The long time conflict between liberals and conservatives in mainline denominations seems to be entering a more political phase judging by a recent New York conference RW attended.
The late October meeting was organized by Union Theological Seminary and the Institute of Democratic Studies (IDS) to counter the recent victories of conservatives in such mainline bodies as the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.) The new evangelical influence in the United Methodist Church was strongly in evidence at the denomination’s General Conference last spring, where liberal measures supporting same sex unions were turned back while greater conservative representation among delegates was set in place [see September RW for more on the United Methodist meeting].
At the New York conference there were reports of pressure to conform to conservative demands, jobs threatened, reputations smeared, and even “religious cleansing” as a “constellation of forces” is coming together to reconfigure mainline churches. The various evangelical renewal groups, such as the Confessing Movement in the United Methodist Church, were targeted for threatening “progressive Christianity.” The main point made by all the speakers was that the thirst for “power and control” is driving the conservative resurgence rather than theology or even the controversial issue of same-sex unions.
The conservative developments mainline was compared to the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. Rev.Welton Gaddy, head of the the liberal Interfaith Alliance, called on mainline congregations to organize in order to prevent a similar right-wing victory. Dr. Robert Bohl, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church. said that the time for establishing “common ground” and discussions between liberals and conservatives is past.
He is helping to organize a caucus for Presbyterian leaders to battle conservative renewal groups. The Covenant Network of Presbyterians, a liberal group, is distributing literature from the Institute for Democracy Studies to all Presbyterian churches, seeking to uncover the link between the renewal groups and the religious right. That some mainline liberal leaders are joining forces with the IDS, a secular liberal think tank and watchdog of the political right, suggests that the left feels overpowered by the conservative challenge — a point that the speakers did not deny.
Diane Knippers, head of the neoconservative Institute for Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C., says that the religious left is correct in fearing that their “enormous power” in mainline institutions is being “slowed and halted.” Knippers told RW in an interview that the renewal groups are not borrowing techniques from the religious right so much as mirroring the tactics their church opponents used during the 1970s and 80s. Conservatives and moderates are becoming more effective at challenging the left, showing up at conventions to make their voices heard.
Knipers says it’s “ridiculous” to charge that “power and control” rather than doctrine is behind the new conservative groundswell. “These renewal groups focus a lot on theology. This can be seen at the [recent United Methodist] General Conference where the left won on most of the social issues.”