Presbyterian Politics | D. G. Hart

Although white evangelicals receive most of the press coverage, below the surface of American Protestantism are believers who defy the red state–blue state analysis of faith and politics. One indication of this non-conformity: the annual denominational meetings where church leaders review finances, propose new strategies for evangelism, and hear reports on the state of the greater Church. In June, three Reformed denominations—the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), and the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA)—held meetings to assess and plan for another year of church business. At each of these three gatherings, these descendants of John Calvin and John Knox surprised anyone who thought they have white evangelicals figured out.    

Up for grabs were hot-button issues—homosexuality, racism, and climate. The CRC toughened its commitment to heterosexual marriage as the only legitimate outlet for sex. The OPC condemned racism even without the topic on its agenda. And the PCA abandoned membership in the National Association of Evangelicals because this umbrella organization for conservative Protestants is trending progressive. For anyone trying to locate these decisions on a map of the white Protestant electorate, the existing guides offered little help. 

A largely ethnic communion (Dutch-American), the CRC used to be one of the most progressive denominations in the world of American evangelicalism. In 1973, the denomination adopted a report that distinguished homosexual practice from orientation in a way that avoided condemning same-sex attractions as sinful. Then, in the early 1990s, the CRC began to ordain women as ministers.

Then last month at its annual synod, seemingly out of nowhere, the CRC decided to elevate its teaching on sex to the status of a formal position. By a vote of 125 to 53, Synod 2022 made prohibitions against “adultery, premarital sex, extra-marital sex, polyamory, pornography, and homosexual sex” binding for members, officers, and agencies. The decision provoked protests from faculty at the denomination’s flagship institution, Calvin University. As one delegate who voted “no” explained, “This motion harms LGBTQ people, harms the church’s witness, and naming this as confession will have disastrous consequences for people and institutions.” For Kristin Du Mez, a prominent historian at Calvin, the decision could split the Church and cause faculty to resign. The synod’s action, she said, is out of step with many congregations where LGBTQ members worship side by side with “members who hold to traditional views of sexuality.” 

Almost as surprising was the OPC’s condemnation of racism at its General Assembly, which met on the campus of Eastern University. A denomination of microscopic proportions (33,000 members compared to the CRC’s 205,000), if the OPC is in the news it’s usually not good. 

Although critics have used the racism of the OPC’s founder, J. Gresham Machen, to tar and feather the denomination as white supremacist, at its recent General Assembly the Church issued a statement on race that defied its recent reputation. When Eastern University staff reported to the OPC’s moderator that church delegates had made racist remarks to student workers and interacted inappropriately with black personnel in the cafeteria, the assembly reacted swiftly. In its statement of “sorrow and regret,” the body declared, “there is no place in the church for such conduct” and “we repudiate and condemn all sins of racism, hatred, and prejudice, as transgressions against our Holy God, who calls us to love and honor all people.”

What made this denunciation especially unusual was that the assembly, a stickler for procedure in church polity and in debate, appeared to admit guilt without due process. No one knew who the victims or offenders were, which meant the accused could not face their accusers. This response appeared to go directly against a fundamental tenet of Presbyterian jurisprudence. Even so, no one protested.

The statement was crafted to avoid an admission of guilt even as critics interpreted it as one. Some said that the OPC had been captured by the “woke” agenda. Whether that is true or not, the statement did for the moment leave the denomination agreeing with a university known for its progressive advocacy. 

The last denomination to meet was the PCA, which convened its General Assembly in Birmingham, Alabama. At this meeting, the PCA voted to leave the National Association of Evangelicals, an activist organization that lobbies for its members (a number of evangelical Protestant denominations) in culture and public affairs. The NAE represents a wing of white evangelicals (at least among leaders) who are moving away from conservative politics thanks to the unpopularity of the Iraq War and the Great Recession.

Many keeping score at home could not be sure what this meant. Was the PCA becoming progressive by rejecting an evangelical organization at a time when most observers of American religion associate evangelical Protestantism with Trump, Christian nationalism, and white supremacy? Or was the PCA backing away from its own recent flirtation with progressive Christian rulings and ministries?

Although the PCA’s membership likely leans Republican, the denomination’s reasons for leaving the NAE had more to do with the organization’s progressive advocacy. The official wording of the overture to leave mentioned the NAE’s advocacy of the “Fairness for All” Act—which proposes “a political compromise regarding sexual orientation, gender identity, and religious freedom”—and a NAE statement of cooperation with Muslims that had “the implied premise that our historic faith and Islam worship the same God, but in different ways.” 

To make sense of all these church decisions, we must look past recent assessments of evangelicalism and conservatism. Church membership and denominational structures matter. Reformed Protestants with roots in Scotland or the Netherlands often look at American society through a different lens than the one available to Protestants who attend big, box-store, independent churches. Reformed Protestants remember churches that were part of the political establishment and regularly issued statements on society. Their members also have expectations, even after disestablishment, for law and public policy to conform to Christian norms. 

Unlike some evangelicals for whom church membership is adiaphora, for Presbyterians and Reformed Christians, membership and active involvement is part of a congregation’s DNA. In denominations like the CRC, OPC, and PCA, where lines of accountability and fraternal goodwill still prevail, debates about American politics take unpredictable turns. The recent CRC synod and OPC and PCA general assemblies may not predict how church members will spend their political capital. But by veering from the standard narrative about white evangelicalism and American politics (nationalist, white supremacist, and toxic), they suggest more attention should be paid to institutional churches than to personal piety.

D. G. Hart is distinguished associate professor of history at Hillsdale College. 

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