. He united–in the language of Charles Wesley — “knowledge and vital piety.”  He was a living example of what my pastor had taught.

The third influence was part of the experience of being a campus minister at James Madison University.  The first week I arrived, Jim McDonald, the United Methodist campus minister and Wesley Foundation director at the University of Virginia, showed up to welcome and orient me, and he was, and is, yet another living example of what my pastor had taught.  From him, I learned that, at its best, campus ministry engages the whole university. It does a whole lot more than provide encouragement, space, and faith formation for a group of students who identify with a program and a building. It seeks to unite faith and learning, “knowledge and vital piety.” 

My home church, Pfeiffer University, and the Wesley Foundation at JMU were not quite the same as a university church, but they did form my vision of what a university church can be.   Being located near a campus is only prior requirement, an opportunity, not a defining characteristic. 

A university church is engaged with the campus.  Members of the congregation attend events on campus; pay attention to the concerns of faculty, administrators, and staff; and use the resources of the university. The congregation is  intentional about having a mutually enriching relationship with the university.

A university church is geared toward intellectual life. That could mean providing book studies that are challenging and providing occasions for dialogue about the relationship of faith with science, with the arts, and with technology. It could mean inviting faculty to be guest speakers at programs   

A university church is culturally and socially aware.  Sermons address current issues, social justice, and ethics.  Clergy in university churches are able and expected to preach on issues like immigration, climate change, health care, racism, poverty, economic inequality, and other topics of social concern.  

A university church is welcoming and diverse. Being a Reconciling Congregation is a good indicator of that stance.  Another indicator is a church’s intentional use of inclusive language in worship services.  Long ago I attended a retreat about being a welcoming congregation, and the leader told of a church that had a coffee hour.  The coffee and cups were in plain sight, but only the insiders knew where the sugar and cream were kept. Some signs of hospitality are physical and visible–accessibility, signage, bulletin-board messages, location of sugar and cream–but others are more subtle and complex.  A university church has done its homework and is intentional about what and how it communicates welcome to the academic community.

In October, the Pew Research Center released a report on the dramatic decline in religious affiliation over the last decade.  One finding is the percentage of “nones” — those who answer “none” on a survey of religious preference — has risen to 26%, up from 17%  ten years ago. Many of the “nones” are millennials (born between 1981 and 1996). Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary, cites these reasons for this decline:  decreased social pressure to attend; the clergy sexual abuse scandal, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church; changing attitudes toward sexuality and gender; and the alliance of religious conservatives with right-wing politics.   A university church is interested in what nones have to say about institutional religion. [For a short introduction to what nones are saying, watch “Rise of the Nones:  Diana Butler Bass Extended Interview.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEu2MH3J0qg]

From my observation as a campus minister, a college teacher, and a writer about religion and current affairs,  academic communities hunger for having an authentic and intentional university church across the street. United Methodists are blessed with long tradition of intellectual freedom and honest inquiry. Our founder, John Wesley, encouraged early Methodists to seek learning.   His brother, Charles Wesley, wrote in a hymn, “unite the pair so long disjoin’d, knowledge and vital piety—learning and holiness combined.”  Ours in a tradition that honors both spiritual growth and intellectual rigor as mutually beneficial and necessary. That’s the reason Methodists have established over 110 colleges and universities in the U.S.  We have a long commitment to learning, and it is the unique privilege and responsibility of congregations near college and universities to hear that call and strive be university churches.