Politics and the Church – The Hypocrisy of Politics in the Church [Part 29]

Despite continued Methodist church segregation in the form of the Central Jurisdiction, Methodist bodies continued to denounce societal segregation.  This is a form of hypocrisy…accepting segregation in the church but denouncing it in society.  The 1956 New England Annual Conference urged the “abolition of race discrimination in reference to employment, housing, public facilities, hospital and medical care, education, recreation, justice in the courts, and all other relevant aspects of our common life.”  It asserted that except in five “hard core” southern states, support for integration arises under “positive leadership.” [“Methodists Rap Racial Bias”, Christian Science Monitor (June 1, 1956) Page 4]. The 1956 South Georgia Annual Conference approved the General Conference proposal to facilitate black churches wanting to leave the Central Jurisdiction.  “White or black, we are going to live side by side here in the Southland,” declared Bishop Arthur Moore.  Christian attitudes of respect and helpfulness will heal.  Let us resolve to be Christian while we maintain our jurisdictional structure.” [“M.E. Conferences Adopt Different Views on Segregation Issue”, Cleveland Call and Post (June 23, 1956) Page 6].

     Bishop Oxnam (I love this bishop because he is not afraid of politics) told a 1956 Methodist race relations conference that “to segregate is sin.”  But he also insisted that prohibiting segregation by legislation and judicial decision was insufficient. “The spirit that breeds segregation must be driven from the heart.  The church must undergo a cleansing of conversion.” [“Integration Plea Made by Bishop Oxnam”, Baltimore Sun (December 5, 1956) Page 46].  The next year, he called on Vice President Richard Nixon, famous for “overseas goodwill” visits, to conduct a “good will mission” in the South, visiting churches where “Negroes are not yet welcome.”  Having recently returned from Africa (where he met Martin Luther King Jr. at the celebration for the newly independent nation of Ghana), Nixon should now visit Montgomery, Alabama, and “call upon Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and look upon the bombed houses of clergymen.” King, who had recently led the Montgomery bus boycott, had urged Nixon to study segregation first-hand. [“Oxnam Urges Nixon Visit in South”, Washington Post (March 11, 1957) Page A1]. (Is this a church calling on a politician to solve a problem already solved in the Bible?) 

     In 1957, the Methodist Board of Social and Economic Relations, meeting in Chicago, hosted a panel debate over integration that included Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  “There is nothing wrong with the southern whites that can’t be cured by one thing…regard of the Negro as a citizen, and not a ward,” he told them.  A Mississippi newspaper editor responded: “The mass of Negroes conduct themselves without responsibility, which makes them wards of the people.”  An Alabama minister faulted radicals on both sides who “want to change things right away.” [“Church Panel Debates Issues of Integration”, Chicago Daily Tribune (March 22, 1957) Page A3].

     The 1957 Pittsburgh Annual Conference urged an end to segregation in the housing market and called on builders, real estate agents, and bankers to free housing from all racial restrictions.” [“Methodists Urge Elimination of Segregation in Housing”, Pittsburgh Courier (June 1, 1957) Page 22].  In the meantime, Bishop Edgar Love denounced “specious arguments” for continued church segregation.  “There must be no compromise, no equivocation, no marking time, no backward steps” toward a “completely integrated church at every level,” with  ministers “fearless prophets proclaiming the truth.” [“Unsegregated Church Is More Important Than Individuals”, Philadelphia Tribune (July 6, 1957) Page 5].  At that time Bishop Love was writing for a Methodist periodical.  Such church articles enraged southern segregationists, 300 of whom met in Mississippi to protest “integration- slanted articles”. One layman complained, “Since the publications have a monopoly in our churches, the views of southern members should also be presented.  The whole trend is toward removal of racial barriers. [“Miss. Methodists Want Articles Slanted Toward Integration Deleted”, Atlanta Daily World (October 2, 1957) Page 2]. 

     A 70-member Methodist commission studied the Central Jurisdiction (the all ‘black’ jurisdiction) and received testimony around the country.  “The mixing of the races and the destruction of the Methodist Church” are inseparable, a South Carolina businessman told one hearing.  A North Carolina minister warned that abolishing the Central Jurisdiction would deprive “our Negro friends of opportunities.” [“Methodists Warned on Mixing Races”, Washington Post (October 31, 1957) Page B7].  A Florida layman called church segregation “un-Christian” and “un-American.”  A Florida minister called it “sinful for all who would be a Christian.”  However, the Southeast Jurisdiction bishops were unified for retaining the Central Jurisdiction. (Thus supporting segregation.) [“Florida Group Asks Church to Integrate”, Chicago Daily Tribune (October 29, 1957) Page 10].

     In 1958, the Methodist Board of Education opposed using any churches for “programs designed to maintain segregated school systems.”  [“Methodists Bar Aid to Segregation”, Washington Post and Times Herald (January 16, 1958) Page 21].  Later that year, Bishop Oxnam denounced any politician who “cooperates with the forces that seek to deny the Negro the vote” as a “subversive”.  He deplored the Ku Klux Klan as “un-American” and denounced church members who belonged to it while claiming to be saved. ( I guess he felt his responsibility to the truth was more important than worrying about offending someone…my kind of bishop.)  Speaking to a Methodist Convocation on Evangelism in Washington, DC, he declared:”The silence of Christians when the vote is denied Negroes, and segregation is inforced, speaks so loud the black men overseas cannot hear what our missionaries say.” [“Oxnam Calls Denial of Vote Subversion”, New York Times (July 4, 1958) Page 12]. 

     The Council of Bishops, faced by growing resistance to desegregation in 1958, reaffirmed its support for the 1954 Supreme Court ruling.  “We seek with the guidance of the Holy Spirit to create that kind of social climate which will work toward the elimination of friction between any and all racial groups…”   Here was a well intentioned group of church leaders relying on man’s law to do what the church should be doing.  I guess that they had not yet heard that politics did not belong in the church.

     Next week we will transition from the 1950’s into the 1960’s.  Unfortunately the 1960’s became a time of turbulence in the United States.  The Methodist Church was not exempt as internal racial battles continued…God’s message had just not yet permeated the fibre of the church or its congregations.

– Bob Munsey

“Avoiding politics altogether is a tacit endorsement of the status quo which might include social conditions that perpetuate flagrant injustice.”  David Closson

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