General Board of Church and Society, reliably left

By Walter Fenton
Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 3.52.07 PMSome United Methodists are surprised to discover that there is an entire United Methodist political lobbying agency in Washington D.C. called the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS). It actually operates out of a prominent and priceless building next door to the Supreme Court and across the street from the United States Capitol.Often, the only times most United Methodists are made aware of the agency’s activities are when the GBCS makes national news. That notably occurred in March 2010 when then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi specifically thanked The United Methodist Church as a member of the coalition that helped pass the controversial health care legislation known as Obamacare.

It happened again in March of this year when Bill Meford, Director of Civil and Human Rights at GBCS, seemed to mock peaceful prolife marchers by holding a sign that read, “I March For Sandwiches.” As he tweeted the photo, Mefford explained, “I was inspired by the march for life to March for what I believe in! #WhyWeMarch.”

GBCS also makes news within the denomination when it posts the resolutions, petitions, and amendments, it is submitting for approval at the denomination’s 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon. Its agenda is extensive: 16 new resolutions and petitions, 15 rewrites, three requests to re-adopt resolutions, and 32 proposed amendments to current ones. While the agenda covers a wide range of topics, on nearly all matters it is reliably to the left in its approach.

For example, in a resolution entitled “A Call for Just Tax Structures,” GBCS aligns itself with liberal economic analysis and prescriptions for economic inequality. It cites the French economist Thomas Piketty to substantiate its claim that inequality is a major problem that can only be remedied by higher marginal tax rates. Maybe true, but maybe not. What is true is that others have vigorously challenged the findings and prescriptions Piketty outlined in his 2013 book Capital in the 21st Century. Respected economists from across the political spectrum called into question the methodologies he used to arrive at his findings and the remedies he proposed for addressing inequality. But GBCS cites him as if he is the only authority on the matter.

It would be refreshing to see GBCS at least explore proposals from other scholars like Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Brooks, a Christian and an economist, is hardly a right-wing ideologue. He and other scholars at AEI are as passionate about fairness, equality, and just tax structures as anyone else. However, they do challenge the verities of liberal economists and politicians, and so by extension those of a reflexively liberal GBCS. In doing so, AEI and other conservative think tanks often do a better job than GBCS of representing the moral and ethical values of many United Methodists.

GBCS would also have the UM Church join other old-line denominations like the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ in divesting any holdings it has in Caterpillar, Inc. The board is opposed to the Peoria, Illinois-based company’s sale of its products to the state of Israel where they are used by that nation’s military in the disputed West Bank Territory.

For some reason, GBCS believes this particular investment must be singled out among a thousand other investment decisions made by the denomination’s General Board of Pension and Health Benefits and its advisors, so it can be addressed by overwhelmed pastors and laypeople at the 2016 General Conference. Does this seem like the best way to make complicated investment decisions? Should every investment decision come before the General Conference delegates?

Without weighing in on whether Caterpillar, Inc. is right or wrong to sell its equipment to Israel, why is GBCS so fixated on this one investment? Thousands of companies, domestic and foreign, do business with countries that engage in activities that do not conform to the church’s justifiably high moral and ethical standards. GBCS has proven time and again that it is quite capable of crafting broad generalized petitions and resolutions that cover a multitude of sins. Why go after just Caterpillar, Inc. and Israel?

Not surprisingly, many think the board does so because it frequently seems more in step with the latest liberal fads on college and university campuses than the issues that concern rank and file United Methodists.

Too often the board’s petitions and resolutions come off as condescending pronouncements from a liberal elite, and so are easily ignored by many in the church. It’s as if GBCS has failed to learn three important lessons every effective pastor learns: choose your battles wisely, act with humility, and recognize that hectoring people seldom moves them to do what you want.

Governed by an unusually large 63-member board of directors, the Washington D.C. based organization supports 28 employees, and also maintains an office in New York City at the United Nations. Its board is divided into eight committees, four work areas, and four task forces.

The whole board convenes for two meetings a year, paying for transportation, lodging, meals, and meeting facilities for its directors and presumably a number of its staff members. Economic inequality might be helped a little were GBCS willing to trim its board, staff, and its oversized ambition to weigh in on everything from climate change to abortion rights and almost everything in between.

Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and analyst for Good News.

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