The roots of the Presbyterian Church trace back to the French reformer John Calvin (1509-1564), who, through his writings and preachings, became the primary expositor of the beliefs embraced by the Reformed, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches in Europe. In America, meanwhile, the first Presbyterian churches were established in the early 1600s by New England Puritans who preferred the presbyterian system of church government—i.e., leadership by representative assemblies of elders—to that of New England Congregationalism. During the Civil War, American Presbyterians divided into southern and northern branches. These eventually reunited in 1983 to form the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), which, as of 2013, consisted of 10,083 congregations, 20,562 ordained ministers, and 1.76 million members nationwide.
PCUSA’s most important work today is conducted under the auspices of its Compassion, Peace and Justice Ministries, whose overriding objective is to “transfor[m] the world” by “chang[ing] the structures” of societal institutions “that perpetuate poverty, oppression and injustice.” Foremost among those structures, says the Church, are the “systemic racism,” “sexism,” and imbalances of “power and privilege” that pervade American culture. One particularly egregious manifestation of such inequities, PCUSA maintains, is the phenomenon of “environmental racism,” whereby “communities of color and communities disproportionately affected by poverty are more likely to have hazardous waste facilities planned and developed near them,” putting them “at greater risk to be negatively impacted by contaminated water, air and food sources.”
To “confront spiritually the idolatry and ideology of white supremacy and white privilege” that hinder the quest for “social justice” in America’s “race-based society which benefits some while oppressing others,” PCUSA administers a host of Racial, Ethnic & Women’s Ministries that aim to promote “racial and gender justice” across the United States. In a related effort, the Church’s Cross Cultural Ministries seek to help predominantly white congregations “become more diverse” and “better reflect the communities that surround them.” Moreover, PCUSA has developed separate ministries devoted specifically to people of African, Asian, Hispanic, Korean, Middle Eastern, and Native American heritage.
Another major concern of PCUSA is the fight for “immigration reform and the full recognition of immigrants’ rights.” To alleviate “the suffering created” by America’s “unjust” immigration system, the Church advocates a “Comprehensive Legalization Program” for those currently residing illegally in the United States.
Also high on PCUSA’s list of priorities is a devotion to radical environmentalism. Aiming to “inspire and equip” Presbyterians to work for “eco-justice for all of God’s earth,” the Church’s Environmental Ministries promote the use of “carbon offsets” as mechanisms for minimizing the “harmful greenhouse gas emissions” that lead to “deepening ecological crises.” A key ally of PCUSA in its environmental work is the group Presbyterians for Earth Care.
PCUSA’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy is tasked with analyzing a wide variety of “pressing moral challenges” facing society, and then making policy recommendations vis à vis those matters. In 2012, this Committee established a Tax Reform Study Group whose recommendations were rooted in the principles laid out in the Church’s newly released report, World of Hurt, Word of Life. This document identifies the federal government as the institution best capable of addressing social ills—on the strength of its authority to implement tax and wage policies designed to redistribute wealth and thereby “decrease the enormous disproportions between top executive and line employee salary.” In addition, the report encourages the use of taxpayer dollars to develop a “stronger social safety net” for low-income people, and to increase “social investment” in public schools, transit systems, housing assistance, infrastructure projects, environmental restoration, public job creation, and job retraining programs.
Historically, PCUSA has had a highly acrimonious relationship with the state of Israel. Indeed, a 1998 Presbyterian Church General Assembly Overture called for a suspension of all American aid to the Jewish state. In July 2004, PCUSA approved divestment measures that targeted “businesses that it believes bear particular responsibility for the suffering of Palestinians.” But in June 2006 the Church adopted a new resolution canceling that call for divestment and pledging, instead, to thenceforth invest only in companies engaged in “peaceful pursuits” in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
PCUSA contemplated the issue of divestment again in 2012, but voted it down.
In January 2014, the Church’s Israel-Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) published Zionism Unsettled, a congregational study guide condemning “the injustice and oppression perpetrated under the mantle of Zionism by the government of Israel against the Palestinian people.” In conjuction with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, the IPMN has been a leading advocate within PCUSA on behalf of the Hamas-inspired Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign that seeks to delegitimize Israel, cripple it economically, and facilitate its ultimate dissolution.
In June 2014, PCUSA’s Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment added three corporations—Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard and Motorola Solutions—to the denomination’s “divestment list.” The trangressions of those companies included the sale of bulldozers, surveillance technology, and other equipment used by Israel to defend itself against Palestinian terrorism.
According to a federal complaint filed in 2014 by the legal advocacy group Shurat HaDin, PCUSA had engaged in repeated contacts with the Islamic terror group Hezbollah, which is committed to Israel’s destruction.
When delegates from 171 PCUSA presbyteries assembled in Portland, Oregon for the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly (GA) in June 2016, six resolutions were placed before the GA’s Middle East Issues Committee. Five of these directed harsh criticism squarely at Israel and no other nation on earth. One, for instance, called for “prayerful study” of the possibility of having the Church join the BDS campaign. Another urged the realty company RE/MAX to stop selling properties within Jewish settlements situated in the so-called “occupied territories.” The former vice president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, Alan Wisdom, described the PCUSA General Assembly meeting of 2016 as an “onslaught of anti-Israel legislation.” The lone PCUSA resolution that did not concern itself directly with Israel, was one that focused on threats to the safety and survival of Middle Eastern Christians; but it refrained from identifying Islam or jihadism as the source of those threats, and instead placed the blame vaguely on unnamed religious actors in the region.
In contrast to its hostility toward Israel, PCUSA has long endeavored to promote respect for Islam and radical Muslim organizations. In 2010, for instance, the Church published a 28-page report titled Toward an Understanding of Christian-Muslim Relations, to address a purported spike in “alarming anti-Muslim statements and actions.” Advisors and board members for the study included Naeem Baig, president of the Islamic Circle of North America; Farhanahz Eliz of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center, a mosque led by the president of the Islamic Society of North America; Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation; Ahmed Rehab of the Council on American-Islamic Relations‘ Chicago chapter; and Kifah Mustapha of the Mosque Foundation.
In July 2012, PCUSA’s Office of Public Witness—the Church’s public-policy information and advocacy center—came to the defense of Huma Abedin, a State Department appointee (of Hillary Clinton) with a number of close ties to groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. PCUSA was outraged when Rep. Michele Bachmann and four other Members of Congress raised concerns about those connections.
In January 2018, not long after U.S. President Donald Trump had announced that the American Embassy in Israel would soon be relocated to Jerusalem, PCUSA’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network (IPMN) announced that it “strongly condemns the U.S. President’s [Trump’s] decision to single out Jerusalem as a Jewish capital,” on grounds that “Jerusalem is the spiritual heart of three Abrahamic faiths.” In a long statement, Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, the Stated Clerk of the PCUSA’s General Assembly, wrote that “claiming Jerusalem as the capital for one people … damages hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.” Further, Nelson joined 17 other mainline Protestant leaders in drafting a letter that urged Congress to “oppose” the “Israel Anti-Boycott Act” (Senate Resolution 720 and House Resolution 1697), which would allegedly “put legal obstacles in the way of nonviolent peaceful action meant to bring about social change, and would legislate against the freedom to make choices in the stewardship of our financial resources.” As the IPMN put it: “[B]oycott is a long-standing and time-tested tradition in our church. From bus boycotts to Soda-Stream boycotts, Presbyterians have protested injustice over many decades through economic actions such as boycotts, and joined in nonviolent actionsagainst oppression. We lift up the voices of the oppressed peoples through boycotts and stand with them in their struggles.”
The Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Association (PHEWA) is a community of ministries that seek to make PCUSA more responsive to the needs of “those too often excluded or on the margins of the church and of society”—e.g., drug addicts, victims of domestic violence, AIDS victims, the disabled, the mentally ill, and women who undergo abortions. With regard to the latter, the Church is in favor of keeping abortion legal, citing concerns about preganancies that result from rape, threaten the “physical health of the mother’s life,” or are simply “not viable.” PCUSA also identifies abortion as a sometimes-necessary option for women who “can’t afford to raise children” or who cannot bear the “stigmatization and judgment” that often beset “unmarried pregnant women and girls.”
Another leading PCUSA ministry is its “commitment to quality public education.” Notably, the Church supports the Children’s Defense Fund‘s Freedom Schools program where reading, “conflict resolution,” and “social action” are integrated in an “activity-based curriculum” that promotes “social, cultural, and historical awareness” which, in turn, engenders student activism.
“Enough For Everyone” (EFE) is a ministry of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, and it works with congregations and partners around the globe to “alleviate hunger and eliminate its causes.” Impugning America as a “society obsessed with consuming,” EFE exhorts the faithful to cultivate shopping and investing habits that take into account how people in faraway nations may be affected by those habits. For example, the Church urges congregants to purchase their coffee through the Presbyterian Coffee Project, which only sells “fair trade” coffee that ensures “good wages” to the “small farmers” who grow it, rather than “enrich CEOs at the expense of the producers.” Similarly, PCUSA’s Campaign for Fair Food urges major food buyers to pay an extra penny-per-pound for their products in order to improve wages for farmworkers who harvest tomatoes. The Church also markets a line of “sweatshop-free shirts” that are produced by a women’s sewing cooperative in Nicaragua.
On January 17, 2022, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PCUSA, delivered a Martin Luther King Day sermon in which he stated: “The continued occupation in Palestine/Israel is 21st-century slavery and should be abolished immediately.” He then added, “I would also hope that the Jewish community in the US would influence the call to join the US government in ending the immoral enslavement.”
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