Special Report

Presbyterians Become the Silly Church

A dying mainline church speeds its decline.

By 6.21.14

At one point during this this week’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the hundreds of delegates, known as commissioners, gleefully bounced scores of red balloons in the air. At another point, they collectively broke into dance, confirming that most Protestants, especially if they’re old, white and Anglo, don’t look so great wiggling around. (Here’s a video, for mature viewers only.)

Mainline Protestantism, at least in its official curia, has been liberal for nearly 100 years. But for most of that century it was a thoughtful, dignified liberalism that still roughly adhered to historic Christianity’s moral architecture, even if it no longer upheld the core doctrine. But the yonder years of stately Protestantism, at least in the old Mainline, are largely over. And this week, the 1.7 million member PCUSA suffered a meltdown, authorizing clergy to conduct same sex unions, reaffirming its commitment to largely unrestricted abortion rights, and voting to divest from three firms doing business with Israel.

The church’s redefinition of marriage, by a 71-29 percent vote, got the most attention, although it was anticlimactic. Sexual liberalism captured the denomination in 2010, when the PCUSA voted to abandon its expectation of monogamy in marriage and celibacy in singleness for its clergy. Since then, hundreds of congregations have quit, organized conservative resistance largely stopped, and the 2012 General Assembly was expected to authorize same sex unions but fell short. In just the last two years, the PCUSA lost nearly 200,000 members, a rate, which if continued, would mean no more PCUSA in less than 20 years.

In fact, the exodus from the PCUSA after the marriage vote may increase for congregations and individuals. Many exiting PCUSA churches have joined the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, while others helped create a new denomination called the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. Despite the impact on denominational finances, PCUSA elites, committed more to the Left than to the church’s health, seem mostly indifferent.

Those elites mostly backed divesting from three firms doing business with Israel, namely Hewlett-Packard, Caterpillar, and Motorola, which ostensibly facilitate Israel’s “occupation.” The PCUSA has voted for anti-Israel divestment before, in 2004, which created such controversy, internally and externally, that it revoked its stance in 2006. Anti-Israel zealots inside and outside the church were relentless, and in 2012 divestment fell short by only two votes. This week, it passed by only seven votes, a remarkable margin, given the ongoing exodus of conservative church members. Some prominent liberal Presbyterians spoke against it, but their pleas were insufficient.

A radical Presbyterian study guide, “Zionism Unsettled,” denouncing Israel as an Apartheid state in recent months generated much uproar, especially from Jewish groups. It was thought the backlash against that resource might help defeat anti-Israel divestment, but the opposite may have been true. Commissioners perhaps felt moderate by voting against the extremist study guide while supporting divestment, which supporters naturally insisted was not anti-Israel but merely pro-peace. The PCUSA is now the only major U.S. denomination divesting against Israel, with even the Episcopal Church and far-left United Church of Christ having declined the honor.

By contrast, the Presbyterians overwhelmingly backed a Cuban campaign to get delisted by the U.S. as a state sponsor of terror, fulsomely praising Cuba’s ostensible solidarity against terror. Cuba sí, Israel no!! For good measure, the General Assembly also condemned U.S. drones, leaving one to wonder whether Presbyterians will soon have more political stances than church members.

Getting far less attention was the PCUSA General Assembly’s overwhelming rejection of legislation that urged a “season of reflection” on the denomination’s support for abortion-rights, including its long-time membership in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), which opposes any restrictions on abortion. Liberal Mainline Protestantism, starting in the 1960s, began its first major break with traditional Christian ethics by embracing abortion rights, discarding traditional notions about sacred human life in favor of radical autonomous individualism. The Mainline’s support for abortion and implied hostility to large families, now compounded by its redefinition of marriage and divorcing of sex from marriage, have all helped to create a culture where the typical Mainline congregation is now largely gray headed and has few if any children.

Of course, some media reports will hail the PCUSA’s ostensibly courageous shift leftward as heralding the irresistible tides of history and representing Christianity’s future. But after about a half century of continuous decline, neither the PCUSA nor any Mainline denomination can be seriously seen as any barometer of mainstream religious trends, not in the U.S., and even less so around the world. Reportedly many overseas Presbyterian churches, many of them now larger than the PCUSA, are prepared to break ties with the PCUSA over its abandonment of Christian sexual teaching. Some of them already have.

Jewish groups, meanwhile, are justifiably indignant over the PCUSA’s anti-Israel divestment. Hopefully their pressure can precipitate an eventual reconsidation, as happened eight years ago. But Jewish groups sometimes inflate the importance of Mainline Protestant actions, thinking of these once-influential churches as they were 50 years ago, instead of what they are today, highly diminished.

Although church liberals love to insist their policies appeal to the rising generation, all of the available evidence indicates just the opposite. Liberalizing churches don’t attract young people, who, even if themselves liberal, tend to flock to churches they respect for not pandering to them. The same is true for racial minorities, who largely avoid liberal Mainline Protestantism in favor of ethnic or Evangelical churches.

Essentially, the PCUSA, by its votes this week, resolved to become even smaller, older, and whiter, creating a future that depends more and more on endowments instead of live people. Despite the gyrating, balloons, and often-vacuous debates, followed by wrongheaded votes, the PCUSA deserves some sympathy. It represents the faded vestige of a once distinguished religious body that indelibly shaped America. Rest in peace, PCUSA, and thanks for the memories.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.