News and Views

Why should UMs participate in legislative advocacy?

Posted by on

By Neal Christie

Active members of The United Methodist Church are motivated to engage in mission projects. We offer direct service through our communities or congregations. We meet people at the point of their needs. But many United Methodists are also engaged in advocating for justice. Some of us may have questions about what it means to take part in “legislative advocacy”.  

“So what does it mean to take part in legislative advocacy?”

As Christians, we are motivated by our wholehearted faith in God whom we know through Jesus Christ to love our neighbor and to care for creation so that all can flourish and experience abundant life (John 10:10). Our mission as United Methodists is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”.  

Together with millions of faithful people who accept God’s call to meet immediate needs: offer acts of care, compassion, and mercy, we feed the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned, clothe the naked, welcome the sojourner, and in the process, we encounter Jesus (Matthew 25:31). We reduce the distance between those who suffer and those who have the ability to respond to that suffering.  We also pray as Jesus has taught us to pray and participate in bringing about God’s realm in heaven right now on this earth (Matthew 6:9-13). 

We desire the beloved community and common good for all people and all creation (Acts 11:1-18). We begin to surrender not only our personal habits and preferences that promote injustice, but also promote policies in our society that reflect God’s abiding desire for justice and equity, peace, and wholeness.

Legislative advocacy happens when people of faith are motivated by these convictions. While mercy ministry often will offend no one, when we pursue justice through legislation we will find ourselves likely offending someone. Why? Because we not only care about those who suffer but we look for the causes that perpetuate their suffering. We work to repair what is broken in people’s lives, communities, and our entire society. Informed by the teaching and positions of The United Methodist Church we build relationships and work closely with legislators to shape bills in the County, State Assembly, or U.S. Congress that best reflect our social teaching. This can take place in our conversations with decision-makers or it can be part of a larger campaign that mobilizes thousands of supporters through letters, emails, and phone calls. It takes place in church fellowship halls or in the halls and offices where legislators meet, or it can happen in the diverse neighborhoods where we live, learn, work, rest and worship.  

“Are United Methodists lobbying when they engage in legislative advocacy?”

Only the General Conference of the United Methodist Church can speak for The United Methodist Church. United Methodist members and United Methodist congregations apply the positions and values and support for public policies as articulated in the United Methodist Book of Resolutions and the United Methodist Social Principles to the urgent issues of the day.  

The UMC believes that churches have “the right and the duty to speak and act corporately on those matters of public policy that involve basic moral or ethical issues and questions. The attempt to influence the information and execution of public policy at all levels of government is often the most effective means available to churches to keep before humanity the ideal of a society in which power and order are made to serve the ends of justice and freedom for all people” (Church-Government Relations).

The United Methodist Book of Resolutions: Church Government Relations also says, “Scripture recognizes that faithfulness to God requires political engagement by the people of God.”

Are other religious organizations participating in legislative action?

Yes. There are a variety of other faith-based organizations that participate in legislative action, such as The Friends Committee on National LegislationFaith in ActionThe Ecumenical Advocacy AllianceThe Council on American Islamic Relations, and many more. Each is motivated by their moral convictions and particular faith tradition.

“What makes legislative advocacy different for United Methodists?”

Christians have served as a catalyst for transforming societies for over 2,000 years. 

From John Wesley forward to the start of the 20th century, Methodists seek to mirror God’s kingdom through our convictions to abolish slavery and human trafficking, secure access to health and organize workers’ rights for women and men, put an end to child labor, and secure living wages. And we have been part of significant moral movements that included legislative advocacy: racial desegregation and support for voter rights, increased environmental protection, promoting fair labor laws, standing up for disability rights, and freedom from religious persecution. United Methodists have helped shape legislation at the national level that promotes human dignity and human rights, climate justice, an end to militarism, and peacebuilding.  

The 1908 Social Creed, Our Social Creed, and The United Methodist Social Principles outline many of the issues we care passionately about. Living Our Principles is a video series where you can hear local and national United Methodists share how they have taken action through public policies and legislative action.

How do I respond to church members who tell me we shouldn’t be political and that the separation of church and state stops us from doing anything political?

“The United Methodist Church historically has supported the separation of church and state. However, ‘The church should continually exert a strong ethical influence upon the state, opposing policies and programs that are unjust (❡164. B).” (United Methodist Book of Resolutions, #5012). Speaking from our moral convictions local churches and United Methodist members are encouraged to engage legislative decision-makers and advocate for our positions as found in the Social Principles and Book of Resolutions.   

“While declaring our ultimate allegiance is to God, Scripture recognizes that faithfulness to God requires political engagement by the people of God…The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church assert: ‘We believe that the state should not attempt to control the church, nor should the church seek to dominate the state. Separation of Church and state means no organic union of the two, but it does permit interaction’ (❡164. C).” 

The 2016 United Methodist Book of Resolutions also explains that: “The United Methodist Church membership extends beyond the U.S. boundaries; it is global. So, in many cases, we are speaking to, from, or with more than one national government. Further, the Christian church must never be a mirror image of any government, whether Democrat or Republican, totalitarian or democratic. We know that Christians are obligated to be responsible and participating citizens under any governmental system, but that response and participation is to be interpreted in light of our faith.”

I hear about divisiveness in county and State Assembly meetings as well as in Congress. Is it effective to ask church members to contact their elected officials about legislation?

It is encouraging and satisfying when policymakers share our views and positions. It can feel discouraging and even disheartening when they do not. We may also agree with several of the UMC’s positions and we may strongly disagree on other positions.  Legislators need to listen to and hear from people whom both agree and disagree with them. God has a way of transforming not only our hearts but also our minds and our societies when we shift our perspectives and build relationships with people who are most directly impacted by an issue.

Look for what you have in common with your legislators. You could share similar values or aspirations for society.  Cultivate a relationship with their office staff.  We may find that there is a common ground where we least expected. Tell your story to your legislators and explain why you care about an issue: clean energy, air, water, food; access to affordable health care,  education, and technology; the wellbeing of vulnerable immigrants and refugees, the rights of persons living with disabilities, and the needs of those recovering from addictions; restorative justice for people leaving incarceration; and how we address the harm caused by war and violence are some of the issues United Methodists care about. 

Explain to your legislator why you are concerned and how an issue impacts you and your community and why certain policies do or do not align with our United Methodist social teaching. 

Can United Methodists support particular candidates for office?

According to the IRS, “all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.  Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.” And the Johnson Amendment of 1954 specifically prohibits nonprofit and religious organizations from participating in political candidate endorsements. 

The United Methodist Church does not have a PAC (Political Action Committee) nor does it financially contribute to any political party or candidates. We are not registered lobbyists and we operate within guidelines established for 501c(3) organizations.

Our engagement with elected officials reflects our commitment to the moral mandates found in The United Methodist Church’s Social Creed, Social Principles, United Methodist Book of Resolutions, and other statements of the General Conference. 

What are ways we can engage our elected representatives as United Methodists?

We are informed by The United Methodist Social Principles and The Book of Resolutions and we can engage in nonpartisan activities that educate and encourage people to participate in the electoral process.

We can vigorously discuss moral and public policy issues. We can call and write to and meet with elected representatives and policymakers and tell them where The United Methodist Church stands on urgent public policies. 

We can sponsor voter registration drives if conducted in a non-partisan manner, and provide education on specific legislation in a non-partisan manner. We can welcome local governments to use church facilities to serve as polling places. We can host candidate forums as long as all candidates are invited and a broad range of issues is discussed and all candidates have equal opportunity to speak. We can encourage people to get out to vote and help people get to the polls. 

As a matter of Christian discipleship—loving as Jesus loves and seeing all of God’s people—and as a Wesleyan spiritual practice, we can advocate for justice and fairness in our communities. We can work alongside other faith-based and civil organizations to promote the common good. 

We can work to repair public policies that harm or oppress God’s people and God’s creation. 

We do these things as part of the body of Christ and as followers of Jesus who defined his ministry by saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”(Luke 4:14-30)

How will our participation in legislative advocacy help us grow in our faith as disciples of Jesus Christ?

Our commitment to legislative advocacy reflects the absolute truth that we are wonderfully made in God’s image and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Chris was created to know and experience the depths of that love through Beloved Community. Beloved Community will always be known for its commitment to practicing fairness, equity just, and love. We are called to offer mercy and “bind up the wounds” of those who suffer by offering food, clothing, shelter, and ministries that heal (Psalm 147:3; Luke 10:25-37). 

Our acts of compassion and mercy, however, will not replace our sustained commitment to enact just legislative policies that directly address why people remain without access to sustainable food, secure housing, and jobs that pay a living wage. Justice requires that we advocate for quality affordable education that provides meaningful options for all people, a legal system that is based on restored relationships, and laws that secure human dignity and human rights. Our gracious response to God’s love in Jesus Christ and through the power of the Spirit is to “Give justice to the weak and fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and destitute (Psalm 82:3). We learn from the powerful illustration of the persistent and insistent widow whom Jesus lifted as an example because she relentlessly sought justice in the public square (Luke 18:1-8). In response to the hopeful, prophetic call to stay in covenant with one another we take seriously the words from Micah:  “God has told you O Mortal, what is good; and what does God require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8);  

Comments
Rev. Dr. Marlon Tilghman Jan 26, 2023 7:16am

This is an outstanding overview of what advocacy looks like. I would add that if the people you’re helping are not at the table of organizing for change and their liberation you may be tempted to compromise the actual goal/legislation for what is will give them full liberation. The book “No Short Cuts Organizing for Power” helps to avoids that compromise. “If I am not at the table of what you’re doing for me, you’re doing it to me.” Carl Fields (formerly incarcerated person)

Name: