The divestment debate that will be taking place later this month at the US Presbyterian Church’s (PCUSA) bi-annual General Assembly (GA) is fundamentally a political one.
This seems like an obvious statement of fact, but once the debate revs up it will more and more take on the language of a morality play with sides and positions wrapped in the language of religion. I want to talk about this language in my next posting, but before looking at the words that are being used to describe a political set of decisions, its best to understand as much of the actual politics as we can.
To begin with, any debate on the Arab-Israeli conflict is fundamentally a political one. There are two sides to a conflict and whether one defines those sides as powerful Israelis vs. helpless Palestinians (the BDS political framework) or tiny Israel vs. the vast and wealthy Arab and Islamic worlds (the position of Israel and its supporters), PCUSA delegates are not being asked to stake out a theological position but to take sides in a specific political struggle.
Now taking sides is not necessarily required by the Presbyterians or any other church. In fact, all of the Mainline Protestant churches that have been asked to vote on divestment (which goes beyond taking a side and actually begins punishment procedures against the side that has been rejected) have chosen to instead vote down BDS in favor of policies which ask the parties to the conflict to seek peace with one another. In other words, PCUSA is being asked (for the fifth time) to reject the calls for compromise and negotiation that they and other churches have been making for years in favor of officially coming down on one side of a political conflict.
The way these decisions get made within the church represents another level of politics: church politics. This is not a subject I ever knew much (in fact anything) about. But once the church decided to make political decisions that dramatically impacted people outside their walls (including Israel and its supporters), then knowing how those decisions got made became critical.
Fortunately, Will Spotts has been documenting the specifics of political operations within PCUSA for years (see here and here), which gives we outsiders a glimpse of the particular style of sausage-making that goes into the creation of church policy. And while you’ll need to read Will to get a full sense of the process, suffice to say that all of the grubby backroom dealing, stuffing of committees, truncating of debate, and hidden influence from outside lobbyists one sees in government, corporate or other institutional decision-making is well represented within the church.
There is another political issue hanging over all of the Mainline Protestant churches: how they are supposed to deal with the twin problems of decline and division. Membership in the PCUSA, for example, has declined by more than 40% in the last 40 years as fewer and fewer children of aging members make a commitment to the church (choosing instead secularism or some other form of Christianity – such as Evangelicalism which is growing at the expense of the Mainliners).
Those that remain are divided over whether they need to more tightly embrace the theological issues that make them uniquely Presbyterian or continue to immerse themselves in Ecumenicalism which is increasingly defined as partnership with other Mainline churches in secular political activity (like BDS). Theological division has already caused several splits within the church, with the rival Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) being just one of many splinters churches making up as much as a quarter of US Presbyterians today.
Historically, these splits have taken place of doctrinal issues or (more recently) issues regarding gay marriage and clergy. And individual churches leaving one Presbyterian group for another have led to bloody fights over money and property, highlighting another political angle to the Presbyterian story – the economic politics associated with an institution with billions in land and retirement assets, high costs, and a diminishing dues-paying membership.
PCUSA has maintained its lead position within this network of Presbyterian sub-churches by keeping an open door to members whose doctrinal differences have not yet led them to bolt the mother church. But this “big tent” has prevented church leaders from accomplishing many of the things they clearly want to do, including passing anti-Israel divestment resolutions that have long been rejected by voting members who are supposed to have the final say on what the church stands for.
While the endless pushing of divestment and other divisive legislation at GA after GA demonstrates the inability of PCUSA governance to resist manipulation by single-issue fanatics within their ranks, the unwillingness of the leadership to reign in those fanatics for the good of the church (not to mention Presbyterian-Jewish relations) demonstrates that these leaders may just be in the market for a new set of followers.
What I mean by that is that if these divisive issues finally lead to another major break within PCUSA (which seems likely), the part of the church that would make its priority the continuing embrace of controversial secular political positions would be smaller than today’s church, but could still call itself PCUSA. So rather than trying to win over the membership by presenting a better case, church leaders seem ready to let those that disagree with them go their own way, leaving a rump church that won’t have to bother with divisiveness since it will now be a smaller group made up primarily of the like minded.
You will hear very few of the issues discussed above spelled out in such stark political terms when the General Assembly meets next week. Instead, these matters will be debated using a vocabulary of faith, witness, love and other religious terminology. And being a faith-based organization, the use of a religious vocabulary is more than appropriate – but only if it serves to illuminate, rather than obscure, the more “this-world” political decision-making that will be unfolding when the Presbyterians meet in Pittsburg to talk about their future.