Friday, July 28, 2006

A compliance check on sexuality materials

In June General Assembly approved an overture from Shenango Presbytery that should prove to be a blockbuster resolution. At the point when our denominational leaders and entities actually comply with this resolution, the PCUSA will once again be biblically and confessionally sound in relation to its public teaching on marriage and sexual practice.

I realize that’s a knock-your-socks-off claim. What do I mean?

Item 12-11, approved by General Assembly, bears this title: “On Sexuality Curricula and Other Materials Being Consistent with the Biblical and Confessional Teaching.” The overture reads:

The Presbytery of Shenango overtures the 217th General Assembly (2006)to direct the General Assembly Council (Congregational Ministries Division) and all other PC(USA) entities to use the biblical and confessional teachings that sexual relationships belong only within the bond of marriage of a man and a woman as the standard for the development of any future materials or recommendations for materials in print or in its website. The curriculum should include information on reproductive health to allow for an open discussion between teachers and youth in light of our understanding of God’s plan for sexuality.

The language is a little convoluted, so to see more clearly what is really being said, here’s a more graphic version of the key provision. The overture directs

(1) the General Assembly Council (Congregational Ministries Division) and
(2) all other PC(USA) entities

to use the biblical and confessional teachings that

sexual relationships belong only within the bond of marriage of a man and a woman

as the standard for

(a) the development of any future materials or
(b) recommendations for materials
(i) in print or
(ii) in its website.

Let me boil that down to even simpler language:

All PC(USA) entities are directed to use the teaching that sexual relationships belong only in heterosexual marriage as the standard for any materials being developed or recommended.

That's what it says, folks. And General Assembly approved it.

Note that the directive covers sexuality curriculum materials, but it is not limited only to such materials. In fact, the overture itself doesn’t even mention curriculum; it uses the more inclusive word “materials.” The overture title proves that sexuality curricula aren't the only intended subject: “On Sexuality Curricula and Other Materials Being Consistent with the Biblical and Confessional Teaching” [emphasis added].

This General Assembly directive to all entities covers all materials of any kind in development, and all recommendations, in print or on the Web. This is remarkable! I like it.

But what will it mean in practice? Let me hazard a few answers:

  • The Washington Office will need to take steps to ensure that all of its print and electronic materials comply with the standard that sexual relationships belong only within the bond of marriage of a man and a woman. That will mean they can no longer press for gay marriage or civil unions, nor can they recommend materials that do so.
  • Any materials such as newsletters and e-mail alerts developed from now on by any Presbyterian entity cannot be in violation of the standard that sexual relations belong only in heterosexual marriage.
  • Curriculum Development within Congregational Ministries Publishing and Christian Education will need to conform to this standard all their curriculum pieces being developed, and when they recommend other reading, that reading will need to conform, as well.
  • No entity such as Presbyterian Health, Education, and Welfare Association or its networks can develop materials or recommend items that promote or permit premarital, extramarital, or homosexual sexual expression.
  • The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy will need to conform its coming papers and policies to the standard of heterosexual marriage as the only moral setting for sexual relations.
  • Materials circulated by the National Network of Presbyterian College Women will need to conform to this standard as well.
  • Church magazines, such as Presbyterians Today, cannot promote or excuse such things as cohabitation or same-sex marriage.
  • Presbyterians Affirming Reproductive Options will need to cease treating premarital or extramarital sex as normal and will need to affirm abstinence outside of marriage.
  • Articles, books, and websites that approve of or promote premarital or extramarital sex, homosexual sexual expression, same-sex marriage, or same-sex unions would not be appropriately developed, used, or recommended in any Presbyterian source.

Well, we’ve got the General Assembly resolution, and it sets an excellent standard. Let’s keep an eye out to identify ways the resolution is either followed or defied. Defiance would be the most natural course of events, given that the resolution itself is not particularly popular with many of the entities noted above. Compliance, however, ought to be the only possible response open to entities and leaders under the authority of General Assembly.

So watch with me the implementation--or not--of this amazing resolution.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Prescient Renewal Leaders

Last November, 26 leaders of Mainline renewal groups issued a warning about a new tactic popping up in many of the denominations they represent in the ecumenical Association for Church Renewal. Let me quote in part from that statement:

The debate within our churches over biblical standards for human sexuality may be entering a new phase. For decades, revisionists have argued that the Scriptures, properly understood, do not prohibit homosexuality as it is practiced today. Indeed, they have insisted that biblical values of "justice" require the acceptance of homosexual relationships.

Increasingly, however, the arguments have shifted. We now see, in several denominations, a new strategy to win the church's affirmation of homosexual acts. This new strategy is less direct. It is offered as a "compromise," a "third way." Yet the effect would be the same: to undermine and ultimately to set aside the historic Christian teaching that affirms God's good gift of sexual intimacy solely within the marriage of man and woman.

We stand opposed to this false "third way," with the same firmness with which we opposed the earlier attempts to re-interpret the Bible. We warn you to beware such
"compromises" that give away too much.

The essence of the new strategy is this: to leave in church law books the orthodox standards calling Christians to fidelity in marriage and sexual abstinence in singleness, while inventing procedural devices permitting church bodies and officials to disregard the standards at will. This strategy has been proposed--and, in some cases, functionally adopted--in the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Insofar as it succeeds in some of those denominations, the strategy will likely be replicated elsewhere.

That is exactly what happened at General Assembly in June! Presbyterians are now in the preposterous position of having what our Stated Clerk has termed binding national standards, the departure from which is allowable when deemed not "a failure to adhere to the essentials of Reformed faith and polity."

Warning of exactly such nonsense, the renewal leaders counseled last November that "we cannot be content with standards that remain on paper while being emptied of all force.... This 'third way' would sever the church's practice from its doctrine. It would set a terrible precedent of a church openly acknowledging a biblical command and then treating obedience to that command as optional."

It has.

This is a ridiculous position in which to find my beloved Presbyterian Church.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Confiscating Wealth from the Dearly Departed

What follows is an open letter to Carolynn Race, the Associate for Domestic Poverty Issues in the PCUSA Washington Office. My response comes first, followed by her article that sparked the response.

July 10, 2006

Carolynn Race
Washington Office
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Dear Ms. Race,

In your story below about the Estate Tax, you quote John Calvin. I like the idea, but I believe you miss his point entirely. You wrote: "John Calvin insisted that those in authority 'themselves ought to remember that their finances (the taxes) are not so much private incomes as the revenues of the whole people' (IV.xx.13)."

So what does Calvin mean by this? Isn't it that the money that comes in as tax revenue doesn't belong to those in authority as their personal income (as it was for monarchs and even the bishops and cardinals, the princes of the church)? It means that tax revenue is in the coffers to be spent on government projects. There is NO ONE on any side of the issue claiming tax revenue as personal wealth of officials, as if the head of the IRS is now fabulously wealthy because his agency brought in money FOR HIM!

No, you misuse Calvin. And, it's interesting how you quote Calvin not only inappropriately, but also selectively. In the same section from which you quote, Calvin speaks to private individuals, "that they may not rashly and petulantly stigmatise the expenditure of princes, though it should exceed the ordinary limits." Calvin was even ready to accord "princes" a personal part of "the legitimate revenues of princes," even for "the maintenance of their domestic state, which is in a manner combined with the dignity and the authority which they exercise." We're not even talking about giving our rulers princely estates (although Calvin would do so), so we should take care lest we "rashly and petulantly stigmatise" even the public expenditures of the government.

Calvin's very true warning does not speak to the dispute now before Congress. What is under dispute now is HOW MUCH MONEY should be taxed from the people and what public use (of many) to which to put the tax revenue. Good people of very different minds will have far-ranging opinions on how best to help the common welfare of the American people. If you are going to oppose making the Estate Tax less onerous, at least use arguments that fit the case.

Quoting Calvin (for effect?) loses its effect entirely when you apparently misunderstand and misappropriate what he was talking about. We make no one wealthy by confiscating less of their already-earned-and-already-taxed income. They made themselves wealthy through the creation of wealth possible in this upwardly mobile society. They also brought a lot of people with them in that creation of wealth, lifting the livelihood of many others. The government shoots itself in the foot if it eyes greedily the properly gotten wealth of dead people and confiscates an inordinate portion of that wealth, over which it really has no claim.

You would think that for fairness and justice's sake, you would be advocating on the opposite side of the matter. That is where you would find the majority of the Presbyterians whose GIFTS to the church of their wealth you spend against their desires and (fortunately for you) largely outside their knowledge.

There is no clear biblical, confessional, or theological mandate for you to promote one political solution on the Estate Tax over another, EITHER of which MIGHT promote social justice or improve the lot of the poor--or could hinder the same. You've made a political judgment that one method is preferred, and then you try to wrap it in theology or policy. It doesn't work. I'd highly recommend taking a second look at what you are doing.

We'd all be much better served if you would provide Congress and Presbyterian voters with VERY FAIR, nonpartisan, broad-based materials that help people think through the complicated ramifications of taxing the estates of dead people, noting the ethics of confiscating hard-earned wealth just because the government can, the effect on family-owned farms and businesses, the dampening effect on the businesses' prosperity and ability to provide employment to that many more of the poor, and so on.

You truncate the thinking by saying, in effect, "If we can't take as much of these dead people's money, then we won't have as much money as we want to give to poor people." And what you don't append is this " give to poor people in social-welfare programs that have failed to truly help the poor and have promoted dependency and a perpetual underclass, which actually could be improved by the jobs that robust business can and will provide if the government doesn't give it enormous disincentives to do so."

Why is it we NEVER hear of such thinking from the Washington Office, but it is ALWAYS of another slant? Where's the DIVERSITY in our Washington Office that would match the diversity in the church on such matters? Has there been discriminatory hiring, so that someone who is politically and/or theologically conservative wouldn't have a ghost of a chance of being employed? Should that be rectified? How?

Many questions to answer. I have asked this as an open letter on the Berkley Blog, so that others can participate in the conversation.


Jim Berkley

James D. Berkley
Director of Presbyterian Action


From: Presbyterian Washington Office []Sent: Mon 7/10/2006 1:19 PMTo: Jim BerkleySubject: Presbyterian Witness in Washington Weekly Update
The Washington Office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
July 10, 2006
Estate Tax “Reform” Vote possible in Senate
By Carolynn Race, Associate Domestic Poverty and Matt Lewis, Emerson Hunger Fellow
On June 22, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 5638, a bill that would repeal most but not all of the estate tax, by a vote of 269-156. The U.S. Senate may vote on H.R. 5638 or another estate tax reform bill in July. Many anti-poverty advocates are concerned that, if passed by the U.S. Senate and signed into law, the federal revenues lost because of the bill would have a devastating impact on the federal government’s ability to fund programs – particularly those for the most vulnerable in society.
Under current law, estates below $2 million ($4 million per couple) are exempt from the estate tax and in 2009; the exemption level will rise to $3.5 million ($7 million per couple). The House proposal would exempt the first $10 million of a couple’s estate ($5 million for an individual) from taxation entirely. Amounts above these exemption levels but below $25 million would be taxed at the capital gains rate (which is now 15%), and amounts above $25 million would be taxed at twice the capital gains rate. Analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that, under the House proposal, revenues from the tax would drop by 75 percent, and the federal government would lose three quarters of a trillion dollars over the first ten years the changes are fully implemented.
This revenue loss could result in further cuts for human needs programs. This year’s Deficit Reduction Act already resulted in nearly $40 billion over five years in spending reductions to programs, including cuts to Medicaid, child support enforcement, student loans, and SSI.
Having fallen short of 60 votes on a bill that would have fully repealed the estate tax in early June, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) is seeking to pass the House’s partial repeal legislation in the Senate. A Senate vote could happen in July. Contact your Senators and raise concerns about the impact estate tax reform legislation could have on funding human needs programs.
Presbyterian Taxation Policies:In supporting the imposition of taxes, John Calvin insisted that those in authority "themselves ought to remember that their finances (the taxes) are not so much private incomes as the revenues of the whole people" (IV.xx.13).In 1979, the 191st General Assembly of the UPCUSA- Reaffirmed the United Presbyterian Church's acceptance of responsibility to work for every form of human well-being in the understanding that the God whom we worship and serve is a God of justice and the liberator of the oppressed,- Urged United Presbyterians to deal with taxation and budget priorities on the basis of the commitments and criteria established by previous General Assemblies; and noted that this means the subordination of narrow, short-sighted, self-serving considerations to an insistence upon society's responsibility for conditions whereby such basic needs of all citizens as jobs, housing, education, and health care can be satisfactorily met, and- Reaffirmed the actions of previous General Assemblies pertaining to the elimination of poverty and unemployment, to equitable taxation, and to the continuing shift of national priorities from an excessive preoccupation with military superiority to bold and imaginative initiatives for peace, health and welfare. (Minutes, UPCUSA, p. 292)