The Presbyterian Church (USA) has recently been in the news for its historic approval of marriage equality. But in these news stories, you may have noticed that Christian Right organizations that are unhappy with the outcome are promoting the idea that people are leaving this and other churches because of their support for equal rights, and for rejecting the Right’s corrupt and redefined version of religious freedom.
As is often the case, the Christian Right’s claims don’t hold much water.
The Presbyterian Church (USA), or PCUSA, is the fourth major denomination of mainline Protestantism to support marriage equality, following in the steps of the United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
While these developments make news, generally unreported is that these churches came to their positions after years of careful deliberations, discussion and debate. Unlike most of the opponents of marriage equality, these churches have democratic governance structures.
Also largely unreported is how outside Christian Right agencies have exploited the democratic polities of the mainline churches, in an effort to degrade their capacities to advance social justice.
The reasons for all this have everything to do with the successes of what the churches call their “social witness” across the 20th Century.
From the enactment of child labor laws, to advancing the African-American civil rights movement, to ending the war in Vietnam, to elevating the role of women and of LGBTQ people, the major denominations of mainline Protestantism have provided moral authority, leadership, and resources that were vital to these movements for social change.
And yet, if you read most of the media you might be led to believe that the only reasons people leave these churches is because of their positions on such things as ordination of women and gay people; reproductive justice, and/or and marriage equality.
The decline in membership in these churches is painfully real. But there is much more to the story of why people leave the churches and people they love.
One of the primary reasons for the departures is a sustained pressure campaign by external interests, seeking to pit mainline Christians against one another; manipulate democratic processes to be unnecessarily divisive; and ultimately diminish and displace these historic denominations which have held a place at the center of American culture for centuries.
One of the main agents in this war of attrition has been the Washington, DC-based Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), funded by the same group of conservative foundations that brought the likes of the Heritage Foundation to Washington, DC. IRD has been primarily funded by neoconservative and Christian Right interests that view the mainline churches as obstacles to their regressive, and sometimes overtly theocratic, political agendas.