PennBDS: Faith and BDS

This is part of a series of articles based on the program of the upcoming PennBDS conference.  Check out this landing page to find out more.

Generally, I like posts (or series of posts) to have self-contained arguments with links providing access to referenced information and sources, and an occasional link to a longer essay or book meant just for those interested in learning more.
But to understand the kind of BDS campaigns and other church-centered political activity being discussed at PennBDS’s workshop entitled “A Faith Based Approach to BDS,” this monograph written by Rabbi Yehiel Poupko and published by the Jewish Center for Public Affairs is required reading.
While containing less than 40 pages of actual reading material, Poupko’s Looking at Them Looking at Us does a remarkable job summarizing the relationship between the three major strands of Christianity (Catholicism, Evangelicalism and Mainline Protestantism) with Jews and the Jewish state.
Poupko succinctly describes the key stories behind the evolving relationship between the Catholic Church, Israel and Jews in the Diaspora, highlighting the important period between Pope Paul VI’s visit to Israel in 1964 and John Paul II’s visit in 2000 which capped off a 36 year period of theological reconciliation between Catholics and Jews.  And his section of Evangelical Christianity helps color a complex theological and political relationship that is too often characterized by cartoonish images of knuckle-dragging Bible thumpers whose support for Israel is based on little more than End-of-Days mythology.
But it is his section on Mainline Protestantism that really answers questions about why churches, particularly Mainline Protestant churches like the Presbyterians and Methodists, feature so prominently in BDS and other anti-Israel propaganda programs.
This story revolves around a number of themes, starting with churches that once were the backbone of institutional America.  Christianity thrived in early America due to an entrepreneurial spirit in which someone who got fed up with his local church or church doctrine was free to set up not only his own house of worship but his own denomination.  And until less than a century ago, virtually every political leader in the country (not to mention leaders in every other field such as industry and academia) would have been a member of one of these churches.
But in the post-WWII era, as these churches faced pressures from the growth of both Evangelical Christianity and secularism, they made a decision to put aside doctrinal differences to pursue an ecumenical approach to Mainline faith.  And who can fault their logic for pursuing this idea?  For in an era where more modern or energetic approaches to faith or non-faith beckoned the young, why waste time debating over the Presbyterian Book of Order when something deeper clearly bound Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians and other so-called “Mainliners” together?
The problem was, what was this “thing” around which they could all rally?  For if these groups would no longer be interested in arguing about what divided them, what was it that actually united them and made them different than the Evangelicals with whom they were competing for souls?
The answer turned out to be secular politics, and secular politics increasingly defined as taking positions that were the opposite of secular political positions Evangelical Christians supported.  And as Poupko points out, in the realm of protest against American foreign policy (including support for Israel) it is not college campuses or labor unions, but Mainline Protestant churches that are the epicenter and primary driver for dissent in the area of foreign affairs.
These decisions to set aside doctrine and instead embrace the worldly political realm have had consequences, the most significant being the increasing the rate of decline of Mainline Protestants, many of which have lost more than 40% of their membership since ecumenicalism became cornerstone policy.  For as these churches replaced their theological distinctiveness for a common (and largely secular) political agenda, what was left to explain the uniqueness of being a Presbyterian vs. joining the Lutherans?  And why join these churches at all when you could get a political fix by participating in secular politics directly or fulfill your spiritual needs in an Evangelical church that did not have a problem explaining what it stood for spiritually?
The fact that these very churches once produced nearly 100% of the country’s leaders makes their struggle to survive and remain relevant all the more acute.  For who can fill the void when the people who once ran the country are not even called to provide a spiritual, moral or religious voice when the Sunday morning TV talk shows do one of their semi-regular “Faith and Politics” features?
With regard to the Middle East, it’s been the Sabeel EcumenicalLiberation Theology Center, a Palestinian Christian group dedicated to casting the Arab-Israeli dispute in Christian terms (with Palestinians representing Christ on the cross), and getting this narrative lodged into mainstream Mainline Protestant discourse.
Unlike unmoored leaders of these Protestant denominations, Sabeel (like other people and groups making up the BDS “movement”) know exactly what they want, and are not the least bit  hesitant in insisting that a church which does not support BDS and similar campaigns is not living up to either its progressive political or Christian identity.
Lacking manpower, direction or a strong-enough self identity, these leaders have become easy prey for partisans insisting that Christians must devote themselves to the Palestinian cause (while also ignoring the plight of non-Palestinian Christians elsewhere in the Middle East – including Christians facing increasing threats from militant Islam) to be considered “authentic” and “committed.”
Until now, it’s actually been the people in the pews who have kept the excesses of the church’s co-opted leadership in check.  This has played out most spectacularly with the Presbyterians whose 2004 divestment resolution anchored the early BDS “movement,” just as a rejection of that divestment stance in 2006 by 95% of members put the BDS virus into remission until quite recently.
But even as new divestment resolutions become a semi-annual ritual at national church gatherings, the big question is becoming not what efforts like those that will be discussed at the PennBDS conference mean for Israel and Christian-Jewish relations, but whether these churches will go to the grave grasping a Sabeel-authored anti-Israel animus that is at odds with not just the vast majority of Americans but a majority of the very people who remain in any Mainline Protestant church.