In mid-June, 640 United Methodists drafted a letter asking the United Methodist Church to sanction Attorney General Jeff Sessions over immigration policy, police policy, and comments he made about Romans 13. They used buzzwords like “child abuse” “immorality,” and “racial discrimination.” This was a big story, and The New York Times, USA TODAY, Time, CNN, and other outlets rightly covered it. (The Washington Post had no fewer than three stories about it two days after it broke.)
On July 30, a Methodist Church leader dismissed the attempt to “discipline” Sessions in a brief, one-page letter. Crickets.
One week later, only a few major online outlets — the Christian Post and AL.com — reported the story. None of the mainstream outlets that had rushed to report the budding sanctions against the U.S. attorney general thought it merited a follow-up story to admit that the charges were dropped.
Instead, a few outlets (here’s the Houston Chronicle‘s editorial board) even castigated Sessions after he announced the Department of Justice’s new religious liberty task force last week — suggesting he was not a Methodist in good standing because of the aborted “discipline.”
The 640 United Methodist ministers sent a complaint to Sessions’ pastor in Mobile, Ala., and the pastor of a church he attends in Alexandria, Va., on June 18. The complaint charged Sessions with “child abuse” for the family separation involved in the “zero tolerance” policy enforcing immigration law, “immorality” in supporting violence against children in these circumstances, “racial discrimination” in enforcing border laws, and “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the standards of doctrine in the United Methodist Church.”
Some outlets covered the story that very day, while most had it on June 19 or June 20.
The Rev. Dr. Debora Bishop, superintendent of the Mobile District in which Sessions’ home church (Ashland Place United Methodist Church) is located, wrote that “the judicial process of the United Methodist Church cannot be used in the matter of United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions to address political actions.” She argued that Sessions’ activities were “carrying out the official policy of the President” and that this type of conduct does not fall under the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.
The Rev. Dr. Debora Bishop wrote this letter on Monday, July 30. A photo of that letter was posted on Facebook on Friday, August 3. On Saturday, August 4, United Methodist News Service covered the story. On Sunday, August 5, Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), covered the story in Juicy Ecumenism.
As of Tuesday evening, the mainstream media outlets that had rushed to get out the original story had still not covered the follow-up. Perhaps it was inconvenient for their narrative.
Tooley, who like Sessions is a member of the United Methodist Church in good standing, insisted to PJ Media that The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and others should have covered the dismissal of the charges.
“The charges got such publicity and often implied the church itself was charging when actually [it was] just left-wing clergy in an online petition,” Tooley told PJ Media.
The IRD president told PJ Media the charges against Sessions were “bogus,” and referenced an article he wrote in The Stream explaining what was really going on in this case.
The media jumped to report the story because it concerned United Methodist ministers attempting to use the church’s disciplinary structures to charge Sessions with political heresy. Even among liberal Methodists, this is absurd.
“To precipitate a church trial, Sessions’ pastor in Mobile, Alabama, would have to try reconciliation,” Tooley explained. “Then, the pastor would authorize a church committee of investigation to confirm sufficient cause. If so confirmed, a church trial would include a church prosecutor. That prosecutor would need to persuade a jury of church members. If Sessions was found guilty, termination of church membership would be the harshest penalty.”
Tooley noted that Sessions is a lifelong United Methodist and “widely admired in Alabama Methodism.” Even if the complainants could have tried Sessions in more liberal regions, like New York or California, “there’s no precedent for prosecuting lay people for dissent from denominational political stances.”
Interestingly, the United Methodist Church has a 1,000-page Book of Resolutions urging various liberal pipe dreams like single-payer health care, abolition of handguns, nuclear disarmament, and non-enforcement of U.S. immigration law. The resolutions also include opposition to same-sex marriage, and limits on abortion, however.
Despite these socially conservative stances, “no one has advocated church charges for liberal United Methodist politicians,” Tooley explained.
In his August 5 article, the IRD president noted that “nobody expected the complaint against Sessions to proceed to church trial. Its only purpose was media attention, which succeeded.”
The problem is, now that the media reported the original story, and have waited so long for the follow-up, it seems extremely unlikely they will post articles reporting that Jeff Sessions remains a member of the United Methodist Church in good standing.
In fact, Sessions will speak at an event with the Alliance Defending Freedom on Wednesday, which means that a whole new round of “Attorney General speaks at hate group” headlines will be making their way into the mainstream media.
(Never mind that the Christian law firm Alliance Defending Freedom has won 9 Supreme Court cases in the past 7 years, one of which — Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission — involved the Supreme Court admitting that anti-Christian bias perverted justice. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which itself had to apologize and pay $3.375 million for branding an anti-terrorist Muslim reformer an “anti-Muslim extremist,” is responsible for the false “hate group” smear.)
Sessions should have received a round of stories clearing his name from United Methodist charges. Instead, he’s likely to find a round of stories vilifying him for speaking at a mainstream, well-respected Christian legal group. Such is the state of media in 2018.