Mainline Protestant churches — Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and others — were once the church of the establishment but are now rapidly losing both members and influence in a downward spiral with no end in sight.
For decades, mainline churches partnered with Jews on a host of social justice issues, but the halcyon days of mainline dominance are gone. So, too, is much of the partnership with many American Jews.
One reason for the continuing decline will be on full display in Tampa, Fla., on April 24 when the United Methodists open their quadrennial General Conference gathering. On the agenda: a vote to divest church assets from companies in Israel, which will also be taken up (again) at the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly in Pittsburgh beginning June 30.
In 2004, during the second Palestinian intifada, the Presbyterians’ General Assembly voted 413-62 to “initiate a process of phased selective divestment in multinational corporations doing business in Israel.”
The action drew strong criticism from many prominent Presbyterians, including former CIA Director James Woolsey, who warned that singling out Israel for economic punishment was unfair and would send the “wrong message” to both Jews and Arabs.
But the one-sided movement remains alive in Methodist, Lutheran, United Church of Christ, and Episcopal circles. Eight years later, such efforts have been beaten back, thanks to sustained opposition within the various denominations.
Such efforts represent a biased double standard that judges Israel much more harshly than its neighboring nations and terrorist organizations including Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah — all of them publicly committed to the physical destruction of the world’s only Jewish state, America’s longtime ally and the only real democracy in in the turbulent Middle East.
Why are some Protestant church leaders so intent to single out Israel for financial punishment and public condemnation while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is slaughtering his own citizens? While Egypt’s once promising quest for democracy is threatened by the extremist Muslim Brotherhood? While Hezbollah effectively controls the fragile Lebanese government?
Hamas brazenly fires rockets into Israel, Iraqis kill one another in intra-Muslim sectarian strife and Saudi Arabia systematically denies women their human and civil rights. Iran flaunts world public opinion by continuing a clandestine nuclear program while supplying both Hamas and Hezbollah with thousands of deadly rockets.
Where is the mainline outrage on any of that? Cue the chirping crickets.
Even as those ominous and dangerous developments are taking place, it’s clear some Protestant leaders remain solely concerned about divesting their church funds from Israel. Indeed, for the past eight years they seemed obsessed with Israel’s alleged flaws, even as the Presbyterians eventually pulled back on divestment.
The Rev. Peter A. Pettit, a Lutheran professor at Muhlenberg College and the director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding, points to one source of animosity toward Israel: a simplistic understanding of “liberation theology” that has led to the perception that the Middle East conflict is essentially a struggle between the oppressed Palestinians and the oppressing Israelis.
“Liberation theology” began in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s as a Catholic-led movement that presented Christianity as a radical force to alleviate the political, social, economic, and cultural injustices plaguing that region. But today, some Protestant leaders employ “liberation theology” as a bludgeon in their relentless propaganda campaign against Israel.
While the theology has never attracted a large following in the mainline churches, it remains a key theological weapon in anti-Israel circles throughout the world. Adherents even use religious language and imagery, such as depicting Palestinians as the crucified Jesus suffering at the hands of the Israelis.
But there are some mainline leaders who recognize the unfairness and dangers of divestment. Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori recently declared: “The Episcopal Church does not endorse divestment or boycott. ... It’s not going to be helpful to endorse divestment or boycotts of Israel. It will only end in punishing Palestinians economically.”
Let’s hope the Methodist and Presbyterian delegates in Tampa and Pittsburgh heed her words.
(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recently published “Cushing, Spellman, O’Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations.”)
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