Why Presbyterian Elites Turned Left
Leaders of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have joined ranks with the radical left in recent years. They vilify Israel, apologize for Islamic terrorists, and cheer on the Palestinian cause.
Now, these leftist elites are savoring an important victory, having pushed through a resolution to divest from U.S. companies operating in Israel: Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett Packard. The contentious vote in the church's general assembly passed by a narrow 310-to-303, and was a long-time goal of leftist Presbyterians, who since 2006 had submitted four divestiture resolutions that failed to muster sufficient votes.
Divestiture is largely symbolic: The companies in the portfolio of America's largest Presbyterian denomination represented a pittance of its investments, about $21 million. But leftist Presbyterians saw divestiture as a way to shame the companies and ostracize Israel over what they believe is its humiliation of Palestinian Arabs and illegal occupation of their lands – a situation they claim begets terrorism. They conveniently forget that Israel has been ready to trade land for peace since its birth in 1948. As for the companies they vilify: Caterpillar's bulldozers are used in anti-terror operations; and Motorola Solutions and Hewlett Packard provide electronic security systems.
More than a few rank-and-file Presbyterians were outraged over the June 20th divestiture vote; tens of thousands have left the church in recent years as it drifted left. “We stand in full support of Israel's right to protect its citizens and of all American companies to engage in honest free enterprise,” said Rev. Paul deJong, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Fort Myers, the oldest Presbyterian church in Lee County, Florida.
“The church has been infected,” a Presbyterian seminary student in Texas once told me, a women in her 30s who became a minister. She was referring to a pro-Palestinian conference hosted several years ago by Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, an affiliate of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). At the time, leftist Presbyterians were calling for a divestiture resolution.
Israel is not perfect, of course; no country is. But the venom of Israel-bashing Presbyterians has been troubling because of how it negates anything positive about the Middle East’s only democracy. Israel is singled out as a rights abuser.
What accounts for this moral confusion?
Israel-bashing didn't used to be fashionable, including among Presbyterians. Indeed, Israel was widely admired in the years after its birth and miraculous growth. Upbeat news articles spoke of those “plucky Jews.” But no more. Now Israeli Jews are denied credit for their nation’s economic and democratic miracle, growing out of a region that American writer Mark Twain – passing through as a travel writer in 1867 – had described as an unpopulated and “desolate country.”
Now, Israel’s story has a new twist, one put forth by left-leaning Presbyterians and fellow-travelers in other Christian denominations. Jews achieved what they did because they exploited somebody else: Palestinian Arabs. In this view Palestinian Arabs, not Jews, are now the chosen people.
This Israel-bashing narrative also bristles with anti-Americanism, and over the years it has become popular in America's universities. That's an old story. But what's less well known is that this same narrative has gained currency at many Christian seminaries. Many seminary professors have adopted a world view similar to the post-modern left; what for them is a strange hybrid of Christianity, Marxism, and Edward Said. (Said, of course, was the high-profile Columbia University professor who popularized the idea of Palestinian victim hood within an anti-Western context.) At some Presbyterian seminaries, students in their early 20s – future ministers and church leaders – have been indoctrinated for years with the ideological poison of the post-modern left, albeit within a Christian context.
Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary
One Presbyterian seminary that I'm familiar with is in Texas: a 112-year-old institution whose idyllic grounds are near the University of Texas campus in Austin, the state capital. I'm not a Presbyterian, incidentally. I’m not even a regular church-goer, although I regularly attended a mainline Protestant church as a youngster. Eight years ago, however, I took a greater than usual interest in religion, after noticing Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary was hosting a thought-provoking conference: “American Churches and the Palestinians.” The theme of the two-day event was inspired by a line from Isaiah 58:6: “To Loose the Chains of Injustice…”
I briefly visited the conference, and that passage’s subordination to a political view quickly became clear: Israeli Jews were colonial oppressors; and Palestinian Arabs were their victims. The event’s main sponsors were hardly friendly toward Israel: The Interfaith Community for Palestinian Rights; Friends of Sabeel-North America; and Pax Christi USA. Hundreds of religious leaders from around the country, representing various denominations, attended along with seminary faculty.
Consider three high-profile guest speakers:
Robert Jensen, a radical left-wing University of Texas journalism professor, discussed what he claimed was biased media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – biased, that is, against Palestinian Arabs. Jensen was hardly unbiased himself, however. Days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, he gained national notoriety for his inflammatory Op-Ed in the Houston Chronicle, “U.S. Just as Guilty of Committing Own Violent Acts.” The attacks, Jensen argued, were “no more despicable than the massive acts of terrorism…that the U.S. government has committed during my lifetime.”
Two years earlier, Jensen published an Op-Ed in the Houston Chronicle and Palestine Chronicle. Its title and first sentence were the same: “I Helped Kill a Palestinian Today.”
“If you pay taxes to the U.S. government, so did you,” Jensen explained. He went onto to say that “the current Israeli attack on West Bank towns is not a war on terrorism, but part of a long and brutal war against the Palestinian people for land and resources.” He said nothing about billions of U.S. dollars of international aid flowing over the years into the Palestinian territories – only to be squandered, pocketed by corrupt officials, or used to fund terrorism.
At the conference's dinner, the main speakers were Cindy and Craig Corrie, parents of Rachel Corrie. At age 23, Rachel Corrie died when she stood in front of an Israeli Defense Forces bulldozer conducting anti-terror operations – clearing tunnels utilized by Palestinian terrorists. The driver failed to see her, and she was run over. Corrie is now a martyr to her supporters – their very own Joan of Arc. But the more accurate description of her would be “terror advocate.” A memorable photo shows her clad in Muslim garb – her face contorted with rage as she holds a burning American flag drawn on a piece of paper.
Corrie's parents head the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice, a non-profit “that conducts and supports programs that foster connections between people, that build understanding, respect, and appreciation for differences, and that promote cooperation within and between local and global communities.”
The conference's star speaker was the Rev. Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Episcopal priest who founded and directs the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. He has questioned Israel's right to exist, and like his Presbyterian counterparts apologizes for Islamic terrorists. He distributed a thought-provoking scholarly paper he'd written: “What is theologically and morally wrong with suicide bombings? A Palestinian Christian Perspective.” The subject was timely. Suicide bombings were more common at the time: Israel’s “separation barrier” – which has saved lives by thwarting suicide bombers, but that leftist Presbyterians widely criticized – was not finished at the time.
Ateek’s paper navigated a thicket of theological issues, but its conclusion was fairly simple: Suicide bombers do indeed violate Christian doctrine – but the desperation fueling their misguided actions is understandable: It's Israel’s fault. Neither Ateek nor his Presbyterian supporters, incidentally, have ever given credence to three other “root causes” of Palestinian Arab terrorism: Islamist ideology; the culture of hate permeating Palestinian culture; or an “honor-shame” mentality that undermines efforts for peace which the overwhelmingly majority of Israelis desire.
Visiting the conference, I walked down hallways lined with exhibits outside classrooms where "workshops" were held. The exhibits bristled with pro-Palestinian political literature and books. One focused on Palestinian culture, displaying clothing and other items. (Not included were suicide vests or a replica of the Sbarro pizzeria suicide bombing; such an exhibit was displayed by clever Hamas student activists at al-Najah University in Nablus).
Rev. Ateek, of Sabeel, must have felt right at home. He was clearly a favorite speaker -- a veritable celebrity. Conference-goers eagerly repeated his stories of alleged Israeli terrorism against Palestinians, including when, he says, his family was forcibly removed by Israeli troops on May 12, 1948. This, of course, was days before Arab armies tried to wipe Israel off the map. Perhaps Ateek’s personal stories are true; perhaps not. However, what’s clearly false about these stories, revolving around Israel's creation, is that Ateek presents them as normal and everyday occurrences, the result of Israel’s aggression; the defining narrative of what Israel was and became.
The conference was a sold-out event; and no doubt it and similar events in recent years have persuaded increasing numbers of Presbyterians to support divestiture. The conference's main organizer, Whitney S. Bodman, must have been pleased. A high-profile professor at Austin Seminary, he is an expert on Islam. He's an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and holds a doctorate in comparative religion from Harvard University. His research interests, he says, includes “Christian theology in an Islamic context.” Politically active, Bodman has praised terror group Hezbollah as a nation-building organization that fends off Israel's aggression. He has worked closely with the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the problematic Muslim group. Above all, he has been a prominent figure on the “inter-faith dialogue” circuit that attempts to bridge differences with Muslims. That effort kicked into high gear after the 9/11 attacks.
Speaking at a “religious diversity” symposium not long after Europe's infamous “cartoon riots,” Bodman belittled the idea that Muslims alone were responsible for Islamic-inspired terrorism and mayhem, and endeavored to smooth over the hurt feelings of Muslims. He explained: "First,remember that no incident happens in a vacuum and the violence and hatred exploding throughout the world today is not really about one event or something as seemingly trivial as a cartoon. It is an accumulation of hurt over months and years. It is Iraq and Palestine, suicide bombings and Abu Ghraib and Gitmo and 9/11 and this whole sense that there really is a clash of civilizations, an insidious danger to our way of life.”
What must the learned professor have thought about an Islamic terror plot in Canada that made headlines around this time – one involving 17 young Muslim men and youths? Their roots were not in the Middle East but Canada – home to anti-Americanism, multiculturalism, and unlimited tolerance. Yet they wanted to blow up Canada’s landmarks and behead the prime minister.
In their eagerness to appease Muslims, some Presbyterians have put themselves in even more compromising positions. In October, 2004, Ronald Stone, a retired professor of Christian and social ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (affiliated with Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), met in southern Lebanon with Hezbollah commander Sheikh Nabil Kaouk, while on an official “fact-finding mission” to the Middle East.
Stone caused a furor when he told an Arab television channel that “relations and conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealings and dialogue with Jewish leaders.”
“We treasure the precious words of Hezbollah and your expression of goodwill towards the American people,” he added. It was an odd way to describe Hezbollah, which Washington has designated a terror group for killing hundreds of Israeli and Americans. This included 200 U.S. Marines in the 1983 suicide bombing of their Beirut barracks and deadly attacks on the Israeli Embassy in Argentina in 1992 and Israeli cultural center in Buenos Aires in 1994.
Stone was part of the lead group of the church’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy. The church repudiated his remarks. But the controversy didn't stop the head of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the Chicago area, Rev. Robert Reynolds, from meeting nearly one year later with a Hezbollah commander, much to the outrage of Chicago-area Jewish leaders.
It's hardly coincidental that these Presbyterian leaders and activist echo the political and theological line that's promoted at more than a few Presbyterian seminaries. Sometimes, the political indoctrination of young seminary students can be insidious.
A few weeks before its pro-Palestinian conference, Austin Seminary hosted a photography exhibition related to the conference’s theme: Palestinians as victims; Jews as their exploiters. Dozens of heart-rending photos adorned hallway walls outside classrooms. For future ministers and religious leaders, the photos were there to see, ponder, and absorb. The exhibit was from left-leaning documentary photographer Alan Pogue, a Vietnam War-veteran specializing in political and social issues from a “social justice” angle.
The exhibition’s theme was unmistakable: European Jews displaced by World War 2 had created Israel – and ejected Palestinians from their ancestral homes. In fact, this was the caption of one photo. There were no positive photos of Israel or Israeli-Jews.
Two photos arranged side by side impressed me for the subtle anti-Americanism and moral equivalence suggested by their juxtaposition. One was a photo from New York City after the September 11 attacks – a poignant scene of a make-shift sidewalk memorial. It was a still life of sorts: flowers, photos, and mementos left by friends and family members.
Beside it was a strikingly similar photo – one of a Baghdad sidewalk memorial. It remembered the approximately 300 mostly women and children killed by a U.S. precision-guided bomb during the U.S.-led liberation of Iraq. They died in an underground shelter that U.S. military planners presumed was one of Saddam Hussein's command-and-control centers. Just before the war, however, it was converted into an air-raid shelter – one Saddam’s military men avoided. This of course is a common tactic among Middle Eastern terrorists and “insurgents” – putting civilians in harms way, and then when they are killed blaming and shaming the enemy.
Pogue saw things differently. His caption referred to the photos “similarities.” The subtle impression was that Americans now knew the same horrors their government had visited upon foreign lands.
Curiously, the photo exhibit was removed the day before a rare event at the seminary: a colloquium of Presbyterian ministers and rabbis held two weeks after the pro-Palestinian conference. The event’s title: “A Difficult Friendship: Divestment, Dialogue, and Hope.”
It was a revealing title. Seminary professors have gone out of their way in recent years to bridge “differences” with Palestinian Arabs and Muslims – even to the extent of excusing Islamic terrorism or apologizing for Judeo-Christian culture and history. Yet their “difficult relationship” is with Jews – not Muslims.
No wonder that a generation of seminary students has been infected with the poison of the postmodern left: a poison that vilifies Israel, America, and even the West. In casual conversations I had with young and idealistic seminary students, I noticed a common thread: They couldn't bring themselves to condemn other cultures -- especially those they considered underdogs. You've heard of self-hating Jews. They were self-hating Christians.
One Austin Seminary student in her early 20s, an honor student, told me about participating in an “interfaith” function with Muslim men at Austin Seminary; and after the Muslims broke their fast she offered to shake hands with one man in a flowing robe. Yet he only reluctantly grasped her hand, she recalled.
She wasn't shocked or put off.
She made excuses for him, explaining it was important to “understand” his culture. Yet this was in a Christian seminary -- and a Muslim holy day was being celebrated there.
In explaining Arab rage against the West, this same student mentioned the “crusades” – no matter that quite a few Jews had their heads lopped off by crusaders; or that the crusades were a delayed response to Muslim aggression. Now, Islamic aggression is on the march again – and some of its religious underpinnings are making inroads into the Christian faith, judging by what's being taught at more than a few Christian seminaries.
One seminary student even spoke of terror master Yasar Arafat as a freedom fighter. “You know, he won a Nobel Peace Prize,” he reminded me.
Recently, Austin Seminary got a new dean, a long-time theology professor at the seminary named David H. Jensen. One of his more interesting scholarly articles pondered the cultural imperialism fostered by America’s most famous hamburger: the Big Mac. In "The Big Mac and the Lord's Prayer,” Jensen argued that McDonald's and its all-American mean were emblematic of the dark underbelly of globalization -- and even at odds with Christian values. “The McMeal is…a parody of the Eucharist, extending an invitation to all, but embodying only one culture,” he wrote. Interestingly, McDonald's strongest sales at the time were in none other than anti-American France and former Cold War enemies China and Russia. All of which underscores the perception gap that exists between leftist elites and ordinary people – a gap now reflected in the battle between rank-and-file Presbyterians and leftist elites in Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Years ago, the Presbyterian church was part of the venerable WASP establishment. It had produced many presidents over the years. Its parishioners were well-heeled, well-educated, and very successful. They believed in America. Those days are gone.
Now that divestiture is finally a reality, the soul of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) may have been lost forever to the left. Decent Presbyterians, like those at First Presbyterian Church of Fort Myers, will face an uphill battle to reclaim it.
The left is in charge, for now.