PCUSA – Decline and Fall?

The Presbyterian Church represents an interesting case study on the degenerative impact of the embrace of BDS and similar strategies by institutions.

In one respect, the church has clearly not developed the anti-bodies needed to defend against those who want nothing more than to leverage the reputation of the centuries-old church, to get their Israel=Apartheid message stuffed into the organization’s mouth by any means necessary.

Municipalities, colleges and university administrations and (increasingly) food co-ops seem pretty well immunized from or resistant to infection by the divestment virus, but the fact that this year’s Presbyterian General Assembly will feature a dozen anti-Israel resolutions and reports, despite members voting down similar initiatives in both 2006 and 2008, indicates there is still an institutional opening for those who are prepared to relentlessly pursue their political agenda, regardless of the damage it might cause the organization.

At the same time, PCUSA is far from the terminal stage of this particular disease, a stage best exemplified by now irrelevant institutions like the Green Party and Lawyer’s Guild which in an exchanges last year I described as looking like little more that rotting corpses with anti-Israel activists working the fleshless skull like a hand-puppet in order to get these once significant but now desiccated institutions to act as the voice for their party line.

Now one could point out the diminishing membership of the Presbyterian Church which lost over a million members in the last 25 years. With an accelerating rate of decline, and an average membership age hovering in the high 50s, PCUSA might find itself at the beginning (or even the middle) of the end, leaving what’s left of the organization vulnerable to the same fate that befell the Greens.

But that ignores the role people play in creating an institution’s future. And while the church may have lost a million members since 1983, that still leaves two million Presbyterians in the US who could reverse some of the excesses within the church that are inexorably intertwined with the institution’s seeming collapse.

Individuals certainly played a role in getting PCUSA (and other Mainline denominations) where they are today. If you read Rabbi Yehiel Poupko’s remarkable treatise Looking at Them Looking at Us, you’ll discover how logical and well-meaning decisions made after World War II to try to bridge the various Mainline Protestant denominations (a reasonable step for fractious institutions facing challenges from both Evangelicalism and Secularism) ended up washing away distinctions that gave each church its own unique character, diminishing each church’s once unique appeal.

Just as significantly, this quest for unity led to a quest for issues to unify around and, as both Poupko and Will Spotts in his 2004 essay Pride and Prejudice point out, this consensus was built around achieving secular political vs. religious or spiritual goals, making the church a weak competitor against purely secular political organizations and movements while simultaneously continuing to diminish the church religious message and identity.

Worse, this new devotion to ecumenicalism and politics created a situation where PCUSA leaders have more affinity with leaders of other Protestant denominations and “ecumenical partners” such as the Sabeel Liberation Theology Center (a Palestinian Christian group behind most church divestment activity over the last 25 years) than they have with their own members.

This is why anti-Israel Overtures and reports continue to flower within the organization, despite the fact that church members are clearly uncomfortable with the positions the church seems to taking in their name vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is why Sabeel and similar international political/religious organizations, organizations far more dedicated to their own political agenda than they are to the needs of their interfaith partners, seem to have been given veto power over church statements on the conflict.

It’s clear that anti-Israel activists within the church, supported by church leaders, will continue to relentlessly pursue their agenda regardless of the rifts this might cause within the church and between PCUSA and Jewish interfaith partners. Israel’s supporters, on the other hand, can only advocate to church members by providing material like this, in hopes that those who still inhabit the pews (voices that only get to be heard once every two years at PCUSA General Assemblies), will have the information they need to make sound and moral decisions.

2 thoughts on “PCUSA – Decline and Fall?”

  1. No, the PC(USA) is not quite a corpse animated by BDS activists. There is still life in Presbyterians. For the time being, anyway.

    It's just that opposing this requires a level of attention and even unpleasantness that most ordinary Presbyterians simply don't or won't go for. For the situation to improve the BDS movement in the PC(USA) would have to be clearly and categorically rejected by the GA and the membership.

    So far you have a situation in which various institutional elements are on one side, a minority of institutional elements go a different direction, and the 2+ million members you mentioned act as if these are irrelevant to their lives. For very understandable reasons. But if unchecked, little by little it does trickle down to those members, and the activism itself has the potential to cause overt harm to non-Presbyterians.

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