“Demography is Destiny”
— Auguste Comte
Thursday afternoon a United Methodist clergy colleague called me while I was driving to church. I spend a lot of time in the car these days. We talked for about 25 minutes.
He was pretty amped up. He told me he’d stayed up until 3 am the night before, crunching numbers on General Conference delegates and the recent votes on the “One Church” plan. He’d divided them up, and sorted them into various “camps,” and was tying to make sense as to why the vote failed, when just about everyone he personally knew supported it.
It was a lot to keep track of, as he hurriedly tossed out numbers and percentages while I tried to keep my eyes on the road.
But at the end of his calculations, he had concluded: Change on LGBTQ issue can never happen at General Conference.
I agreed with him.
Then, he asked “So, why are we not talking about this more?”
I think the simple answers this are:
— Some of us HAVE been talking about this for a long time.
— Others, for all sorts of reasons, have not been paying attention.
Yes….before we move on to anything new, we must make sure everybody understands these facts. Like my friend, there are a lot of folks waking up to this same realization.
My fear is this: The group of folks who’ve been talking about this a long time, and also the group that is just now finding out about this, are very small even when put together.
Together, they are all “Metho-nerds.” Folks who pay attention to church polity, or who write blogs for the past decade
They are all of the dedicated and faithful Reconciling UMs, Queer UMs, and their many allies.
And they are *also* a growing number of moderates, who are —as I said, for various reasons— only *now* really paying attention.
For years, people routinely either disbelieved what some of us have been fearing about the demographics of the General Conference vote. Others have believed that even with a stacked demographic deck, change might still be possible, if we could only change enough “hearts and minds.”
I want you to hear this: I am not being critical of that response or belief. It has absolutely been where my heart, soul, and spirit has been for years. It has been my sincere belief and the way I have led in ministry. I am here to say, it’s clear I was wrong. It’s clear we ALL were wrong.
And as a faith-belief, as part of my theology, I absolutely believe in theory of changing hearts and minds. Or, said, better, that God changes hearts, through our witness and ministry. And! I have SEEN it genuinely happen. Nothing has changed that belief.
Too many times, I have heard unbelievable and truly moving faith-stories of straight people, whose hearts have changed on the the issue of LGBTQ inclusion. Some of them frame it in spiritual terms as repentance, which it absolutely is.
Many people in the American Church have changed their hearts and minds on these issues over the past twenty years. It has been a beautiful thing to see.
Friends, NONE of these efforts were wasted, foolish, or misguided. I want to be very clear in this. (Up to, and including, this valiant three-year effort of “The Way Forward.”)
For some, it has been a painful journey of decades. No more so than for our LGBTQ siblings.
But strategies and expectations must now change. Because now, “we know what we know” about the actual electoral demographics of General Conference.
For years we have said “Stop the harm,” and by this we have meant “Change the polity, so that the harm will stop.”
Now, “Stop the harm” must now mean: “Abandon the belief that change will happen through General Conference.”
So, I want to unpack those assertions, and also the wonkish numbers that my friend was throwing at me. Because I have a very strong sense that there are a lot of people who are in the same boat that he was.
BTW: In what follows, I fear I am violating my own core value of talking about “people” before “structure.” But for decades, too much of the conversation has been too focused on structure. A part of the way forward now will be to see how future strategies cannot just be about structural change, via General Conference.
With that caveat…
More than in any other human endeavor, ELECTIONS are about demographics. Electoral demography really is destiny. You can make a theological argument that General Conference is, in some way, “holy” (Hard, but you could…). But the MECHANISM of change is a political and electoral one.
The clear and unalterable fact is that no one should credibly believe that the General Conference of the United Methodist Church will ever change on the issue of LGBTQ inclusion.
The cause has been “right and good.”
The efforts have not been lacking.
It’s plain and simple math and demography.
Here’s a breakdown of General Conference delegates over time:
You can see the clear trends.
So, let’s do some projections….using the 2016 delegate counts.
Let’s build a very crude and wonkish Nate Silver-like model, and pretend we had the same 2016 delegates at this recent special called General Conference. (Which, mostly, we did…)
Let’s make assumptions in our model that most highly FAVOR the One Church plan….
Let’s assume that 70% of US-based GC delegates supported “One Church Plan.” (probably higher than reality)
Let’s assume that 20% of International-based GC delegates do. (Maybe, maybe not, lower than reality…)
Therefore, these are likely a BEST case scenario for the “One Church Plan.”
When you re-sort delegates based on the actual 2016 delegate numbers, plus those assumptions, the breakdown is:
One Church: 49%
Now, as you know, the actual vote was a little *worse* than this.
One Church: 45%
(the high water mark for it, during the vote to bring it as a “minority report”)
(The actual vote for final passage of this item)
It’s not surprising that the actual vote was a little worse than our crude model, because our crude model is generous toward the “One Church Plan.”
Now, let’s pause for a moment, and consider how some people (including me) could have believed (or at least hoped) that the “One Chuch” model had a chance.
Given that modeling we have just done, it was reasonable to assume “Maybe some votes will flip, if we work hard at that…”
Also, given the overwhelming support for “change” among US Delegates, it was easy to believe that One Church was more popular than it actually was among the voting delegates.
That’s where my friend was, when he called me the other day.
Literally everybody he knew supposed “One Church.” How could it fail?
What the actual vote tells us is that no real substantial “vote flipping” happened this time. Therefore, what had to happen for it to pass…just didn’t.
And how does it look going forward?
If you look at the announced 2020 delegate count (based on allotments already announced) the basic assumptions I’ve used yield this result:
One Church: 48%
Which is, again, using best case scenarios for One Church…which means the actual vote will likely be wider.
BTW, the WCA knows this too. In an incredibly pompous and tone-deaf Tweet (given the timing) John Lomperis tweeted this…
I will say this, and I don’t care who hears me: John Lomperis is an asshole.
So, “We know what we know…”
We know that after three years of incredibly valiant effort, sweat, blood, toil…
After decades before THAT of trying various structural fixes, and appeals to conscience….
After hoping that votes would “flip”…
We clearly know that almost *no* votes did. And we know that this is likely to continue into the future.
I said at the start, for some of you, this is old news. Reconciling Methodists have labored for decades under either full, or proportional, hope about all of this.
And as we’ve noted, for the past three years a very large, well organized group and faithful group of Moderates have come alongside us and also worked very hard to flip votes.
As for my own part, I deeply apologize to all Queer and LGBTQ persons, for any harm that has come from me during these years. Please understand that up to, and including last week, there was sincerely a place in my heart that believed change was possible through the General Conference. (At least some part of my heart)
I was mistaken, as were we all. Whatever anyone else does, or does not say, to apologize for their own over-optimism, I apologize for mine.
We know that…Good ideas…faithful ideas….Biblical and Methodist values…are not enough to overcome demographic destiny in that room.
I have been a part of a trend like this once before in my life in actual political elections. No, not the recent Presidential election. It was here in Dallas County, during the period of 2004-2006.
Prior to 2004, Dallas County had been considered a reliably “Red” and Republican County. For perhaps a decade Democrats did not field candidates in any local elections, that how dominant the Republican Party was around here.
But my wife was a pretty savvy political watcher. What she, and many of us, saw was an emerging trend. The basic facts were that the the “straight ticket” Democratic vote was trending upward, toward 50% in every election. Conversely, the Republican vote was inching downward every election cycle too.
So, sensing that a “flip” was coming, she decided to run for State District Judge in 2004, as a Democrat.
Friends, during that election cycle, everyone we knew thought she was crazy. It was unheard of.
People told her that it was career suicide to do it. Some were actually incensed that she would dare waste the time of a sitting incumbent judge when there was no hope of a win.
But she DID win.
And afterward, there were two reactions:
— Some thought it a fluke that would “flip back” next time. (“Her name is Hispanic,” they said…)
— Others thought it was a miracle.
It was neither.
It was watching —and making sure to catch the front edge of— a demographic wave that was coming. And you can only make sense of it in retrospect and hindsight.
BTW: Dallas County now votes almost 60% Democratic, and people are losing the memory of just how remarkable that “flip” was…it now simply looks like it was inevitable…which everybody knows now, but almost nobody knew in 2004…
The recent vote at General Conference was not a fluke.
It was not a miracle either. (I’m using “miracle” sarcastically)
It was not the result of a more “Biblical” or more “Orthodox” theology.
It was not an indicator of where American Methodist stand on the issue of LGBTQ inclusion.
It was the result of a demographic shift that’s been under way for many years.
None of that matters, of course, to actual gay people, who are hurt, shocked, or simply worn out and unsurprised by yet another rejection.
None of this matters to the general public, who are more confused than ever that the “live and let live” Methodists they thought they knew “suddenly” look like the Southern Baptists of twenty years ago.
This vote stains us all.
It stains the word “Methodist” with a bigotry that those of us who choose to remain must now confront and reject.
I’ve said for years the the “incompatible” language has always placed us one the same side of the theological spectrum with “Fred Phelps” and his bigoted family church. People used to HATE that analysis.
But it’s true that we are on that “side” of a continuum. And, friends, our theology literally just moved TOWARD Fred Phelps, not away from him this week.
We are all stained by this, and it is a great sin.
So, if we can’t assume change at General Conference, what can we assume?
We should assume that the WCA will bring forward a constitutional version of their Traditional Plan in 2020.
We should assume that it will pass.
We should assume that everyone else —Moderates and Progressives— are today feverishly looking at ALL options for their future.
We should assume all sorts of contingencies, most of which will not happen.
We should assume a confusing time of many competing and varying options for our future.
We should assume that this group of American Methodists could be as large as 65-70% of all American Methodists.
We should assume that some will publicly leave, or separate from the use of the words “United Methodist.”
We should assume that some Progressives will no longer even be tolerant of “live and let live” and believe the only full inclusion can fix this horrible “stain.”
We should assume that, because of all these competing previous assumptions, this process will be messy.
Above all, the point of this post is: We should assume that these options cannot, and will not, include legislative change at General Conference.
Everyone needs to get on this last train FIRST, so that we can work through all the other messy assumptions prior…
The very first rule that Methodists ever had for themselves was “Do No Harm.”
For years, we Reconciling Methodists have suggested that the vote of the General Conference causes harm. Today, I am pushing that idea further, and beating the drum extra loudly, so all are sure to hear:
To suggest a legislative remedy, through the General Conference…THAT is now the harmful idea, given what we know.
If we are Methodists, then, we are always called to stop harm.
What are all the future options for us?
I’d simply implore that we make space for ideas…for questions….with the bedrock faith that:
Something new is about to be born.
For now, don’t shoot down, or edit any idea, or anyone who wants to join the conversation. There will be a “sorting” that takes place, for sure.
Increasingly, we must listen TO queer people themselves, and not lecture AT them. We must increasingly put PEOPLE first, not structure.
The only thing I really know is that our best solutions will be person-centered solutions.
I also pray that this very process also not cause harm either. I hope and pray that as we enter this messy season, we are all mindful of causing additional harm in the process itself.
“We are where we are,” and “It is what it is..”
We know now that everything has changed and is never going back.
Now the only question is: What new will God birth among us?
11 thoughts on ““We Know What We Know” About Methodism”
Hi. I shared this on my own blog but it seems it does not recognize you as the author. Its almost as if I wrote it. Did I miss something when I reposted the blog and is there a way to correct it?
I seem to be able to click the link and get back here, so all seems well.
Ok. As long as you are getting the credit, I’m ok with it
Eric, thanks for your post. As a professional Metho-nerd, I can say that you are right on target regarding international demographics. Coincidentally, I have an article coming out on Monday asserting much the same idea: see https://divinity.uchicago.edu/martin-marty-center.
Since we are throwing ideas out there. Maybe its time for the Methodist Episcopal Church to be reborn. Or am I just dreaming?
Great analytic work, Eric. Appreciate the way you have looked back AND looked forward.
Anglican here, watching the UMC with interest and affection. I’m curious how generational changes might weigh in? In the Episcopal Church, there are some definite differences in our church-wide legislative assembly among different generations. I believe that’s true in the Anglican Communion — not just in wealthy nations — but I’m not sure. As boomers age out of their work as delegates in the US and elsewhere, might that change things?
It’s a genuine question. Anyway, prayers ascending for you all, my siblings in Christ. Thanks for this piece and for your witness to God’s gracious love.