The Presbyterian Church (USA) is expected to take an historic step in the history of religious freedom when it gathers for its biennial General Assembly June 16-23. The denomination is expected to overwhelmingly pass a resolution embracing the core Presbyterian value of religious freedom, and opposing the religious right’s abuse of this founding principle of American democracy and human and civil rights.
This development comes at a time when the Trump administration has sought, in the name of religious freedom, to drastically reduce the civil rights protections accorded LGBTQ people and women’s access to reproductive health care. It also comes at a time (as RD reported in April) when the Christian Right is promoting a sweeping legislative agenda in the states under the rubric of religious freedom. This agenda seeks to advance Christian nationalism in public life and carve out religious exemptions from civil rights laws—especially those involving women’s reproductive rights and LGBTQ civil rights—as they seek conservative Christian dominion.
The proposed resolution recalls the church’s historic role in advocating for religious freedom and separation of church and state in the colonial era and beyond—and calls on the church to pick up the mantle of liberation in opposition to new forms of oppression in the 21stcentury.
Citing resolutions of years past, the current resolution observes, that the General Assembly understands that the Christian faith is “opposed to discrimination on matters of gender orientation and identity, and in support of freedom of the conscience in matters of reproductive rights.”
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The resolution declares that “Our Historical Principles of Church Order of 1788 state clearly: ‘We do not (…) wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power… …’” Therefore, the proposed resolution affirms:
“The principle of religious freedom should not mean the right to discriminate against or impose one’s views upon others. In our commitment to be disciples of Jesus Christ, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is called to stand against oppression and in support of human dignity for all people. Because religious freedom must be ‘equal and common to all,’ as our Historic Principles further state, it cannot be maintained as a matter of privileged exemption for powerful individuals or groups.”
Rev. Dr. Christian Iosso, the staff Coordinator for the PCUSA’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy that was responsible for the resolution, told RD:
“We hope that this resolution will signal to the church and to all other Americans, that a foundational value of our country and our church, and of democracy and equal dignity is in danger of serious erosion.”
“We hope too,” he added, “to find our voice by seeking to connect our vision of the future with the powerful social witness of our past. Our resolution makes a theological argument for connecting religious freedom and a substantial view of human rights. If the Assembly approves the Committee’s proposal, it will affirm a determination to challenge laws that both violate freedom of conscience and deny full citizenship rights on false religious grounds.”
The Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Christian Right agency that has been waging a war of attrition against the PCUSA and other mainline churches since the Reagan administration took a different view. Writing for the IRD’s blog, Presbyterian pastor Jeff Gissing looks askance at the resolution, which asks the denomination to oppose “any effort to use religious liberty as a pretext for discrimination,” language he finds “both disappointing and disturbing.”
“It’s disappointing,” he explained, “because the proponents place themselves as judges over the motives of those who disagree with them. They seem incapable of conceiving of conscientious objection as anything other than an expression of hate and therefore deeming it something to be stifled or punished. There is no calculus for sincerity of belief, for historical precedent or lineage of belief.”
There is, however, nothing in the resolution that characterizes anyone’s views as “hate” nor does it call for anyone’s views to be “stifled or punished.”
Nevertheless, Gissing insists that the resolution and its authors are urging the church to “become an advocacy group that will use political and judicial means to thwart religious liberty protections for those holding traditionalist views.”
The Washington, DC based Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, however, welcomes the resolution, telling RD that for decades the organization has “brought together faiths that use the moral force of religion to advance reproductive health, rights and justice. We encourage faith communities to assert the value of people making decisions based on their own conscience in matters of sex and sexuality. For us, this principle is part of religious freedom.”
The PCUSA is one of the largest denominations of mainline Protestantism. Like other Christian denominations, and for that matter, most membership organizations in the U.S., the church is losing members. But the PCUSA brings an institutional legacy and gravitas matched by few in American and global Christianity. That’s why it matters when its elected governing body states:
“We believe it weakens religious freedom when it is invoked in ways that deprive people of their civil and human rights to equal protection under the law, or seek to justify exclusion and discrimination. In the civil rights era, United States civil courts rightly rejected the claims of those who said racial integration would violate their religion.”
The latter point is studiously avoided by IRD and other conservatives seeking to marginalize LGBTQ people in public life. It’s convenient to forget that there was a time when “traditional” views included not only racial discrimination, but also barred women from serving as clergy in the Presbyterian church. There are traditionalists who long for those days, even as the church has moved strongly in the direction of inclusion and social justice.
Historian John Ragosta, a Fellow at Virginia Humanities and author of two books on religious freedom, is not surprised that the PCUSA would look to their own history to find their 21stcentury voice. Ragosta told RD that he sees a through line from when Presbyterians were a persecuted religious minority in colonial Virginia.
“Presbyterian support for religious freedom and separation of church and state is long-standing,” he said, “and was fundamental both to the growth of the church and to the growth of religious freedom in America.”
“The battle for religious freedom and against an alliance of church and state in colonial and revolutionary Virginia laid the foundation for American religious freedom and the First Amendment. Having suffered discrimination and persecution under the established church in colonial Virginia, evangelical Presbyterians helped to lead that battle,” as he reported in his book, Wellspring of Liberty.
“In 1777, in the midst of the Revolution,” Ragosta added, “the Hanover Presbytery insisted that religious freedom also demanded a separation of church and state.” As their statement noted, they believed that religion is a “private choice or voluntary obligation of every individual.” They also believed that the “Civil Magistrate” (or government official) should not “otherwise interfere than to protect them all in the full and free exercise of their several Modes of Worship….”
“And that the Duty which we owe our Creator,” they concluded, “and the manner of discharging it, can only be directed by reason and conviction, and is nowhere cognizable but at the tribunal of the universal Judge.”
Thus the Presbyterians of the 18thcentury recognized that the government is not to be in the business of privileging the religious views of some, but protecting the rights of all. The Presbyterians of the 21st century clearly agree.