Divided Nation, Divided Church: The Competing Narratives Within America and the United Methodist Church

When I was in my teens, my youth group would occasionally engage in an exercise that one youth director used to call “Points of View.” Three different youth would be asked to leave the room for three minutes, each with a piece of paper and pen. During the three minutes, their task was to describe from memory the room they had just left, writing down everything that they could remember about the setting. After three minutes, the three youth would rejoin the larger group and read their descriptions of the room. What was most entertaining and illuminating about the descriptions, of course, was how significantly different they were from one another. One person remembered the style or color of the carpet. Another person, the color of the walls or the painting beside the bookcase. Another person referenced the furniture and the kinds of chairs in which people were sitting. Some of their memories of the room were spot on in their accuracy. Others were a bit distorted. No two descriptions included the exact same details about the room.

The purpose of the exercise, as I remember it, was to help the members of my youth group to appreciate the fact that differing perspectives and points of view are a significant part of human community—that human beings are inclined to differ with one another in the ways they conceptualize reality and in their perceptions of the world around them. I remember the youth director making the point that such divergences in perspective occur, not only in the way people see a room, but also in the way that people understand issues. “Just as people see a room differently,” he said, “so will they see politics differently. And social issues. And the Bible. And Christianity.” He went on to make the point that, while not all ways of looking at things are equally right, each way represents a perspective that is strongly held and that most likely reflects the priorities and principles of its holder. “And there’s the challenge of being a nation or a church or a youth group,” the youth director said. “It’s the challenge of maintaining a lasting unity around shared core beliefs while respecting one another’s differing perspectives and viewpoints, and perhaps even learning from one another in the process.”

I have reflected often upon that “Points of View” exercise over the last few years, especially as divisions in our nation’s political and moral thought have become seemingly sharper and more rancorous than they have ever been, at least in my lifetime. If one were to ask a thousand randomly chosen Americans to leave the metaphorical room and write down their perspectives and perceptions of what kind of nation America currently is, what its priorities should be, and where it should be headed in its continuing development as a nation, I suspect that one would receive a mind-boggling variety of seemingly divergent observations and convictions. As one youth group member said during the “Points of View” exercise, “it’s as though they are describing two different rooms.” Frequently, after spending time listening to perspectives on MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN, I feel as though the various pundits are describing different nations—different “rooms”

Journalist George Packer recently wrote an article that appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of The Atlantic (Vol. 328). The article, entitled The Four Americas: Competing Visions of the Country’s Purpose and Meaning Are Tearing It Apart, is an insightful exploration of four political worldviews (or four streams of political philosophy) that Packer believes have become primary in America’s national ethos. These “rival narratives,” as Packer describes them, have taken the place of the dominant two narratives that the nation’s two-party political system once generated—two narratives in which “Liberal Republicans” and “Conservative Democrats” once had sufficient political air to breathe and significant roles to play in the functioning of the nation’s political machinery. To Packer’s credit, he is critical of each of the four rival narratives without demonizing any of them. He believes that each narrative offers something important that Americans dismiss at their own peril. He also believes that each narrative, without the correctives and counterbalances provided by the others, is, at best, inadequate and, at worst, destructive to the nation’s moral and philosophical integrity.

Packer calls the first of the four rival narratives “Free America,” and describes it as the most politically powerful and influential narrative of the past half century. The “Free America” narrative places a philosophical emphasis upon the elevation and protection of individual rights and liberties, the furthering of libertarian ideals, and the three-engine impetus of small government, consumer capitalism, and rugged individualism. According to Packer, many who embrace the Free America narrative have “interpreted the Constitution as a libertarian document for individual and states’ rights under a limited federal government, not as a framework for the strengthened nation that the authors of The Federalist Papers envisioned…The purpose of government [in Free America thought] is to secure individual rights, and little else. One sip of social welfare and free government dies.”

As I understand it, the strength of the Free America narrative is that it reflects the very spirit of independence out of which America was born—a resistance to tyranny and governmental oppression that both strengthens political accountability and clarifies the moral vision of America as “the land of the free.” The Free America narrative also gives an important voice to portions of the American population that feel marginalized and, in some cases, silenced by political and social elites. (“I don’t watch the Oscars anymore,” one person said to me recently, “because Hollywood elites are so in love with their own opinions that they act like my opinion and the opinions of many others don’t even matter anymore.”)

The pitfall of Free America thought, however, is that its emphasis on individual rights, if unchallenged and unqualified, can lead to a spirit of isolationism that, while championing freedom FROM government, loses sight of the urgency of freedom FOR responsible and sacrificial citizenship. In such isolationism, paranoia can inspire a person to see tyranny where it is not really present (like in a governmental mask mandate for the protection of a school or community), which tends to result in an outrage that is often more obstructionist than righteous, and frequently more parochial than it is patriotic.

Another criticism (highlighted by Packer) is that the Free America narrative accommodates and, in many ways, depends upon the presupposition that everyone in America has an equal shot at the individual freedom and liberty that the narrative celebrates. If history has taught us anything, it is that such a presupposition is not grounded in truth.

Packer entitles the second narrative “Smart America.” Emphasizing higher education, professional advancement, cultural engagement, and the nurturing of expertise, embracers of this narrative celebrate their cosmopolitan identity and this nation’s long-held prioritization of personal advancement and holistic improvement. Packer describes the narrative in this fashion:

The new knowledge economy created a new class of Americans: men and women with college degrees, skilled with symbols and numbers—salaried professionals in information technology, computer engineering, scientific research, design, management consulting, the upper civil service, financial analysis, law, journalism, the arts, higher education. They go to college with one another, intermarry, gravitate to desirable neighborhoods in large metropolitan areas, and do all they can to pass on their advantages to their children. They are not 1 percenters—those are mainly executives and investors—but they dominate the top 10 percent of American incomes, with outsize economic and cultural influence. They’re at ease in the world that modernity created. They were early adopters of things that make the surface of contemporary life agreeable.

Like Free America, Smart America champions capitalism and a government that does not interfere with advancement. But Smart America tends to believe that “some government interventions are necessary for everyone to have an equal chance to move up.” Proponents of the narrative affirm that “the long history of racial injustice demands remedies…the poor need a social safety net and a living wage…and poor children deserve higher spending on education and health care.”

Interestingly, Smart Americans, according to Packer’s analysis, “are uneasy with patriotism.” They appreciate their country, the freedom it affords, and the sacrifices that have been made to ensure those freedoms, but tend to look upon excessive patriotism as either narcissistic or self-aggrandizing. As Packer puts it, “[Smart Americans] have lost the capacity and the need for a national identity, which is why they can’t grasp its importance for others.” To put this into a contemporary context, in a debate over the issue of kneeling during the national anthem, one of the other narratives might be quick to express offense and outrage over the perceived disrespect. A Smart American, by contrast, might be inclined to wonder why such a big deal is being made about a simple act of protest and might focus instead on gaining a deeper understanding of what is being protested.

The strength of Smart America is its consistent emphases upon intellectual scrutiny and holistic comprehension, both of which help the nation to avoid the toxic danger of being dominated or governed by extreme worldviews and irresponsible conspiracy theories. One of the narrative’s noteworthy dangers, however, is that its championing of knowledge and expertise can breed condescension, classism, and artificial hierarchy, all of which tear at the fabric of national unity. Likewise, Smart America’s ambivalence toward patriotism tends to resonate like unpleasantly dissonant music in the concert hall of a nation that is struggling with its national identity.

Packer calls the third narrative “Real America.” It is, according to Packer, “a very old place,” and is built upon the conviction that “the authentic heart of democracy beats hardest in common people who work with their hands” and that the fullest truth is to be found, not in specialized learning, but in “the native wisdom of the people.”

Here is Packer’s more detailed description of the narrative:

From its beginnings, Real America has been religious, and in a particular way: evangelical and fundamentalist…The truth will enter every simple heart, and it doesn’t come in shades of gray…Finally, Real America has a strong nationalist character. It’s attitude toward the rest of the world is isolationist…but ready to respond aggressively to any incursion against national interests…[In Real America] the villagers can fix their own boilers, and they will go out of their way to help a neighbor in a jam. A new face on the street will draw immediate attention and suspicion.

Real Americans are fiercely loyal to their ideals, which tend to be grounded in a vision for America that emphasizes things like protection, prosperity, tradition, religious freedom, nationalistic pride, and the valuing of the industries upon which this nation was built. They want government to be small in its interference but big in its fight for the working class and in its opposition to any form of elitism that would diminish the middle class. Phrases like “Make America great again” and “Drain the swamp” and “Build the wall” resonate with particular power among Real Americans because such phrases tap into the nationalistic priorities and anti-elitism that Real Americans hold dear.

At its best, the Real America narrative brings to the nation a strong sense of patriotism, an honoring of important segments of tradition and history, and a stubborn refusal to allow leaders to forget about either the working class or the protection of the nation’s citizenry.

If unchecked, however, Real America’s patriotism can quickly and easily degenerate into jingoism; its anti-elitism into a resistance to important expertise; and its fierce Americanism into an accommodation of white Christian nationalism.

Finally, the fourth rival narrative is what Packer calls “Just America.” Fueled by the injustices and inequities (past and present) that our nation has both enabled and accommodated, this narrative grounds itself in a vision for an America where things that are painfully wrong are made right. The governing principle for Just Americans is “justice for all,” and they tend to evaluate the nation’s health and integrity by the degree to which it realizes this principle for its people. As Packer notes, “for Just Americans, the country is less a project of self-government to be improved than a site of continuous wrong to be battled.” According to the narrative, America’s best and most urgent priority is “the historical demand of the oppressed, [which is] inclusion as equal citizens in all the institutions of American life.”

Just Americans long for a government that shares its vision for justice and participates actively and dynamically in the realization of that justice. They long for a citizenry that refuses to remain complacent or indifferent to the struggles of the oppressed and the marginalized. They long for a nation that takes its painful history of racism and sexism seriously while creating a future where such sins no longer have sufficient American air to breathe. According to Packer, Just America “forces us to see the straight line that runs from slavery and segregation to the second-class life so many Black Americans live today—the betrayal of equality that has always been the country’s great moral shame.”

Naturally, the Just America narrative generates a sense of urgency within America’s national consciousness, thereby deepening the country’s heart toward the hurting, the oppressed, and the mistreated. The narrative itself helps to stimulate the nation’s moral sensibilities, even among those who question or oppose the narrative. Case in point, when some Americans respond to the phrase “Black lives matter” with the retort, “No, ALL lives matter,” the Just American might be inclined to take the conversation into deeper moral territory: “Of course all lives matter. But you are missing the point of the phrase. All lives won’t truly matter until we stop doing systemic harm to black and brown lives.” Such conversations help to clarify a nation’s response to racism, even when there is disagreement over some of the particulars.

A fair criticism of the narrative, however, is that the ferocity of its moral vision can lead to a distorted worldview that demonizes all persons and perspectives that do not fully embrace the totality of the narrative. As Packer notes,

What had been considered, broadly speaking, American history (or literature, philosophy, classics, even math) is explicitly defined as white, and therefore supremacist. What was innocent by default suddenly finds itself on trial, every idea is cross-examined, and nothing else can get done until the case is heard.

Also, in the Just America narrative, the intense focus on systemic injustices and institutional policy can obscure the urgency of personal choices, individual initiative, and interpersonal skill. “Structural racism is real,” Packer writes, “but so is individual agency.” Any holistic vision for justice must surely emphasize both.

Four narratives.

Four dynamic stories, each of which a multilayered attempt to interpret a nation’s identity and trajectory and to clarify a nation’s priorities.

Packer does not argue for the superiority of any of the narratives. Neither will I. In fact, I agree wholeheartedly with Packer’s assessment that “each [of the narratives] offers a value that the others need and lacks ones that the others have.”

I have to believe that the healthiest way forward for a divided nation involves a commitment to understanding the different narratives, appreciating the values upon which they are built, affirming their various strengths, acknowledging their various weaknesses and dangers, and clarifying their various distortions. This is hard work, to be certain. It is always far easier to compartmentalize than it is to collaborate. I believe wholeheartedly, however, that America will become a far grander nation when it learns to accommodate its various narratives as important and necessary stories within a shared anthology instead of reducing them to rancorous rhetoric or, worse, battle lines in a civil war.

Our best and only way into a healthy national future is to figure out what it means to become multilingual enough to converse meaningfully and strategically across the spectrum of narratives, thereby generating a national identity that embraces a wide range of important and unifying values—values such as Free America’s freedom, Smart America’s intelligence, Real America’s patriotism, and Just America’s justice.

Packer’s concluding paragraph resonates with important truth in this regard:

We have no choice but to live together—we’re quarantined as fellow citizens. Knowing who we are lets us see what kinds of change are possible. Countries are not social-science experiments. They have organic qualities, some positive, some destructive, that can’t be wished away. Our passion for equality, the individualism it produces, the hustle for money, the love of novelty, the attachment to democracy, the distrust of authority and intellect—these won’t disappear. A way forward that tries to evade or crush them on the road to some free, smart, real, or just utopia will never arrive…But a way forward that tries to make us Equal Americans, all with the same rights and opportunities is a road that connects our past and our future…Neither separation nor conquest is a tenable future.

If you have read this far, perhaps you will travel with me into one more personal reflection:

I am struck by the way in which Packer’s analysis of the nation applies to the current climate in the ecclesiastical setting in which I live out both my vocation and my life of faith: The United Methodist Church.

Like the nation, my Christian denomination is divided over principles and priorities—over different understandings of identity, purpose, and vision for the future. There are at least four (and probably more) rival narratives that are fighting for dominance within United Methodism at present.

To borrow George Packer’s nomenclature, there is a strong “Free Church” narrative within United Methodism—an ethos that advocates for a more congregational (and less connectional) model of church that eliminates denominational ties and accountabilities and places decision-making, prioritization, and even the selection of pastoral leadership entirely in the hands of the local church. The strength of such a narrative is its passion for local ministry and contextualized community impact. Its weakness is its proclivity to the kind of congregational isolationism that limits and perhaps even prevents the kind of global impact (and global sense of community) that a connectional system of polity makes possible.

There is also a “Smart Church” narrative within the denomination. Smart Church clergy and laity believe that the church’s best future depends upon theological and ecclesiastical education, leadership training, and professional expertise. The Smart Church rightly emphasizes the urgency of well trained and well educated leadership and lifelong learning. Its weakness is that it can become dismissive of the important voices and perspectives that often emerge from untrained and non-professional congregants and members of the community.

One of the strongest narratives in contemporary United Methodism is what might be called “Real Church.” With a clear, specific, and almost absolutist set of convictions about what constitutes orthodoxy, correct biblical interpretation, and right practice, Real Church people (on both the right and the left) envision a church that is pure and unified in its doctrine, its teaching, and its behavioral standards. Currently, nowhere is the Real Church narrative more clearly manifested than in the denomination’s divide over human sexuality, with many across the theological spectrum convinced that the particular church they envision is the most “real.” Those who embrace the Real Church narrative help the denomination to clarify its doctrine and deepen its theological understanding of both the church’s ministry and individual discipleship. The danger of the narrative is that the purity and homogeneity of doctrine it pursues can be both elusive and difficult to maintain without theological myopia. Likewise, Real Church thought can feel cold, rigid, and dismissive to those who might bring a differing perspective to what it means to be fully “real” as a church.

Every bit as strong as the “Real Church” narrative is the “Just Church” narrative. In the Just Church’s ecclesiastical vision, nothing is more important than the pursuit and expanding realization of the justice that it believes accompanies God’s reign and the righting of those wrongs that prevent the church and world from being a reflection of that reign. The Just Church looks upon areas of focus such as the dismantling of racism, ministry with the poor, and caring for the sick as being nothing less than the church’s most urgent work in a fallen world where distortions and injustices abound. This narrative helps the United Methodist Church to honor its longstanding emphasis upon social holiness and community transformation. Its weakness is that it can lose sight of the denomination’s other historical points of emphasis, such as personal transformation, individual holiness, and the salvation of souls (as well as bodies).

Many within the denomination believe that these narratives can no longer healthily coexist under one denominational roof—that the “big tent” of United Methodism is no longer big enough for all the narratives. These are the voices that are advocating most fervently for a denominational split in order to allow the different narratives to exist without having to accommodate (or battle) other perspectives. On many days, I am inclined to agree with those voices calling for split. After all, as I wrote earlier related to the nation, compartmentalization (or division) is ultimately easier than navigating collaboration across a diverse theological spectrum.

But there is a significant portion of my soul that believes that George Packer’s words about the nation apply even more to my denominational tribe:

We have no choice but to live together. We’re quarantined as fellow citizens [or fellow disciples]…Neither separation nor conquest is a tenable future.

Nation.

Church.

Both divided. Both searching for a way forward. Both faced with the daunting challenge of deciding between collaboration and division; between staying together and separating; between creating space for multiple narratives and limiting the space so that only the preferred narrative can fit.

It may very well be that you are able to find your own voice easily in one or more of the narratives that Packer identifies and that I have described. If so, I hope that you will resist the temptation in this forum to argue for the rightness of your narrative(s) or the wrongness of someone else’s. Instead, I encourage you to discern the values that fuel other perspectives and listen to the echoes of truth that may resonate within those narratives that are different from yours.

I do not presume to know with any certainty the best way forward. My prayer, however, for both a nation and church I dearly love, is that integrity, compassion, respect, and unity will flourish from sea to shining sea—and from sanctuary to prayerful sanctuary.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s