More than 600 Methodist clergy and church members are bringing formal church charges against Attorney General Jeff Sessions, invoking a rarely used church procedure to condemn the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their families at the US-Mexico border.
In a June 18 statement, 640 signatories invoked paragraph 2702.3 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline to charge Sessions with child abuse, immorality (including “the use of violence against children to deter immigration”), racial discrimination, and the dissemination of false doctrine counter to Methodist teaching — including Sessions’s controversial public use of the Bible verse Romans 13 to legitimize the Trump administration’s migrant policies.
Sessions is a member of Ashland Place United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama, and of Clarendon United Methodist Church in Arlington, Virginia. The statement, addressed to Sessions’s Alabama and Virginia pastors, Sterling Boykin and Tracy Wines respectively, urged them to “dig deeply into Mr. Sessions’ advocacy and actions that have led to harm against thousands of vulnerable humans.”
The statement continued: “As members of the United Methodist Church, we deeply hope for a reconciling process that will help this long-time member of our connection step back from his harmful actions and work to repair the damage he is currently causing to immigrants, particularly children and families.”
Sessions is an active member of the United Methodist Church and has served both as a Sunday school teacher and as a church delegate to the annual Methodist General Conference. He has frequently invoked his Christian faith in support of the Trump administration and its policies.
“I really never would have thought I’d be working on charges against anybody in the Methodist connection, much less a lay person,” Pastor David Wright, who organized the effort to charge Sessions, told the United Methodist Church’s news service (UMNS). He expressed hope that the charges would prompt Sessions to reconsider his views. “I hope his pastor can have a good conversation with him and come to a good resolution that helps him reclaim his values that many of us feel he’s violated as a Methodist,” he said.
Technically, anyone within the Methodist Church can bring charges against any other member, and charges can theoretically lead to expulsion from the church community following an ecclesiastical trial. In practice, however, charges are extremely rare, especially against laypeople, and almost never move beyond the level of individual mediation at a local church level.
“I’m not aware of any circumstance in the 50-year history of The United Methodist Church when a complaint against a lay person moved beyond the stage of its resolution by a district superintendent or a pastor,” Rev. William Lawrence, professor emeritus at Perkins School of Theology, told UMNS.
David F. Watson, a professor of New Testament studies at United Theological Seminary, told Religion News Service that in the past, charges have typically been brought only against clergy who perform same-sex marriages, a hot-button issue that continues to divide the Methodist Church. (Currently, both same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination are officially prohibited by the UMC handbook, but a proposed plan would delegate authority to make decisions about celebrating LGBTQ weddings or ordinations to the church level.)
Diana Butler Bass, an American church historian and scholar who focuses on the history of the American church, told Vox that there is very limited precedent for formal religious charges like these, using an ecclesiastical court system to charge a government official. “It’s historic, if you pay attention to things like this,” she said.
It could, she said, pave the way for other religious groups — say, Catholics, who have a formal policy of excommunication for their members — to attempt to influence lawmakers by placing religious interdictions on those in their community. (While excommunications for Catholic lawmakers have never been carried out, the possibility of religious reprisals for Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, such as John Kerry, have been floated by senior Catholic officials in the past.)
The Methodist Church is the largest mainline Protestant denomination in America, with approximately 7 million members (although these numbers, like those of other mainline Protestant denominations, are in decline). Mainline Protestant churches tend to be more progressive than their evangelical counterparts; Methodists, historically, have been only slightly more conservative than America’s general population. In 2014, 48 percent of Methodists identified as Republicans, while 42 percent identified as Democrats. While it’s unclear how many Methodists specifically voted for Trump in 2016, about 50 percent of mainline Protestants overall voted for Trump, compared to 81 percent of white evangelicals.
Throughout the Trump administration, however, United Methodist Church leadership has been openly and vocally critical of Trump’s policies and language. In January, for example, church leadership issued a public condemnation of Trump’s reference to immigrants from “shithole countries.” However, the UMC’s decision to charge Sessions — an individual member of the administration — is all but unprecedented.
The UMC is just one of many Christian religious organizations that have taken action to condemn Trump’s migrant policy, particularly in the wake of the White House’s assertion Thursday that it is acting “biblically.” Last week, the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention unanimously passed a resolution affirming the dignity of immigrants and condemning nativism. Attendees at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops likewise slammed Trump’s migrant policy. Even Franklin Graham, the son of the late evangelical preacher Billy Graham, and a longtime Trump ally, spoke out against the policy, although he did not criticize Trump by name.
The Methodist leaders’ actions, therefore, reflect a wider trend within the current Christian landscape — from historically progressive-leaning or centrist traditions to evangelical ones — as more and more leaders speak out against Trump’s migrant policy.
But will these acts change the minds of Christian voters? Bass is cautious on this point. The closest analogue to the current UMC charges, she says, occurred in the 1840s over slavery. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist denomination, abhorred slavery and attempted to prohibit Methodists from owning slaves, a rule that became increasingly relaxed as the years went on, with only clergy subject to the prohibition. But in 1845, over a crisis over a bishop’s ownership of inherited slaves, the United Methodist Church split into Northern and Southern branches.
“Methodists tried to enforce a moral framework on a political and economic issue in the United States and it was kind of … a miserable failure,” Bass said. The result was an ecclesiastical split.
Bass points out that, in the past week, both America’s largest evangelical denomination — the Southern Baptist Convention — and America’s largest mainline group have taken solid, if potentially internally divisive, stances against Trump’s migrant policies. The result, she said, might be 1845 all over again.