The Presbyterians Teach Us a Lesson

As promised, I’m laying off the Berkeley subject for a bit in order to focus on another upcoming matter: July’s gathering of representative voting members of the Presbyterian Church of the US at this year’s bi-annual PCUSA General Assembly (or GA).

Long-term readers may recall a number of references I’ve made to a 2004 vote by the Presbyterian Church in favor of beginning a process of “phased selective divestment” from Israel. This vote was taken at the 2004 GA and while it was reversed two years later at the church’s next General Assembly, during the two years between ’04-’06, PCUSA became the “anchor client” for BDS, the example divestment activists pointed to when advocating for divestment from schools, unions, cities and other churches.

Just as PCUSA was divestment’s anchor in ’04 and ’05, so it became the lynchpin which caused BDS to unravel once church members rejected divestment by an overwhelming majority of 95-5%. Other churches followed the Presbyterians’ lead, with the Methodists rejecting divestment unanimously, and the Presbyterians confirming their 2006 decision when divestment was pushed again in 2008.

Sadly, in 2010 the church has decided that virtually any anti-Israel resolution, regardless of how hostile, unbalanced or inaccurate, can be brought to the floor of the General Assembly so long as it avoids the call for divestment that members have made abundantly clear they absolutely reject. This year’s ugly controversies have already started. But, as one long-time Presbyterian Church member (a woman I was stuck in a security line with at this year’s AIPAC conference, as a matter of fact) told me, the vast majority of PCUSA members no longer pay attention or care about what comes out of the GA.

According to her, church leaders have become so detached from members that the entire GA has turned into an irrelevant game where these leaders push their own political agenda (in the guise of supporting resolutions from a small number of Presbyteries who have made it their life’s work to nail Israel to the cross), only to have it shot down at the General Assembly, the only forum where church members have a voting say.

I was wondering why this year’s PCUSA gathering felt so much less threatening than in years past, until I read this piece by my friend and fellow activist Dexter Van Zile. In addition to being the only activist I tend to run into in civilian life (most recently at the Department of Motor Vehicles), Dexter has also forgotten more about church-related BDS and other anti-Israel dynamics than I will ever know.

GA meetings are Webcasted, and when I watched divestment play itself out in 2006, I couldn’t help noticing that a general budget discussion unrelated to Middle East politics was based on the assumption that the church would lose tens of thousands of members before the next PCUSA conclave and should plan accordingly. Understanding from my other (business) life that budgets are where the rubber meets the road, this reinforced the difficult fact that the Presbyterian Church, like nearly all of the once-powerful Mainline Protestant churches in America, is dying.

Now these churches have been declining for decades, struggling with competitors such as Evangelical churches but mostly losing people to secularism and indifference. But as Dexter points out, this loss has accelerated over the last 25 years with the church losing over a million members (or 31+%) between 1983 and 2008. Few church members have managed to convince their children to stay, which makes the average age of an enrolled Presbyterian somewhere in the high 50s.

Now it would be unfair to say that the church’s decades-long attacks on Israel are responsible for their present predicament. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that these attacks and the church’s general decline are both symptoms of the same malady.

In this case, the illness is the PCUSA’s desire to substitute secular political advocacy for religious experience, all the time dressing up the former as the latter (best exemplified by the tendency to wrap church pronouncements on the Middle East conflict or other international and domestic issues as examples of “Christian Witness”). Yet by embracing politics in such a way the churches provide wavering members with clear-cut alternatives to staying in the church: (1) joining straightforward political organizations if their interest is politics; and/or (2) joining another type of church if they are looking for a religious experience.

Now this is not to say that the Presbyterians (or any religious group) should stick their nose out of political matters. After all, issues such as slavery and Civil Rights became political matters because churches (headlined by the Mainliners) embraced them as moral causes. But just as the church derived deserved praise for thoughtfully and courageously taking on difficult matters, it also loses credibility when it embraces political positions simply because another group of people (such as anti-Israel activist from Middle East churches) tell them it’s their only choice.

Now I started this discussion by saying it was not about Berkeley, but in fact the PCUSA story is about every organization that is tricked, cajoled, maneuvered or threatened to hand its reputation over to the BDS movement, a hand-off that is always leaves internal strife and diminished perception of integrity of the institution that’s gone down the divestment route.

Leaders of PCUSA and other Mainline Protestant churches complain bitterly that the media no longer comes to them to get quotes on the burning moral/political issues of the day. But could it be that the media know something these church leaders don’t? And could it be that a vote for divestment by organizations like the Berkeley Student Senate represents a similar means to announce to the student body, the school’s administration and the whole world that they are a group not to be taken seriously, especially when they start talking about serious matters?

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