The biennial General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) met in Detroit from June 14 to 21, 2014. It adopted two widely reported measures—one allowing same-sex marriages to be celebrated in the PCUSA, the other divesting the latter from three American corporations whose products supposedly help the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
The PCUSA is the largest of several Presbyterian churches in America. It resulted from the merger of two earlier churches in 1983. Endless divisions, schisms and mergers are presumably in the DNA of American Protestantism because of the combination of two factors–the luxurious flowering of pluralism in this country, and the vigorous legal foundation of religious freedom. [Old joke: Two American Protestants stranded on an island will organize three churches. Somewhat related joke: One American Jew so stranded will build two synagogues–one where he goes to pray, the other in which he would not want to be found dead.]
The history of Presbyterians in America is fascinating. Originally they mostly came from Scotland, where Calvinism, the sternest branch of the Protestant Reformation, became the dominant church. The sternness was both doctrinal and ethical–the doctrine exemplified by the terrifying notion of “double predestination” (God has decided from all eternity who will be saved and who will be damned), the ethics promoting hard work, self-denial and a particular abhorrence of sexual sins. (Puritanism, the form in which Calvinism first set foot in America, was once described by H.L. Mencken, perhaps unfairly, as “the fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy”.) American Calvinism became increasingly mellowed by revivalism, which swept over the Presbyterian churches in the 18th century and ever since–the God of merciless judgment replaced by Jesus offering salvation to all who will come forward to confess their sins.
There were other splits, a quite shameful one over slavery between Presbyterians in the South and the North. Differences operating even today were foreshadowed by so-called “fundamentalists” and “modernists” in the early 20th century. The term “fundamentalism” derives from a series of twelve volumes defending Protestant orthodoxy, The Fundamentals, published between 1910 and 1915 out of Princeton Theological Seminary (then a fortress of this orthodoxy–it didn’t last). The notion of “Biblical inerrancy” became a key orthodox doctrine, still today defining the divide between orthodox Evangelicals and liberal “mainline” Protestants. Despite some pockets of resistance, I think it is fair to say that “modernism”/liberalism has come to dominate in the PCUSA. There is another important point to be made about the PCUSA: It is a sharply declining denomination: In 2006 it had 2,671,000 members; in 2012, 1,849,000; in 2013, 1,760,000. This demographic picture resembles that of other “mainline”denominations, while most Evangelical ones have steadily grown. (The banner Evangelical denomination which is also the largest Protestant one in the country, the Southern Baptist Convention, has gone through a modest decline in numbers. I doubt whether this has much to do with issues of sexual ethics, rather with the fact that Baptists like everyone else have fewer kids as they are upwardly mobile. The contrast with liberal churches remains.)
The vote on same-sex weddings in Presbyterian churches was very skewed–429 to 175. Regional presbyteries still have to vote, but that is unlikely to change what occurred in Detroit–many if not most of those opposed to same-sex marriage have already left the denomination, either by joining more orthodox splinter churches or by swelling the ranks of the so-called”nones” (people who answer “none” when asked in surveys about their religious affiliation). The trend is clear. In 2011 the General Assembly voted to ordain clergy openly living in same-sex relationships. Recently the definition of marriage in official statutes was changed from “a union of a man and a woman” to “a union of two people”.
The Detroit vote was hailed by an advocate of same-sex wedding bells as “a really historic day in our denomination and in the country”. The Presbyterian Lay Committee, a conservative group, declared it to be “an abomination”. If so, the “abomination” has been spreading through the historic Protestant denominations. The United Church of Christ (one branch of it, the Congregationalists, directly descends from New England Puritanism) authorized same-sex weddings in 2005. The Episcopal Church did so in 2013 (further deepening the schism between Western Anglicans and their more numerous coreligionists in Africa). The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America allows individual pastors to decide whether they will perform same-sex weddings. (“Evangelical” here does not mean what it means in English, rather is a translation of “evangelisch” in German and the Scandinavian languages.) “Mainline” hardly means that the churches so named are in the majority–other than referring to historical lines of descent, it means that these churches are in tune with liberal trends in the larger society. It is very interesting to observe that American attitudes to abortion, another hot-button issue in the culture wars, have not shifted in a liberal direction. In other words, as of now it seems that Protestant liberals are “on the right side of history” when it comes to homosexuality but not abortion. I will not speculate here on the reason for this.
Some (non-partisan) observations on the rhetoric used by the two sides in the same-sex marriage controversy. Pro: The earlier Presbyterian definition of marriage used the indefinite article “a man and a woman”. Other conservative definitions including those in conservative legislation say “one man and one woman”. Why just one? Once marriage is available to consenting adults of any sexual orientation, why the quantitative restriction? Minimally, a (presumably secular) argument must be made, explaining why a union between a larger number of consenting adults is either unconstitutional, or bad for society, or both. Those who advocate consecrating and ordaining same-sex couples specify that they should be in “covenantal relationships”. Just what does this mean? The term “covenant” refers in the Hebrew Bible to the sacred relation between God and the people of Israel, in the New Testament to that between Christ and the Church. To use the same word for a partnership between two human individuals implies that this has an equally sacred quality–in other words, that it is a sacrament. Minimally, Protestants should rethink why the Reformation rejected the Catholic definition of marriage as a sacrament and why this rejection should now be revoked. Anti: Opponents of same-sex marriage describe their own position as “traditional” and/or “Biblical”. If conservatives adhere to a tradition, it refers to that of the modern bourgeois family, which roughly coincides with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in England–say in 1781, when James Watt invented the steam engine capable of continuous rotation. Why is this version of the family better than any other? It may well be, but an argument needs to be made. If appeal is made to the Bible, one would have to explain which parts of the Bible are intended. If one means the Hebrew Bible, one should turn to the Tenth Commandment (Exodus 20), where a wife is included with real estate, slaves and domestic animals among a man’s possessions that one should not covet. As to the New Testament, there is no reason to think that Jesus wanted to go beyond what the Jewish law of his time had to say about marriage, though he showed compassion for those who strayed from it. The Apostle Paul had a quite jaundiced view of marriage–abstention from sex was the preferred option, but if an individual could not manage that, it is “better to be married than to burn with lust” (1 Corinthians 7:8-9). Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
The other newsworthy vote of the 2014 General Assembly was, by an extremely narrow margin (310 to 303), in favor of divesting from three American corporations whose products supposedly help the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. In 2012 a vote on the same proposal had been defeated 333 to 331. Some time before the Detroit meeting a separate Presbyterian agency, the General Board of Pensions (which obviously sits on a big pile of money) voted a similar measure of divestment. Not long ago a PCUSA-sponsored pamphlet intended to educate on the Israel-Palestine issue, Zionism Unsettled, accused Israel of racism. The Detroit Assembly pointed out that it did not oppose investment in Israel in general, thus trying to distance itself from the BDS (“Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions”) campaign, which has made headway in Europe, less so in the US. There was criticism of this anti-Israel propaganda from within the PCUSA and other Christian bodies; the Jewish response was that the campaign was intended to delegitimate the very existence of Israel (true, I think) and was the expression of an underlying antisemitism (probably largely unintended but having this effect all the same). I am reminded here of an old joke: What is a philosemite?–An antisemite who likes Jews. On anything to do with Israel, there is a clear difference between “mainline” and Evangelical Protestants. According to survey data, Evangelicals are more vocally pro-Israel than any other group in the US–including Jews! (The official Jewish organizations are ambivalent about the Evangelical enthusiasm for Israel. Of course they welcome it, but they are also a little nervous–the same Evangelicals also want to convert Jews.)
There is an interesting difference between the two votes. The vote on same-sex marriage reflects the direction taken in the last decade or so by American public opinion. The vote on divestment does not; it only certifies the allegiance of liberal churches to the progressive camp in American politics. What will be the likely effect of these votes? It will probably not influence those who still oppose same-sex marriage, though in any burgeoning development in public opinion there is a bandwagon effect. On Israel it will certainly not help the quest for a peaceful solution. I visualize Benjamin Netanyahu reading his newspaper at breakfast, then calling his aide on the red phone: “Moshe, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has voted for disinvestment. We must start dismantling all settlements in Judea and Samaria tomorrow!” On both topics, American politicians will count noses and act accordingly.
Ever since the 1960s a favorite mantra of liberal Protestants was “speaking truth to power”. The Civil Rights Movement did exactly that, and Martin Luther King has rightly become an iconic figure representing this stance in the political arena. Who is the power and what is the truth in the two topics in question here? Surprising events can quickly change public opinion. W.R. Inge (1860-1954), the “gloomy dean” of St. Paul’s Cathedral, wrote: “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next”. If a massive terrorist attack on an American city shifts public opinion abruptly to the right, the PCUSA may call for the reinstatement of sodomy statutes and the expulsion of all Arabs from East Jerusalem. If a massive collapse of the economy leads to a surge toward the left, a lesbian may become chairperson of the Southern Baptist Convention and the same body will endorse a new Palestinian intifada against the Jewish state. As “power” shifts, it becomes more difficult to figure out which “truth” should be spoken to it. Truth is rarely all on one side, and tones of absolute certitude rarely testify to its possession.