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Taking Aim: Conservatives' Bid for Power in the Presbyterian Church Entering Advanced Stage
Executive Summary of a forthcoming study from the Institute for Democracy Studies
Institute for Democracy Studies, October 7, 1999 -- "This is a culture war, and the church is one front in that war." Parker Williamson, The Presbyterian Lay Committee.1
    An historic effort by rightist forces in the Presbyterian Church (USA) to seize power in that denomination is now entering an advanced stage.  The strategy for the takeover — and its antidemocratic implications for mainstream Presbyterianism and society at large — are revealed in a 1998 Declaration & Strategy Paper published by the Presbyterian Coalition, the key alliance of rightist factions in the church.  The document runs profoundly against the grain of 20th century mainline Presbyterianism.  What the Coalition refers to as "the Transformation" of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is actually a plan to turn the church into a conservative evangelical denomination and to purge more liberal elements from church leadership, agencies, boards and seminaries.  Indeed, the paper’s Declaration of Faith (titled "Union in Christ") is essentially an alternative confession, the basic statement of doctrine in Presbyterianism.
 
 
    The document presents an authoritarian worldview that would inspire and organize politically motivated heresy hunts.  The Coalition’s five-year plan2 is in many ways reminiscent of the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s, and similar movements underway in other mainline churches.  If successful, it would be the first mainline denomination — and the only member of the National Council of Churches — to shift to a conservative evangelical stance.  Indeed, the Coalition’s paper offers an understated call for "examination" of the denomination’s historic relationship with mainline ecumenical groupings, and for "exploration" of cooperation with conservative evangelical groups.3   Prior to the Coalition’s adoption of the paper at the Coalition’s Gathering III in the fall of 1998, Coalition leader Jack Haberer declared, "[w]hile the word ‘revolution’ may be extreme, we believe that the Gathering III will mark the launch of a movement that will shape the Presbyterian Church well into the next century."4
    The Presbyterian Coalition emerged in 1993 from the wider conservative Presbyterian "renewal" movement.  Among the groups associated with this movement are the Presbyterian Lay Committee and its magazine the Presbyterian Layman, Presbyterian Action, Presbyterians for Renewal, Presbyterians Pro-Life, the Genevans, the Presbyterian Forum, and Presbyterian & Reformed Renewal Ministries International.  There is also a leadership group called the Presbyterian Renewal Network where many of the most strident activists converge in "fellowship."
    Epitomizing the conservative evangelical bent of the Coalition is its current moderator, or leader, Rev. B. Clayton Bell.  As the senior pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas, where he has been since 1973, Bell has long been a leader of the conservative renewal movement. Bell, who also serves as the executive chair of the board of Christianity Today magazine, emphasizes the institutional role of the church in the "moral and ethical affairs with which the nation struggles," offering Moses as a role model for conservative Christians to "go in and possess the land."5
    The conservative movement in the Presbyterian Church received a strategic boost in the past year with the advent of a political braintrust called the Presbyterian Forum, which has brought advanced techniques of modern political convention management to the annual Presbyterian General Assembly — the elected decision-making body of the church.
Affirmation for Me, Anathema for Thee
    The prospect of an era of heresy hunting and schisms looms large over the future of the Presbyterian Church.  Indeed, the increase in church judicial and disciplinary proceedings of recent years is at least partly attributable to the activities of the growing conservative renewal movement. Significantly, the Coalition document borrows the language of "diversity" and "democracy" to advance goals that are antidemocratic and antidiversity. "[G]ood people can in good conscience disagree on many theological matters," the Coalition acknowledges on the first page of the Declaration and Strategy Paper.  They offer no examples, yet a few pages later the Coalition characterizes those with whom they disagree as "alien to the faith of the church."  This phrase is used specifically to characterize the theological education presented in the church’s historically affiliated seminaries.  The term "alien" unsubtly implies the religious crimes of heresy (serious doctrinal deviation) and apostasy (abandonment of the faith).  There are numerous examples of similar views within the Coalition.  One factional newsletter praised the role of the Presbyterian Forum, (a pivotal political strategy group) at the 1999 General Assembly.  The Forum’s "excellent work," according to the charismatic Presbyterian & Reformed Renewal Ministries International (PRRMI), "contributed to the spiritual and political wins that exalted Jesus Christ!"6   Evidently the losing side of debatable points at the General Assembly are somehow anti-Jesus and purveyors of alien views.
Demonizing the Mainstream?
    PRRMI has repeatedly attacked the Presbyterian women’s organization as a "demonic stronghold that has taken root" in the church.7   Several women of whom the PRRMI and others disapprove were bestowed the Women of Faith Award by the official Presbyterian women’s organization at the 1999 General Assembly, instead, as PRRMI observed, "of being disciplined by the church as heretical…."  PRRMI viewed this award as so "hostile" as to have "destroyed the basis for dialog and declared war against our evangelical faith."8
    In keeping with such systematic demonization of theological and political opponents, the Declaration of Faith portion of the Coalition’s paper is structured, in what church parlance is called affirmations and anathemas. Rev. Dan Little of Minneapolis, who issued a response to the Coalition document, explains that an anathema is "an ecclesiastical curse involving excommunication, an imprecation of divine punishment, or a person consigned to destruction.  The [Coalition’s] paper is filled with anathemas."9
    The Coalition’s paper characterizes their opponents and their ideas as "biblically unfaithful,"10  or that they "defy constitutional standards."11 Rev. Little notes that many of the views and policies the Coalition denounces "have been part of Presbyterian scholarship, preaching, and policy for many years."  Little believes that the Coalition seeks to "enforce agreement" with their views, and that the result will be "purging dissenters in a spirit of inquisition…."12
    Indeed, since the issue of gay ordination emerged as a flash point, leading to the formation of the Coalition itself, conservatives operating under the rubric of "renewal" are seeking to return to 19th century notions of "church discipline."  The Coalition charges that many Presbyterians embrace "moral and theological pluralism," and "[refuse] to live under the authority of the biblical and constitutional standards of the church."13   Such terminology has caused serious concern among the targeted Presbyterians.  Rev. Dan Little, for one, decried the Coalition’s use of such "undefined terms" as "biblically unfaithful" and "constitutional standards," which the Coalition presents as if the meanings are "self-evident," and then uses "as yardsticks to measure what is and who are acceptable and unacceptable."14
    An indication of the Coalition’s and its allies’ progress is that one of the Presbyterians’ own denominational publishing houses actually published the Declaration of Faith portion of the Coalition’s document with a favorable foreword by Joseph Small, director of the church’s Office of Theology and Worship, and further commentary for "study and reflection" by Coalition supporters.  While Small acknowledges that it is "not a statement of the whole Church," he describes it as growing "out of a significant gathering of Presbyterians" working within the historic tradition of church "confessions."15
Downsizing the Opposition
    In the area of "polity" (or church governance), the Coalition calls for the severe reduction of the national church structure, and decentralization of its functions to lower levels of the church, regional bodies called "presbyteries" and individual pastors.  This proposed devolution of power is designed to have a populist appeal and is couched in terms of democratic governance, but its clear intention is to disempower the national organization, which is dominated by more mainstream elements.
    Under the rubric of democracy and diversity, conservatives have managed to create a zone of official toleration for their anti-abortion views, not withstanding the church’s longstanding pro-choice position.  They also managed to gain support for collaboration with such conservative evangelical initiatives as A.D. 2000 and Beyond.  Simultaneously, they are calling on church disciplinary bodies to prosecute alleged infractions of church doctrine and constitutional standards.16   This would probably first and foremost affect adherents of feminist theology and advocates of gay and lesbian ordination.
    In the area of "church discipline," the Coalition claims that there are members that refuse to "live under the authority of the biblical and constitutional standards of the church" and embrace "theological pluralism." To solve these problems, the Coalition proposes investigating and disciplining "church officers" for "flagrant violations of constitutional standards."17
    The strategy paper specifically calls for the right of conservative dissidents, operating under the rubric of "conscientious dissent," to opt out of some "programs they consider unfaithful."18   Taken together, the Coalition’s approach would establish itself and its allies as the arbiters of what is and it not "unfaithful," regardless of the deliberative processes of the denomination as a whole, while allowing themselves exceptional space for deviation under the opt-out clause.
Seminaries under Fire
    The Coalition proposes to address the "obstacle" to their goal of controlling theological education by seeking to defund or undermine seminaries19 that do not conform to their view of Presbyterian doctrine.  The specter of faculty and board purges, comparable to what happened in the Southern Baptist Convention, are a likely outcome if the Coalition gains the power it seeks and implements the agenda it describes.  For example, the Coalition charges that denominational education materials "defy constitutional standards" of the church and "are inadequate for teaching biblical faith."20   Thus they would also seek to redirect financial resources, as well as prospective students to evangelical seminaries more in keeping with their views.21   This process is already partly underway, as Fuller Theological Seminary is already a major training ground for Presbyterian pastors.
    The Coalition’s intentions are further revealed through poll of the participants in the Presbyterian Coalition’s Gathering II prior to the development of the Declaration and Strategy Paper.  This survey showed that nearly a quarter of the Presbyterian Coalition were ready for schism (to break away from the denomination), while two-thirds wanted to completely transform the church in ways more to their liking.  However, about 35 percent of the group wanted to "reinvent" the church, aligning with other, presumably conservative evangelical organizations.22   Such reinvention also raises the possibility of a political alignment more in keeping with the Christian Right.
Taking the Culture War to the General Assembly
    While the Presbyterian Coalition has focused on matters of doctrinal control, in the past few years a new political brain trust has emerged to move the antidemocratic agenda through the decision-making bodies of the denomination and to move its leaders into positions of power.  The Presbyterian Forum, formed in 1997, has increasingly mapped and guided political strategy for the agencies of the so-called conservative "renewal movement," notably through the operation of a political "war room" at the annual General Assembly.  Modeled after the "war rooms" of competing candidates at the conventions of the Democratic and Republican parties, the focus is on the mechanics of the deliberative processes of the General Assembly.  The Forum’s effect at the 1999 General Assembly was unprecedented in the history of the denomination.  The Forum’s war room was located in a suite of rooms at a law school across the street from the Fort Worth Convention Center, where some 750 people, including 525 "commissioners" (or delegates), were formulating church policy.  The Forum’s remarkable command center featured networked computers, copy machines and a hospitality room.23
    The Forum’s sophisticated General Assembly program included pre-Assembly training for commissioners and a manual for General Assembly procedures, such as moving nominations for church officers and committee work.  The manual also featured flow charts illustrating the developments of majority and minority reports for the plenary proceedings.  The manual was also used to guide strategy on key issues.  Conservative victories at the General Assembly are generally credited to the Forum’s sophisticated convention scripting and disciplined teamwork.  Conservatives prevailed on such issues as ordination standards (referring here to gay ordination) and including the same sex partners of church employees in medical and pension plans.  There were other, less clear-cut conservative victories, such as that involving the feminist National Network of Presbyterian College Women.  The General Assembly voted to make the group accountable to a special oversight committee (The Presbyterian Layman called it a "stay of execution").24   The General Assembly also decided to revise the church’s sexuality curriculum in two years to emphasize "abstinence and sexual purity."  In the meantime, the existing curriculum may be used.25
    Political operatives practiced in the management of political conventions know how to script an hour-by-hour scenario and have the skills to implement a convention plan for their faction’s desired outcome.  They ensure that their people are conversant with the game plan, well rehearsed and plugged into an internal communications system that usually features such devices as cell phones or walkie-talkies and a system of runners connecting the convention floor to the war room.  One conservative newsletter reported that the Forum "provided the communications and coordination of all of the evangelical renewal groups… at the Assembly."26
    A similar effort to master the mechanics of GOP local and national structures has been pivotal to the strategy of the Christian Right and the wider conservative movement to take over the Republication party from the bottom up since the late 1980s.
The Man with the Plan
    The political operative most responsible for the strategic advances of the Presbyterian Coalition at the General Assembly is a seasoned political professional named Clarke Reed.  Reed is a veteran of the conservative movement and Republican Party politics going back to the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign for president.  In the 1970s and 80s he served as GOP party chairman in Mississippi and most recently served as the 1996 campaign finance chairman for Gov. Kirk Fordice.  He is the reputed mastermind of the rise of Republican politics in Mississippi where Republicans were few until the 1970s and where there were no GOP statewide elected officials until the 1980’s.  Reed, along with [early Presbyterian Coalition leader] Robert Dooling created the Forum in 1997 in an apparent end-game strategy for the takeover of the church.  Reed’s involvement underscores the political importance of the conservative designs for the Presbyterian Church.
With God on Their Side
    The conservative movement has long denounced the so-called "liberal" churches for their "social witness" (or positions) on a host of issues from civil rights, to the status of women both inside and outside the church, to issues of the environment, economic justice, foreign policy, human rights and nuclear disarmament.  That the Presbyterian Church and other mainline denominations bring moral and cultural authority to their public voice and policy positions has been especially galling to conservatives.  Rightist Christians have frequently found themselves on the other side of many such issues and prefer to be able to speak for "Christianity," which they often see as unable to accommodate views other than their own.
    Although the Coalition apparently sought to avoid unnecessarily provoking their intended targets in the final version of the Coalition’s strategy paper, the specific political intentions of at least some of Coalition leaders were revealed in the first draft.  The Coalition’s "Visioning Team" called for the defunding or "elimination" of several Presbyterian agencies, which they suggested "might" be "biblically unfaithful."  These agencies included "the Congregational Ministries Division, Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness [Policy] and the Women’s Advocacy Committee."27
Conclusion
    The stakes are high for both mainstream Presbyterianism and for modern democratic culture.  The antidemocratic agenda of the Presbyterian Coalition is disturbing to anyone who cares about dignity and equality for gays and lesbians, for reproductive rights, for a culture of religious and cultural pluralism and for separation of church and state.  A rightist takeover of the Presbyterian Church might also lead to the undermining of the major national and international ecumenical communions of mainline Protestantism. The political and religious Right have long been outraged by the religious, cultural and political significance of the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches.  These institutions and their member denominations have long been at the forefront of advances in human rights and economic and racial justice around the world.  If the Coalition succeeds in "transforming" the church into a conservative evangelical denomination, they would probably attempt to further neutralize the work of these ecumenical agencies or withdraw altogether, joining with other evangelical groupings in a major redefinition of ecumenicism.28
    Finally, the Presbyterian situation is similar to that facing other institutions, notably the Republican Party.  How to contend with a movement that is mastering the mechanics of democratic institutions to accomplish antidemocratic ends is perhaps the defining challenge for any institution or society that embraces diversity of viewpoints within its membership.  How the broad mainstream of the Presbyterian Church will contend with the drive for power by these elements, remains to be seen.

The Institute for Democracy Studies is a non-partisan, non-profit think tank that conducts research on antidemocratic religious and political movements in the U.S. and internationally.  The Institute’s three program areas are Religion and Democracy, Reproductive Rights, and Law.  For further information, please contact: Frederick Clarkson, Director of Communications, Institute for Democracy Studies, 177 East 87th Street, Suite 501, New York, NY  10128.  Phone: 212-423-9237.  Fax: 212-423-9352.

footnotes:
1) Deborah Kovach Caldwell, "Gay Ordination Goes to Vote; Presbyterian committee recommends abolishing ban," The Dallas Morning News, June 29, 1999.
2) Jerry L Van Marter, Press Release, www.presbycoalition.org./PressRelease3.htm, p. 3, Oct 14, 1998.
3) Declaration and Strategy Paper of the Presbyterian Coalition, Oct 1998, p. 8.
4) "Presbyterian Coalition Moderator Jack Haberer Answers Questions About ‘The Gathering III,’ The Presbyterian Forum and Review, July 20, 1999, www.pforum.org/Weekly.
5) Toby Nelson, "From Church Split and heart Crisis to a Joyful church," The Presbyterian Layman, September/Oct 1994. p. 23.
6) "A Note from the Editor," Moving with the Sprit, August 1999, Issue 56.
7) Letter from Presbyterian & Reformed Renewal Ministries International, July 27, 1999.
8) Ibid.
9) Dan Little, "An Analysis of the Presbyterian Coalition, ‘Declaration and Strategy Paper,’" November 1998, P. 2.
10) Declaration & Strategy Paper of the Presbyterian Coalition, Oct 1998, p. 10.
11) Declaration & Strategy Paper of the Presbyterian Coalition, Oct 1998, p. 12.
12) Little, op cit.
13) Declaration & Strategy Paper of the Presbyterian Coalition, Oct 1998, p. 13.
14) Dan Little, "An Analysis of the Presbyterian Coalition ‘Declaration and Strategy Paper,’" November 1998.  G. Daniel Little, Pastor in Residence at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, issued this analysis with the endorsement of the board of the Covenant Network as a "helpful discussion tool."
15) Joseph Small, Foreword to Andrew Purves and Mark Achtemeier, Union in Christ: A Declaration for the Church, A Commentary with Questions for Study and Reflection, Witherspoon Press, 1999.
16) Declaration & Strategy Paper of the Presbyterian Coalition, Oct 1998, p. 13.
17) Declaration & Strategy Paper of the Presbyterian Coalition, Oct 1998, p. 13.
18) Declaration & Strategy Paper of the Presbyterian Coalition, Oct 1998, p. 10.
19)  Declaration & Strategy Paper of the Presbyterian Coalition, Oct 1998, p. 11.
20) Declaration & Strategy Paper of the Presbyterian Coalition, Oct 1998, p. 12.
21) Declaration & Strategy Paper of the Presbyterian Coalition, Oct 1998, p. 11.
22)  "Unlocking the Conversation," reNews, December 1997.  p. 3-4.
23) Jennifer Files, "Conservative groups organize to influence Assembly debates," The Outlook, www.pres-outlook.com/211_organize.html
24) John H. Adams, "Assembly approves, reins in campus women’s group," The Presbyterian Layman, July/August, 1999.
25) Joanne Hines, "Christian Education and Curriculum Publishing," General Assembly News, June 25, 1999. http://www.pcusa.org/pcnews/oldnews/1999/ga99068.htm
26)  "A Note from the Editor," Moving with the Sprit, August 1999, Issue 56.  (A report from the Executive Director of Presbyterian & Reformed Renewal Ministries International.)
27)  "Proposed Declaration & Strategy Paper, for the Presbyterian Coalition, by its Visioning Team," April 30 ­ May 1, 1998.
28)  Declaration and Strategy Paper, op cit, p. 8.





 


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