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"It's Not About Civil Rights, It's About Holiness"
Contradictory Institutional Logics  in the United Methodist Church's Homosexuality Struggle

Amanda Udis-Kessler
Grinnell College


Presented at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion 2001 Annual Meeting, Friday, October 19, 2001

Please do not cite, quote or otherwise use without permission.


The United Methodist Church has been in tension over lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (hereafter "LGBT") inclusion issues since 1972. That year, in response to the gay liberation and gay rights movements, wording was added to the denominational lawbook characterizing homosexual practice as "incompatible with Christian teaching." In 1976, delegates to the denomination’s General Conference passed legislation forbidding the use of church funds to "promote" homosexuality or the acceptance of homosexuality. In 1984, the ordaining of "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals" as pastors was forbidden. In 1996, it was ruled that pastors were not allowed to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies, and United Methodist churches were not allowed to host them. In response to votes at the 2000 General Conference upholding the current prohibitions, civil disobedience resulted in the arrest of almost 200 people, including two Methodist bishops (Hilton 1992: ch. 5; United Methodist News Service 2001; Wood 2000).

While most United Methodists appear to hold moderate positions on this issue, caucuses have developed on both sides, each with distinctive - and conflicting – goals. LGBT Methodists and their allies (family members, other progressive Methodists) seek full inclusion for all in the denomination without regard for sexual or gender identity (Sample and DeLong 2000). Conservative and Evangelical Methodists seek to maintain the denomination’s doctrinal and Scriptural standards, and thereby its integrity (Heidinger 2000).

The two sides, of course, see homosexuality entirely differently. What to the Evangelicals is a sinful act or practice is, to the inclusionists as I call them, a basic identity. What to the Evangelicals is a moral wrong is, to the inclusionists, a civil right. What the Evangelicals see as a choice, comparable to thievery or prostitution is experienced by the inclusionists as a given. Those Evangelicals who admit that homosexuality may be a given, see it as equivalent to alcoholism, symbolic of a fallen world, and urge homosexuals to abstain or to become transformed to heterosexuals. Inclusionists see homosexuality as equivalent to race or gender, a morally neutral status. Finally, to Evangelicals, electing a "homosexual lifestyle" indicates selfish rebellion against God, whereas, for inclusionists, being an out, proud LGBT Christian is a way of glorifying God by affirming that God made one gay and that gay is therefore good.

Given the complexity of this conflict, I suspect that no one approach to it has complete explanatory power. Indeed, I would not wish the remainder of my talk to suggest that Weberian social conflict analyses (e.g., Murphy 1988; Parkin 1979) and Hunter’s "culture wars" approach (Hunter 1991) shed no light on the struggle. Nonetheless, in studying the Methodist contention over homosexuality, I have come to believe that the best way to get at the nature of the conflict is through the neo-institutionalist concept of contradictory institutional logics. This concept, developed by Roger Friedland and Robert Alford (1991), focuses on key societal institutions (or what we might call institutional sectors), such as the family, the economy, the state, and others.

Friedland and Alford (1991: 248) claim that each key social institution has its own central logic. This entails a "set of material practices and symbolic constructions," or what I would call meaning systems. I would add to their definition that an institutional logic also includes a specific form of consciousness and a particular set of priorities for action. When we are acting in relation to one of these key institutions, we are carrying out practices, conceptualizing how things are and how they ought to be, experiencing our situation and ordering our activities around the logic relevant to that institution.

Friedland and Alford further claim (1991: 258) that institutional logics can be in contradiction, and that institutional conflict is best understood as a struggle over the appropriate logic by which given activities should be regulated, and to which categories of persons they apply. While Friedland and Alford discuss five institutional logics, the two most relevant to the case at hand are religious logic and democratic logic.

The meaning system element is key to Friedland and Alford’s religious logic, with the question of how things are and how they ought to be occupying center stage. This logic, suggest Friedland and Alford (1991: 248), is that of a sacred canopy, of the symbolic construction of reality, of truth. This is not to say that the other elements of institutional logics are absent; the key institutional practice noted by Friedland and Alford is worship (1991: 249-250), the key form of consciousness would arguably be awareness of the spiritual, and the central priority, actually suggested by Friedland and Alford (1991: 249), is the "conver[sion of] all issues into expression of absolute moral principles accepted voluntarily on faith and grounded in a particular cosmogony."

In contrast, the priority of what Friedland and Alford call democratic logic is the maximizing of individual participation in social structures as a basic human right, and the "extension of popular control over human activity" (1991: 248). Friedland and Alford’s key organizational practice is voting (1991: 249), though I would argue that political activism in a social change movement should also be viewed as a practice central to this logic. Under the group-based extension of democratic logic presupposed by the incorporation of social change movements, images of how things are and how they ought to be center on the presence of inequality and the desire for greater equality, the existence of oppression and the intent to end oppression. Finally, the form of consciousness at the heart of the democratic logic involves both a sense of connectedness with the suffering and a deep knowledge of the wrongness of the inequality at hand.

With this conceptual apparatus established, let’s see how stakeholders on both sides of the Methodist homosexuality struggle view the conflict. First, here are some quotes from LGBT Methodists and their allies:

"[The current rules] create a second or third class type of citizenship in the Kingdom of God" (Blaney 2000).

"The inclusion of [LGBT people] into the full covenantal life of the Church is not a peripheral issue…It is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are to be about the business of mercy and love and justice…of extending God’s acceptance and blessing to all people" (Sample and DeLong 2000: 30).

"Our cause is justice for all" (Beeman 2001: 2).

In contrast, here are some quotes from Evangelicals and moderates:

"Homosexuality, or the practice of same-sex orientation, is wrong, it is a sin, it is non-Biblical and my convictions are non-negotiable."

"For the church, it’s not a rights or a justice issue, it’s a moral issue."

"To maintain integrity, I just can’t say [homosexuality] is okay. I would not be true to myself [or] to my own understanding of Scripture."

"It’s not about civil rights, it’s about holiness."


These quotes, and a great many more from my fieldwork, my interviews and my background reading suggest the following interpretation of the homosexuality struggle in the United Methodist Church: Methodist LGBT people and their allies, having no other way to seek full participation in the life of their church, have wound up interweaving democratic logic with religious logic in all possible senses of both logics. They worship and they protest. They encounter the world as sacramental, and as unjust. Abiding gratitude and unyielding anguish co-exist in their spirits. They simply want to be in the church, but they are unable to let the church simply be.

Unsurprisingly, the response of Methodist Evangelicals and arguably at least some moderates is to energetically resist what they see as the incursion of what I would call an alien logic into the church. Their resistance involves drawing what they themselves call "lines in the sand". Their practice involves organizing politically so that delegates sympathetic to their views will be the ones voting on how much or how little to change the denominational rulebook. Their meaning system is focused on the need for Scriptural integrity and doctrinal boundaries in a situation where these appear to be threatened, and their experience of the situation is, I suspect, a mix of anger, fear, and a strong desire for control. Their priorities are to maintain the church as they have known it and loved it, which means making sure that sin is not blessed and called holy.

I noted earlier Friedland and Alford’s contention that institutional conflict involves the struggle over the categories of persons whose activities should be evaluated in terms of a given institutional logic. A related point can be made here. Both the inclusionists and the Evangelicals are engaging in political activity in their attempts to jockey for control over the voting floor at General Conference, but only the inclusionists are being defined as political. Indeed, when one’s denominational lawbook is voted on every four years, there is no way to keep politics out of the equation. Nonetheless, I would argue, the politics of voting is rendered invisible before the politics of demonstrating, and the suits and ties of the conservatives are normalized when compared to the LGBT symbols exhibited by the inclusionists. A broader argument can be made that the LGBT/ally identity is inherently political simply because of its history, but in any case, labeling LGBT Methodists political in this setting is a way of delegitimizing them, their situation and their claims.

It’s worth taking just a moment to reflect further on the complexity of those claims. To the great majority of Methodists, church is not supposed to be a site of struggle, certainly not of the sort involving civil disobedience and the arrest of bishops. In contrast, the words and actions of the inclusionists indict their beloved denomination as an oppressor that must be overthrown, even as United Methodism remains their beloved denomination in which they want, more than anything, to remain as openly LGBT pastors, as same-sex couples wed within the church, and as members whose sexuality is not a problem because "there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3: 28).

Friedland and Alford (1991: 256) claim that it is through the politics of institutional contradictions that the institutional structure of society is transformed. This point has direct bearing on the United Methodist situation in terms of the historical context within which the current struggle developed. Arguably, different institutional logics can be in social ascendance at different points in time, and I think that the level of resistance on the part of most Methodists to full LGBT inclusion has something to do with the fact that we are living in a historical period when the democratic logic is in at least public ascendance over the religious logic. I’m talking, of course, about secularization as the declining public authority of religion to order our lives on a large-scale social level, and about the simultaneous proliferation and increasing importance of a multitude of group-based identities over the past two hundred or so years. Indeed, I would argue, my expanded version of the democratic logic makes no sense apart from the existence of contested identities on the basis of which one can either be included in, or excluded from, political participation in its various forms.

With the idea of publicly contentious institutional logics in mind, we might reflect in closing on the fact that so many conservative and moderate Methodists talk of drawing lines in the sand on the issue of homosexuality in the church. Not only does this phrase point to the arbitrary nature of where a line is drawn, it also poignantly suggests the ultimate instability of the line. Literal lines in the sand are washed away by water, blown away by wind. Institutional lines in the sand are battered by the diffusion of cultural change in the surrounding environment, buffeted by isomorphic tensions and tendencies. It’s no wonder the conservative and moderate Methodists hold on as they do. Where else but in their beloved denomination can it still be said that it’s not about civil rights, it’s about holiness?

Whatever the outcome of the struggle, the stakes remain high for both sides. I have suggested here that approaching this conflict from a neo-institutionalist perspective offers a particularly valuable way of understanding the situations of the stakeholders, one that helps us grasp both what the stakes are and why they remain so high.


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