Speaking as a member, albeit a rather nominal one, of the theologically and culturally beleaguered United Methodist Church, this article, published recently in the New Yorker, makes for fascinating reading at several levels – all the more fascinating because it is written by an elite columnist from a center-left perspective.
I personally find it interesting for three reasons: first, because it underscores how the United Methodist Church’s divisions, which at this point will end in a formal, negotiated breakup, merely serve as a bellwether for deepening, if not intractable, divisions at the national level. Recall that a similar breakup of the Methodist Episcopal Church foreshadowed the breakup of the American Union in 1861.
The second reason is because roughly a quarter century ago, a prominent United Methodist cleric as well as a university professor anticipated these schisms in a book they jointly authored titled Downsizing the U.S.A. At the time of publication, the authors were fellow Duke University faculty members: the Rev. William Willimon, dean of the University Chapel, who would later serve as bishop of the North Alabama United Methodist Conference, and Dr. Thomas Naylor, a Duke University Economics professor, who, following his retirement, relocated to Vermont and became active in the Vermont Independence Movement.
The third and final reason is because this article reflects how growong numbers within our national clerisy and commentariat are discerning the deep and likely unbridgeable divisions increasingly becoming evident in the United States. The country really appears to be careening toward some form of breakup, which is why it behooves the nation’s political leadership in both political camps to work out some kind of contingency plan to mitigate the effects – something that the United Methodist leadership, faced with its own impending schism, set out to do and apparently has effectively achieved.
To revisit a theme that I have raised time and again in this forum, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was faced some 30 years ago with a similar set of circumstances in his country. In fact, he undertook a frenetic effort to negotiate what he called a new Union Treaty in an attempt to stave off a Soviet crack up, though he was overcome by the rapid pace of events.
Perhaps there is still hope that our political elites can engineer some sort of new federal compact whereby states and/or regions still can share a common monetary and defense policy.
Indeed, facing a similar set of conditions a few leaders in post-Brexit Britain, notably former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, have conceived a similar proposal whereby the traditional nations of Britain – England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – essentially would function as sovereign states, though ceding a number of general powers to the government in Westminster.
As turns out, a few very perceptive thinkers among the U.S. political class perceived these fissures forming as far back as thirty years ago. One of them was a famous diplomat and renowned Sovietologist, George F. Kennan, who was predominantly associated with Democratic administrations. He discerned this approaching political impasse in his 90’s.
In his valedictory memoir, written in his 90’s and published in the early 1990’s, Kennan envisioned states with strong cultural and political affinities, merging into what he called “constituent republics,” which would wield the bulk of domestic policy. He also advocated the same status for a few of the country’s largest cities – NYC, Chicago, LA, etc.
In many ways, this concept resembles former British Prime Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s proposal for Britain, which basically was conceived as a means of staving off Scottish secession following the Brexit outcome.
As with the Brown proposal, the general government would be left to handle larger national issues, such as monetary policy and defense.
I remember Kennan’s proposals causing a brief flurry of interest and for a while this nonagenarian even was featured in the national talkshow circuit.
However, sometime later, Kennan became associated with Thomas Naylor, whom I mentioned earlier, becoming a vocal proponent of the Vermont Independence movement. Many of his peers found this surprising, needless to say.
In the end, proponents of radical decentralization and even secession may, like Kennan, be forced to look beyond attempts at national brokerage to grassroots efforts in which individual states and perhaps even municipalities act unilaterally.
Whatever the case, many of us who have observed these trends perceive an impasse fast approaching, one that may outstrip the ability of present-day political elites to assist with brokering a deal.