Methodists in the White House

Opinion



Dr. Gary Smith, a history professor at Grove City College, has written an article comparing two Methodist presidents, William McKinley and George Bush, contending that they both fought wars of liberation, the first against the Spanish empire in Cuba, the second against Saddam Hussein. Dr. Smith, whose college describes itself as a private Christian college and “an advocate of the free market economic system,” also contends that “evangelical Christians” supported the Bush administration’s war, in contrast to Catholic, Jewish, and mainline Protestant denominations, including Methodists.

First of all, Dr. Smith might be surprised to know that progressive Methodists were once organized in an activist group called the Methodist Federation for Social Action, whose leader, Dr. Harry E. Ward, was both a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and openly allied in many struggles with the Communist Party USA. In 1940, anti-Communists purged Communist leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn from the ACLU national leadership, leading Ward to resign his position as ACLU chairman. Ward and other courageous religious progressive activists were written out of U.S. history with the development of the Cold War. As a young man in South Dakota, George McGovern, the only real progressive nominated by the Democratic Party after World War II, was said to have been influenced by the Methodist Federation for Social Action.

Unlike Southern Methodists and Southern Baptists, who trace their origins to pro-slavery elements that broke from the national churches before the Civil War and have become central to modern right-wing Protestant Christianity (evangelicals are not necessarily fundamentalists or right-wingers), progressive Protestant Christians, particularly Unitarians, Unitarian-Universalists, and Quakers, have played a central role in the present peace movement while being strong supporters of the principle of separation of church and state.

For people who hold religious beliefs but are not rightists, all of this should be more important than Dr. Smith’s rather dubious comparisons of McKinley and Bush. Religious faith, like American national identity and American patriotism, doesn’t belong to right-wingers, however they may seek to portray their politics – which serve the interests only of the rich and the corporations – as representing “God and Country.”

In 1898, William McKinley went to war to protect and expand U.S. economic interests in Cuba and to extend U.S. interests in the Pacific by colonizing the Philippines, which was thousands of miles away from Cuba. The Cuban revolutionary army, which had been fighting the Spaniards for years, was not even permitted to participate in the Spanish surrender in Havana. Cuba was compelled to grant a U.S. base at Guantanamo and give the U.S. the right to intervene in Cuban affairs as the U.S. saw fit in exchange for the removal of U.S. occupation troops.

In the Philippines, McKinley made what is still regarded as the most hypocritical or stupid religious statement in U.S. political history when he said that he had annexed the islands in order to “Christianize” the people – Spain had brought Christianity to the islands centuries before. The Filipino rebel army, which at first welcomed the Americans as liberators, fought ferociously against American colonizers who killed hundreds of thousands of Filipinos and suffered greater casualties themselves then in the Spanish-American war.

Like McKinley, George Bush is a right-wing Republican openly representing the interests of the corporations and the rich after a controversial election. McKinley’s Secretary of State, John Hay, called the 1898 war with Spain “a splendid little war,” because it helped the administration and the ruling class push back populist and labor movements and progressive reformers, including Social Gospel Christian ministers and Christian Socialists, using flag-waving to make people forget the ravages of monopoly capitalism.

George Bush invaded Iraq to establish direct U.S. hegemony in the region, control the oil, and assert U.S. dominance globally. Domestically, Bush wants Iraq to be a “splendid little war” that will make Americans forget about the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the rich and the deepening economic crisis, just as McKinley wanted Americans to forget about the growing power of the trusts that had elected him president in 1896 – in the first presidential election in which vast sums of money were used – and about the poverty and other social problems which he responded to by calling for greater benefits for business.

Dr. Smith might remember that the influence of progressive Protestants and other religious advocates of social and political reform grew sharply in the aftermath of the Spanish American war in the early 20th century. We can expect that progressive religious people will join secular progressives to oust the Bush administration, which is more reactionary than even McKinley’s was. One hundred years ago Social Gospel Christians used to identify with the Jesus who drove the moneychangers from the temple. Today the Bush administration’s highest domestic principle is to give the modern moneychangers a tax cut!

(Dr. Gary Smith’s article can be found at www.gcc.edu/news/faculty/editorials/smith_methodists)



Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University. He can be reached at pww@pww.org