If conservatives feel silenced, we need to speak

Jul 26, 2017 by

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I was not able to attend the Mennonite Church USA Future Church Summit in Orlando, Fla., but I followed with interest from a distance. I have since been putting together a composite picture of the event — a bricolage of stories and impressions from friends who did attend, seasoned with perspectives shared in the Mennonite media.

In her commentary on FCS, Joanna Harader makes two claims that I would like to explore in greater detail. First, she grants that the feelings of disenfranchisement expressed by conservatives are sincere, but claims that these feelings aren’t grounded in reality. To illustrate, she likens conservatives to her son, who, in her words, has “mental health and developmental struggles.” Second, she claims that conservatives have no one to blame but themselves for the current state of affairs in MC USA. Conservatives have not been “silenced” or barred from participation. Rather, they freely choose not to participate, based on their bad feelings.

Harader treads a well-worn path in the service of her first claim. Old, straight, white people are accustomed to having their voices unfairly amplified. As a result, conservatives (who, on her reckoning, are old straight white people) wield a disproportionately large share of influence. FCS is taking steps to correct this injustice by including a broader spectrum of voices. This means that conservatives are left in possession of a relatively smaller share of influence. While conservatives might feel as though they are being “silenced,” they are really just being treated fairly for the first time.

This is a powerful narrative: a rendering of FCS through the familiar lens of conflict between oppressor and oppressed. It’s a paradigm used by many in MC USA to analyze a wide range of issues. But is this story accountable to the facts? Sadly, we don’t have access to much contemporary sociological work on MC USA. But accounting for both for the liberalizing influence of higher education upon pastors, as well as for the departure of conservative groups like Lancaster Mennonite Conference, Conrad Kanagy’s 2014 survey of credentialed leaders suggests that MC USA is probably still home to significant ideological diversity. Do the themes generated by FCS reflect a body that is ideologically diverse?

Before moving on to Harader’s second claim, I would like to attend to her comparison between the conservative voices at FCS and her son. I admire Harader for adopting a child with special needs. But she does neither young people nor the mentally ill any great service when she compares these groups to a bunch of pouting conservatives! Jokes aside, we should question whether it would be OK for conservatives to infantilize progressives in a similar way.

If I’ve highlighted some modest reasons to consider that progressives actually did wield disproportionate influence at FCS, then the importance of Harader’s second claim becomes apparent, because it shifts accountability for this state of affairs back to conservatives. Disproportionate progressive influence at FCS isn’t MC USA’s fault, let alone the result of some vast progressive conspiracy. Conservatives are free to participate, and they simply choose not to do so. If conservatives would rather wallow in their feelings of disenfranchisement than share in the good work of the denomination, boo-hoo!

I am greatly in sympathy with Harader on this point, for three reasons:

First of all, I find the theatrics of “silencing” and “unsafeness” observed by Harader to be both manipulative and cloying. As a true-blue conservative, I pine for the days when theater was punished with swift and decisive excommunication. We should not resort to such histrionics, most especially when ISIS and Boko Haram are chopping off Christian heads and burning Christian bodies. Such posturing is even more absurd at a convention of avowed pacifists. If conservatives believe that denominational procedures are unfair, then they should invest their energy in articulating why.

Secondly, as someone with a generally conservative outlook (relative to the increasingly narrow spectrum of MC USA), I wish that the people responsible for championing my perspective would speak up. Their timidity is worthy of blame. If a delegate cannot summon the courage to vocalize an unpopular opinion, then he or she should think twice about accepting the responsibility of being a delegate.

Finally, MC USA is weaker (not just in some hokey spiritual sense, but institutionally) without the vigorous participation of conservative stakeholders. If conservatives are unrepresented (or, nearly as important, if conservatives believe themselves to be unrepresented), then MC USA can reasonably anticipate an even greater lack of buy-in from these constituencies, and greater splintering down the road. To the extent that I genuinely lament a lack of conservative participation at FCS, I must part with Harader’s presumptive “boo-hoo” while nevertheless endorsing her general point.

A narrow partisan of the progressive cause might judge that a lack of conservative participation, and so too a relatively weaker challenge to the progressive agenda, is a blessing for MC USA. I urge readers to think in broader terms. I believe that MC USA has a real interest in soliciting the participation of conservatives. How should MC USA do this? I have some hunches. But for the good of the denomination, I hope that progressive and conservative minds alike will apply themselves to this question.

Matthew Cordella-Bontrager is a third-year M.Div student at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., and attends Yellow Creek Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind.

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