Politics and the Church – The Hypocrisy of Politics in the Church [Part 20]

Meanwhile, conservative Los Angeles Methodist pastor Bob Shuler in 1949 condemned his local bishop for publicly opposing the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as an alliance to defend Western Europe from the Soviets. [“Methodists Call Meeting to Discuss Bishop’s Note”, Los Angeles Times (May 6, 1949) Page 24].  The 1950 New York Annual Conference advocated “restoration of normal contacts” with the Soviet Union.  Still not over the use of the atomic bomb to bring an end to World War II, the conference declared,”We stand under a moral condemnation of a people who were the first to release the vast energy of atomic fission…and the first to hurl it as a missile of indiscriminate slaughter at civilian populations.” [“Methodists Urge Atom Bomb Pact”, New York Times (May 14, 1950) Page 34].  I suppose the images of the civilian slaughter in China and Southeast Asia had already vanished from the memory of some along with the potential for an extended war with the one at a time slaughter it would have meant.

     In 1950, US forces, backed by the United Nations, intervened in the defense of South Korea against North Korea’s invasion.  It was the first major test for the UN, an organization whose creation Methodism had ardently championed through the Bishop’s Crusade for a New World Order starting in 1943.  “United Methodism may prove a determining factor in the world-wide movement for a United World”, Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam had then enthused.  Before his death, President Franklin Roosevelt thanked Bishop Oxnam for the “extraordinary response to the Crusade for a New World Order conducted under the leadership of the Methodist Church.” [Robert Moats Miller, Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, Pages 280-287].

     Like most Methodist leaders, Atlanta Bishop Arthur Moore, who formerly had served in Korea, defended the US collaboration with the UN in Korea:”The bold measures initiated by the United Nations in Korea will give a new lease of life to men everywhere.” He added:”The struggle may be costly, but justice will prevail and the world given a chance to enjoy peace, economic prosperity, and right human relations.” [“Ex-Korea Bishop Speaks”, New York Times (July 20, 1950) Page 21]. (Where did the UN advocates think the UN military force was going to come from?)

     Bishop Ralph A. Ward called the “invasion of Korea by hordes of Chinese under Communist pressure” an effort to “extend Communist domination in Asia and throughout the world and to divert the attention of the Chinese masses from the failures of the Communist regime.” [“Christian Initiative in Free China”, Christian Advocate (April 9, 1953)]  Washington’s Foundry Methodist Church pastor, Frederick Brown Harris, led his congregation in prayer for South Korea President Syngman Rhee, a Methodist and former regular worshiper at Foundry. [“Prayers for Peace”, Christian Advocate (November 9, 1950) Page 13].  A prominent New York pastor commended the US role in Korea:”America has outgrown her isolationism and has linked herself with the larger interests of the world.” [“America’s Dutu in Korea”, New York Times (July 3, 1950) Page 11].

     Not fearful of conflict or offending, a prominent Washington, DC, Methodist minister was more dubious about the Korean War.  He compared the US to imperial Greeks and Romans. [“Koreans May Resent US, Minister says”, Washington Post (September 18, 1950) Page B1].  Another New York pastor complained of the “blasphemous Operation Killer {a major counter offensive by UN forces} of the Korean War” and its causing gloating over “greater numbers of Korean and Chinese Communists dead”.  He warned against “deification of race, nationalism, totalitarianism, and growing class consciousness.” [“‘Killer’ War in Korea Deplored by Pastor”, New York Times (July 9, 1951) Page 22]. 

     A visiting Korean bishop told Los Angeles Methodists that General MacArthur was a “gigantic man” and declared: ” America has been very generous to us.”  He faulted Russia as “behind everything” in the Korean War and noted that the communists had executed 75 percent of Korean Christians working in North Korea. [“Bishop Says Orient Respects General”, Los Angeles Times (April 19, 1951) Page 6].  Even so, the 1953 New York East Annual Conference urged an immediate end to the Korean War. [“Face Korea Issues”, Christian Advocate (June 11, 1953) Page 15].  While wars are not that easily ended and such a position displayed an ignorance of the subject at least some of the church leadership had the courage to express a political opinion in a church environment.

     In 1950, New York Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam told a gathering of Methodist district superintendents: “We see in the expanding imperialism of Russia a threat to freedom everywhere and we properly cooperate with the United Nations to stop aggression.”  He warned :”Russia does threaten a free society”, and “its aggression must be locked.” [“Missions Called Red Bar”, New York Times (October 4, 1950)]. Dallas-Fort Worth Bishop William Martin predicted,”Communism, which at the moment is asserting itself with godless insolence and arrogant assurance, will run its brutal, fiery, vengeful course, leaving great areas of the world seared and disillusioned.” Further he stated “isolation is dead.” [“Get Ready For God’s New Day”, Christian Advocate (April 20, 1950) Page 4].  In 1950 the Council of Bishops hosted a seminar on Marxian strategy for “sufficient understanding of the forces we combat.”  Anti-communist speakers included famed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, labor leader Walter Reuther, socialist Norman Thomas, and philosopher Sidney Hook. [“Combat Red Forces”, Christian Advocate (January 5, 1950)].

     However, not all faucets of Methodism was anti-communist.  Leftist stances by the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) became increasingly controversial during the Cold War’s early years.  In 1950, eight Methodist bishops, led by Arthur Moore, condemned MFSA’s “aid to the Communist propaganda and program“, which was “in open defiance” of the “great body of the church.”  The bishops wanted MFSA to stop calling itself “Methodist”.  [“8 Methodist Bishops hit ‘Social Action'”, Washington Post (August 7, 1950) Page 11].  That same year a Reader’s Digest  story titled “Methodism’s Pink Fringe” outlined MFSA’s record of leftist stances.  Several prominent Methodists including Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam had already resigned from MFSA. [Robert Wilson, Biases and Blindspots (Lexington, KY:Bristol Books, 1988) Pages 32-35]. Unfazed, in 1950, MFSA chief Jack McMichael, pronounced the US as the “only foreigner in what apparently is nothing more than a civil war” in Korea. [“Left Bias Seen in Church Unit”, Baltimore Sun (February 17, 1952) Page 24].

     The fight for and against communism in the church was just starting to heat up.  Next week we will look at the Methodist Church’s political involvement in the age of ‘Cold War’ and ‘McCarthyism’.  The search for politics not in the church continues.

– Bob Munsey 

“Many times, it takes years of failures to become an ‘overnight success’. “

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