- The Washington Times - Friday, April 20, 2012

By Mark Tooley
Bristol House, $24.95 385 pages

”A church,” said Clarence Wilson, commander of Methodist forces in the long-ago war against demon rum,”is not simply here to get people to heaven, but to make this a better world here and now.”

How many folks the Methodists may have levered through the pearly gates over the past century is, of course, a matter subject to speculation and debate. For that matter, Methodism’s record for improving the accommodations down here is beguilingly unclear. But, oh, my brothers and sisters, you can’t say the Methodists haven’t tried, because they have - over and over and over again.

If it wasn’t Prohibition, it was women’s suffrage; then, at last, the modern big leagues, politically speaking: civil rights, nuclear disarmament, Vietnam, Iraq - on and on, to the dispersal in many quarters of notions that a church existed primarily to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and if it didn’t .

Let us pull back here for a moment. What does Mark Tooley, who keeps tabs on Methodism (“United Methodism,” as it has been called since 1968) for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, wish us to know about his co-religionists? That, for one thing, they are a remarkably political lot, forever trying to remake the world; alas for them, with a lot less success than they used to enjoy.

Mr. Tooley’s study, based on extensive ransacking of Methodist archives, points to Prohibition as the high water mark for Methodist social commitment. Wilson and others stirred the flock to join other Protestant bodies in demanding that all the whiskey bottles be smashed and the beer kegs stoppered - for the country’s moral good.

It was a great victory in one sense. The country actually went along. Then rage and disdain began to mount.

The authors of this moral mischief, as the majority of Americans came to see, forfeited their claim to be heard on matters of personal conduct. Mr. Tooley doesn’t make this specific charge, but I consider it fair.

However, something in Methodism that may have gone back to John Wesley - who is credited with saving 18th-century England from revolution - seems to crave moral reformation and public preaching. With their knack for high-level involvement, the Methodists latched on to causes that they hadn’t even invented, contrary to the way they helped invent prohibitionism.

The moral inevitability of affirming the civil rights of black (in those days “Negro”) Americans inspired political activity in all departments of secular life. Such activity either upgraded or marred the standings of nearly all the so-called mainline churches, depending on how one responded to the politics of the occasion.

From the Methodist standpoint, as it evolved in the late 20th century, the Lord was calling his people to adopt pretty much the social and political programs of the Democratic Party. Methodists responded with alacrity. We believe, Lord, we believe! Nuclear weapons - boo! South African apartheid - hiss!

A poll at the church’s 1996 General Conference found that 60 percent of clergy delegates took the liberal side on social and political questions. The laity lagged only slightly behind, with 51 percent making the same affirmation. “Clergy delegates,” says Mr. Tooley, “favored Democrats over Republicans by 62 percent to 15 percent. Laity preferred Democrats over Republicans by 48 percent to 29 percent.” This notwithstanding much closer philosophical divisions in the church at large.

Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians - that is how it goes in the old mainline denominations. Leaders tug leftward; the path to the right leads often enough straight out the church door - to bodies with conservative commitments, or just to religious inertia.

“Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century,” designed as a source for study of the question rather than for exhortation, functions a little tamely in my view amid the wild and crazy backdrop of 20th-century life. It chooses not to show us, in other words, what was going on outside as well as inside the Methodist Church. The strength of the book is the detail it amasses as to how and why Methodism - a church once viewed as proto-American - flexed its muscles and hurled itself into the action.

“To make this a better world here and now?” If stoppering the beer kegs served that aspiration, possibly it was worth trying. Zealous Methodists such as Clarence Wilson nonetheless found that the practicalities of the matter overtaxed the resources of any moral body. Americans saw readily enough, as the dark night of Prohibition descended, that the Methodists and their allies had quit preaching and gone to meddling. Something deeper was wanted - an engagement with the high and serious purposes of God, first in creating man and woman, then in saving them. The Wilsonites might have guessed at this and responded appropriately. Nope. It was all “Shut down the saloons” and, afterward, “Ban the bomb.”

A little social action, it seems, goes a long, long way.

• William Murchison, a nationally syndicated columnist, is the author of “Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity” (Encounter Books).

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