Why the Methodist Effort to Discipline Sessions Is a Risky Business

The United Methodist News Service is reporting that over 600 clergy and lay members of the denomination are seeking church discipline against Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his role in the Trump administration’s policy of separating detained migrant families at the U.S. border:

The group claimed in a June 18 statement that Sessions, a member of a Mobile, Alabama, church, violated Paragraph 2702.3 of the denomination’s Book of Discipline.

Specifically, the group accuses him of child abuse in reference to separating young children from their parents and holding them in mass incarceration facilities; immorality; racial discrimination and “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrines” of The United Methodist Church.

In their statement, the signers say they are “reticent” to bring charges against Sessions, but his unique role as a lay leader of the UMC and public face of the administration warrant the move. They object in particular to Sessions’ use of a passage from Romans 13 in defense of the policy, a citation the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society called “unsound, a flawed interpretation, and a shocking violation of the spirit of the Gospel.”

The UMNS article says charges against lay members is very rare in the UMC, a point amplified by reporting from Religion News Service. It’s possible that Sessions could face a church trial, though the process to get to that point is long and involved. More likely, given the history, is that his pastor will be asked to counsel him, or possibly he’ll be dealt a public admonishment. The UMC has no process for excommunication.

The Methodists confronting Sessions are part of a broad wave of religious criticism of the administration’s policies: Jack Jenkins of RNS has documented nearly 100 different organizations or leaders speaking out, from across the religious and political spectrum (including more than a few atheists and humanists).

Because the one thing America lacks at the moment is a wealth of hot takes, I have to say that these charges, like Rev. Dr. William Barber’s repeated accusations of “theological heresy” against conservative Christians, are a bad idea.

There’s no arguing that the administration’s policies aren’t horrific and racist. They are. It’s understandable that co-religionists of Jeff Sessions would want to distance themselves from those policies; I myself have said I can’t square them with the Christian gospel.

Self-definition and even strident public opposition are one thing. Parsing who’s a “real” Christian and who’s not is something else. The charges laid against Sessions would require the church to adjudicate matters of public policy, to decide if the current administration’s tactics are simply law enforcement, or if they amount to kidnapping and child abuse.

It’s not beside the point here that the United Methodist Church is the third largest denomination in the U.S. However sympathetic we might be to actions against the Trump administration’s immigration policies, this opens the door to a swift partisanization of denominations. I don’t think liberals on immigration really want future presidents or Supreme Court justices waiting for the Catholic Church to sign off on their abortion policies, or the Southern Baptist Convention on civil rights for gays and lesbians.

Moral formation is one thing. If political leaders are forced to act in strict accordance with religious teachings, it’s a de facto violation of the separation of church and state. It might be objected that the charges against Sessions are more protest than discipline, but the fact is that they set in motion an enforcement process that if carried through, would force Sessions to comply with the objectors’ reading of Methodist teachings. That’s exactly the kind of situation the founders of the U.S. wanted to avoid.

History teaches us why the founders’ concern was well-founded. In Europe, churches sorted themselves along partisan lines, leading in the best case to their emptying as adherents walked away, and in the worst case to mass slaughter. It doesn’t take very long for charges of “heresy” to be used as cover for killing people.

Those consequences are admittedly remote, thank God. But this is how that road starts. There’s no doubt that America is confronted with a difficult decision: do we want to be diverse, multi-cultural, multi-racial democracy, or do we want to sink into an apartheid state?

The only thing worse than having to answer that question is having to answer it with a holy war. Christians should absolutely not be afraid to state their beliefs and challenge fellow believers on theirs. They ought not be too rigid in their definitions, however. The way out of this mess is the ballot box, not the ecclesiatical courtroom.