A few weeks ago, Hal Conklin’s mayoral campaign heralded endorsements from several dozen Christian “faith leaders and members.”
The press release quoted the Rev. Dr. Denny Wayman, Superintendent of the Free Methodist Church (FMC), where Conklin worships:
“I am confident,” Wayman said, “that Hal will create the environment where human and spiritual values can thrive.”
Which raised an intriguing question: Whose spiritual values?
The politics of religion. Conklin’s religious endorsements are not surprising.
Prominent in his local church, on the Mesa, he also ranks high in the FMC’s national hierarchy, as Chairman of its Board of Administration.
And he shares his “Christian worldview” widely, through “Cinema in Focus,” a column co-written with Rev. Wayman, presenting film reviews as “spiritual and social commentary.”
More surprising, however, was a perusal of a recent edition of the FMC's "Book of Discipline," described on the national organization’s website as its “official statement of doctrine and governance.”
Distinct from the United Methodist Church, FMC is a smaller denomination, headquartered in Indianapolis.
Sections of its stated ideology align with conservative Christian activists spurring the fiercely contested Republican push in Washington to undo laws and regulations governing abortion rights,, among other volatile cultural issues.
According to the Book of Discipline:
Gay marriage is proscribed and “homosexual intimacy” is “immoral,” included on a list of “unnatural sexual behavior such as incestuous abuse, child molestation, homosexual activity and prostitution" (Sections 3215 and 3311).
“The concept of special creation” should be presented “in, or along with, courses, textbooks, library materials and teaching aids” providing public school instruction about evolution (Section 3321).
What Hal says. As a political matter, Democrat Conklin is running as a liberal –- directly competing for progressive votes against City Council members Cathy Murillo and Bendy White amid a five-person race, so such religious pronouncements raise political questions:
Does Conklin accept Book of Discipline positions on highly charged political issues? How would he, as mayor, separate his personal role as a national FMC leader from public actions and pronouncements? Does he use his position as national president of the board to attempt to influence or change church doctrine?
In two interviews and several email exchanges, Conklin stressed that his faith rests, not on the FMC’s Book of Discipline, but on its overarching, Gospel-inspired “Five Freedoms.”
Roughly characterized, these first principles are: racial equality; gender equality; dignity and justice for the poor; shared clergy-laity power within the church; freedom to worship "inspired by the Holy Spirit.”
Consistent with these core values, he said, each FMC church, and each member, must judge the Book of Discipline's “guidance” individually. His choices, he said, focus him on civil rights, community service and social justice.
“It’s not the Catholic Church, or other denominations where they say, ‘this is the way you’re going to do it,'” he said. “You have to decide.”
“Santa Barbara’s (church) chose to do it its own way, and Kansas City chose to do it another way,” he added. “Nobody questions whether your answer is the same as my answer. You’re the one that has to be accountable for how you choose to interpret it.”
Question of choice. As mayor, Conklin said, the FMC doctrine would be irrelevant because “the city council doesn’t relate to those issues.”
“My personal beliefs have nothing to do with these particular issues,” he said. “The city lives under a rule of law. Whatever the law, it has to be protected.”
Julie Mickelberry, vice president of Planned Parenthood’s Central Coast chapter, disagreed with that perspective, without reference to Conklin.
“The reality is that city councils have a significant amount of influence on issues and agencies that impact women’s access to reproductive health care and safe legal abortion,” she said.
For example, Mickelberry noted a $10,000 grant Planned Parenthood receives through the city; the 1995 “bubble ordinance,” protecting from "harassment" patients who access health centers providing abortions; a recent council resolution opposing federal efforts to disallow Medicaid patients from using Planned Parenthood health centers.
Conklin said he esteems Planned Parenthood and backs settled abortion law.
Is he pro-choice or pro-life?
“Neither of those simplistic but highly-charged political terms describe me,” he said in an email.
“I would describe myself as a ‘democratic libertarian’ regarding public policy (keep the government out of legislating personal behavior; each person has to make a personal moral or ethical decision)…
…“And a ‘classical pacifist’ regarding my personal values (I would not personally choose to hurt any form of life including participating in war except for self-defense, prescribing the death penalty, hunting for sport, choosing abortion except for saving a mother's life…)” (Emphases his).
Institutional responsibility? I asked Hal if he used his influence as Chairman of the Board of Administration of the Free Methodist Church to try to change its doctrine.
“Do you ever say, ‘this is nuts?’” I said, referring to the section of doctrine that calls for creationism to be taught alongside evolution in public schools.
"These are not the issues we deal with, we don’t deal with any of these issues. We deal with administrative and financial issues," he said.
"I was a little surprised when I was asked to step into an administrative role, but I think because I have strong administrative skills, and they were looking for somebody that had those skills,” he added.
Homosexuality and gay marriage. In an interview over coffee at Daily Grind, I asked Hal about a portion of the Book of Discipline that describes homosexuality as “immoral” and prohibits gay marriage.
Does he think homosexuality is immoral?
“I think lots of things are immoral but it’s almost irrelevant,” he said. “I don’t go around condemning people for homosexuality.”
“(The Book of Discipline) is a set of standards that, collectively, people have all voted on about what we think is the best way to live,” he said. “Now you have to decide - it’s really a guidance for you to decide how you’re going to live, but it’s not telling you what to do.”
What about church tenets forbidding gay marriage?
"(Legality) is the law of the land," he said.
"In many ways in my political life I’m more of a libertarian than I am a Democrat," he said, noting that. “I chose a chief of staff when I was mayor who was a member of the gay community,.
”I love people…regardless of what their backgrounds are," he said.
For the record: Among the other mayoral candidates, council members and fellow Democrats Cathy Murillo and Bendy White are pro-choice; both have 100 percent ratings from Planned Parenthood, and each is receiving a $500 campaign contribution from the organization's local chapter; business executive and Decline-to-State independent Angel Martinez said in an email that, "I am and have always been 100 percent pro-choice"; council member Frank Hotchkiss, who is a Republican, said, "that's a personal decision that everyone must make on their own" and did not respond when asked if he supports overturning Roe v. Wade.
(A version of this column is published in this week's Santa Barbara Independent).
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