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The Presbyterian Victory

Liberal Protestantism still has enough punch to make divestment matter.
Presbyterian church

The invective is telling. The Presbyterian Church USA’s razor thin vote to divest from three American companies that aid the Israeli occupation is, opponents of the move tell us, irrelevant, because Presbyterians are irrelevant. The language used to make this point is not particularly ecumenical: here Rabbi Shmuley Boteach inveighs against the PC-USA’s vote by referring to the “rotting corpse of the Presbyterian church.” One suspects that if a prominent Presbyterian cleric used comparable language about a branch of Judaism, it would attract some negative attention.

To influence the general assembly vote of this allegedly “dying” and “irrelevant” denomination, Zionist groups mobilized like mad, chastising the resolution and coordinating with Presbyterian groups created to oppose it, like the misnamed “Presbyterians for Middle East Peace.” Opponents of the resolution more often than not claimed that while they didn’t like Israel’s policies either, they balked at taking even symbolic action to oppose them. Amorphous threats were cast by leading Jewish establishment figures. Presbyterians would become isolated as anti-Semites, some charged. The interfaith dialogue between Presbyterians and Jews would be “called into question.” (One wonders about the value of dialogue with people who consider you a “rotting corpse.”) The Israeli embassy implicitly accused the Presbyterians of supporting terrorism.

Prior to the vote, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, an organizer against the resolution, offered the Presbyterians a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if only they would vote it down. Presbyterian delegates would be able to tell Bibi himself, in person, why they opposed Israel’s West Bank settlement and occupation policies. How this was supposed to be a blockbuster negotiating sweetener somehow escapes. Did Rabbi Jacobs imagine that the Presbyterians believed that Netanyahu was unaware that many Americans opposed the occupation—and his readiness to give 45 minutes of his time to the Presbyterians might indicate an open mind? Please, there are no Presbyterians so stupid.

Internal Presbyterian politics move at a glacial pace, with an almost ponderous attention to procedure and internal democracy. The divestment resolution, crafted to target only three American companies, which directly aid Israel’s illegal occupation, has been in the works for years. Two years ago, it came up short by two votes. Presbyterian concern about the suppression of Palestinian rights is of longer duration, the fruit of fact-finding missions and study groups dating to the aftermath of the 1967 war. Because endorsing even symbolic measures against Israel was such an emotionally wrenching step, it took a very long time for any measures to be taken.

Among the occupation’s defenders and apologists, the most common strategy was to mock Presbyterians as an irrelevant church. Few tried to defend Israeli policies, knowing that they would not be persuasive. But calling attention to the numerical decline of the Presbyterian church touches on interesting subjects. All mainline Protestant churches are in decline since their heyday, which could be loosely dated at sometime between the 1920s and the 1950s. Protestantism, or to be more precise, liberal establishment Protestantism, used to be something of a state religion in America. Protestant clerics were widely quoted, featured on the covers of news magazines. Time magazine (itself widely read) ran a weekly “religion” feature, which more often than not circulated Protestant ideas and covered the comings and goings of mainline church luminaries. Presidents sought their advice, or at least claimed to.

That day is past: since then America has elected a Catholic president, and a substantial part of its financial and cultural establishment is Jewish. Multiculturalism has triumphed. Within Protestantism, the evangelicals have the numbers—if mainline denominations once roughly equaled them in size, the children of the mainline were far less likely, after the 1960s, to become active church members. Mainline women had fewer children than their evangelical counterparts. Then came the ideological earthquakes of the 1960s, which undermined the self-confident assumptions of mainline Protestantism. Prominent liberal Protestants commenced a process of often excoriating self-criticism, often spurred by efforts to come to terms with America’s racism. The unleashed energies spilled over into the anti-Vietnam war and eventually to the women’s and gay liberation movements.

Meanwhile, fundamentalists and evangelicals, the other side of Protestantism’s historical divide, were able to move into the breach as the “patriotic” God, flag, and country sort of Protestants, defending the familiar in the face of upheaval. As always, nationalism was a potent force, and the denominations that embraced it thrived more than those that questioned it.

No one should feel sorry for Presbyterians. As David Hollinger has cogently argued (and from whose work much of this short summary is derived), by persisting to raise discomforting questions about American racism and American smugness, liberal Protestants had a major impact both on the 1960s and the subsequent development of America as a liberal multicultural polity. But more often than not they (or their children) exerted their influence as individuals, not as Presbyterians, or Methodists, or Episcopalians. Their children often absorbed some their values, increasingly universalist and self-critical, without becoming active church members. So Presbyterians and other mainline denominations lost to the evangelicals the battles for dominance within American Protestantism, while winning those over the broader shape of American culture.

This history makes a point to those who think that it doesn’t matter much when a small but historically significant Protestant denomination decides that the Israeli occupation has gone on long enough. Presbyterian leaders in America have a richly textured history of political cooperation with Jews; they made common cause in opposition to Vietnam, over civil rights, over issues of church-state relations. They are fewer than 2,000,000 now, but they are generally well educated, and have both activist skills and a strong penchant to combat injustice. They are a smaller group than two generations ago, but the Israel lobby obviously cared enough about them to make a major effort to defeat the divestment vote. The Israel lobby failed, suffering a significant public defeat. Presbyterians made themselves more visible and relevant than they’ve been in decades.



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