Just as a reminder, I started writing this series because I was told by a pastor that politics did not belong in the church. I have addressed several aspects of politics in the church and this week return to “hypocrisy of politics in the church”. My search has been fairly extensive and I am yet to find the point in time at which politics was removed from its place in the church. After weeks of going down an estuary tracing the ‘angel of light’ I will now return to my search for that ‘magic time’. Let the search continue!
This week we are once again looking into the church’s involvement in politics and questioning at what point did the church decide to let politicians and political parties have free, unaccountable reign in government. As we had seen in previous commentaries, that was not always the case.
Herbert Hoover was overwhelmingly elected to the presidency in 1928, thanks partly to Methodist temperance activists distressed over his opponent, the very ‘wet’ and Roman Catholic New York Governor Al Smith. Five former Confederate states from the once solidly liberal South voted for Hoover, encouraged by Methodist bishops like leading Prohibitionist James Cannon. As early as 1925, the northern church’s Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals warned that Americans would “never accept as a president a man whose conduct of his office as governor promoted the effort to stabilize a condition of nullification in America’s greatest state, and incited ignorant and criminal people throughout the country in violation of the law.” [“Methodist Board Attacks Gov. Smith”, New York Times (November 16, 1925: Page 1)].
Prohibition enforcement officer US Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt, dispatched by the RNC, famously addressed the 1928 Methodist Ohio Annual Conference to warn against New York’s “lawlessness”, “underworld connections” and infamous Tammany political machine, all relating to Al Smith. Noting the 600,000 Methodist in Ohio, she implored: “That is enough to swing the election.” [Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York: Scribner, 2010) Page 307]. After the election, the northern Methodist Temperance Board frankly explained it had summoned “all energy…that we were capable of in bringing about” Hoover’s election, or permit the wet nullifier to imperil Prohibition and all future moral standards for our country.” [“Dry Leader States Faith in President”, Washington Post (May 29, 1930) Page 3]. Meanwhile, complaints were filed in the southern church against Bishop James Cannon and three other southern bishops who had campaigned against Al Smith. The 1930 southern General Conference sided with the bishops for having addressed “moral issues” during the presidential election. [“The Southern General Conference”, Christian Advocate (June 12, 1930)].
Let us stop for a minute and remind each other why I started writing “Politics and the Church” over 4 years ago. A small group of men in a Methodist church had attained voter guides from a Christian research organization that had gone to much length to develop an unbiased guide to help Christians see where the candidates stood on various issues. The guides were placed in the Narthex of the church so that those who attended the Sunday services could take one if they so desired. Before the first service on Sunday morning they were all gone. I started to look around for them. Finally I asked the pastor if he knew where they were and he said he had removed them. I asked why? He said politics does not belong in the church. My first thought was, “Since when?” I picked up my Bible, bid him farewell, went home and wrote my resignation letter from the Methodist Church…after 23 years, and started writing “Politics and the Church”. My research lead me in so many directions that after writing weekly commentaries more than four years I find myself still not close to the end. I am and was totally surprised at just how much politics is in the Bible…keeping in mind that politics is how we relate to each other. We will continue to report church hypocrisy in politics for a while longer and then attack progressiveism…a nice way to say liberalism/communism. These dictums of society cannot exist as long as the Christian Church exists and many church leaders are unaware of this. More on this in the months to come.
When Methodists voted for Hoover they did so not because he represented the Republican Party but because he represented Americanism”, so explained a Methodist Temperance Board official in 1929. [“Hoover Dry Rule Praised”, Los Angeles Times (October 8, 1929) Page A24]. That same year southern Methodism’s Women’s Missionary Council, meeting in Washington, DC, publicly thanked President Hoover for his stance on “law enforcement, world peace, and human welfare.” [ “Missionaries Laud Hoover’s Policies on Law and Peace”, Washington Post (March 15, 1929) Page 22]. There was no fear here in involving the church with politics.
Then in October 1929 the stock market collapsed ushering in the Great Depression and an unemployment rate of more than 25 percent. Only a few months before southern Bishop Warren Candler had predicted collapse. After the ‘crash’ he faulted “mighty financiers” and “unsuspecting speculators.” [Mark Bauman, Warren Akin Candler: The Conservative as Idealist (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1981) Page 253]. Other Methodists struggled to respond. Meeting in 1930, the northern bishops bewailed a “social system that, in the midst of plenteous abundance, dooms untold numbers of our people to unbearable poverty and distress through no apparent fault of their own.” [New York Christian Advocate (December 11, 1930) Page 1527]. The 1930 episcopal address to the Southern General Conference warned that “certain propagandists with an un-American background and in open antagonism to the basic principles of our religion have been moving among our people and claiming to take their part against an iniquitous capitalism.” The southern bishops commended the “worth and rights of persons above the value and privileges of property,” along with the “good of the social whole above the interest and possessions of the individual.” [Journal of the Twenty-First General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church, South (1930) Pages 375-376]. A prominent New York Methodist pastor insisted that “religious faith” would “plunge persons into a thorough analysis of the causes and remedies for depression” and would “clear away the fog of ‘blues'”. [“Wagner Prescribes Faith to End Gloom”, New York Times (February 9, 1931) Page 17].
A Dallas pastor who also taught at Southern Methodist University told students at southern Methodism’s Emory University in Atlanta in 1931 that morality had failed to keep up with technology, resulting in the Depression: “We have striven in every possible way for the perfection of mechanics, but we haven’t developed enough sense to give the unemployed man a job.” He pointed to rising divorce rates and “international anarchy”. He urged, “We must build our hearts taller than our skyscrapers and we must make our spirits more powerful than our engines.” [“Emory Speaker Blames Depression on Life’s ‘Mechanical Perfection'”, Atlanta Constitution (June 8, 1931) Page 5]. A New York pastor asked President Hoover to call for a national prayer and fasting. “If we do not get relief from this economic Depression without spiritual revival it will be a tragedy”, he preached, faulting “chamber of Commerce religion, working for efficiency, without God.” [“National Fast Day Urged on Hoover”, New York Times (July 27, 1931) Page 12].
The church’s involvement with Depression politics didn’t end here. In fact it continued right up to the introduction of the New Deal. Church leaders were not afraid to jump into the political fray. More on that next week.
– Bob Munsey
“Conviction is God’s warning light”