What General Assemblies have said about the Nixon case, and what it means for impeachment today

In 1974, both the Northern and Southern churches passed resolutions. One called on the church to be ‘the voice of conscience in the secular affairs of state’

by the Rev. Dr. Chris Iosso, coordinator of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy | Special to Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — One of our more prophetic pastors, Bruce Gillette, has suggested that we keep in mind a 1974 resolution of the Presbyterian Church, US, the “Southern Church,” as we consider the meaning of the current impeachment of President Donald Trump.

Most denominations said little or nothing officially about the consequences of the “Watergate mess,” but the Southern Presbyterians actually addressed it in two resolutions, both brought by pairs of commissioners to their General Assembly. At the very least, this suggests that the Presbyterian devotion to democratic polity runs more than organizationally deep; we really do believe in mutual accountability and service to the common good, however these beliefs may run counter to our culture of individualism and inequality.

The process of considering commissioner resolutions permits up-to-the-minute attention to developments in the world. This practice of the PCUS church was adopted in the Reunion with the larger and more national United Presbyterian Church, USA, in 1983. The practice of the UPC, the “Northern Church,” was to rely more on committee structures with proactive staff, which can be seen in the longer resolution with subsequent recommendations for action printed below, following the two PCUS resolutions.

Within all three resolutions is a pervasive understanding that the church and government both have public responsibilities, though of different natures. Thus impeachment is not a sign of weakness, but of the strength of lawful institutions to prevent tyrannical tendencies. The only Biblical text directly quoted, 2 Chronicles 7:14, calls for humility and prayer for forgiveness on the part of all, and the final recommendation calls for repentance by those involved in corruption and betrayal of the public trust.

There are three themes worth noting in the longer resolution: complicity of all (hence “no scapegoating”), the goal of “reconciliation” (Confession of 1967 still fresh), and a conviction of God’s sovereignty over all nations, holding all to account. The recommendations encourage congregations and educational institutions to hold forums to put then-current events in theological perspective. With these beliefs and practices, there is the hope that the sad process of impeachment can be part of the nation’s moral formation. Will it be so today?

Here are the three resolutions:

Impeachment and the Integrity of U.S. Institutions

A Resolution of the Presbyterian Church, US, from the Report of the Standing Committee on Ethics and Society, part E. “Minutes of the General Assembly, 1974(“Southern Church”)

  1. That Resolution 37 from David K. Garth and C. Stephen Rose Jr. (see page 114), regarding integrity of institutions, as amended below, be answered in the affirmative [as it was]:

Our nation is now suffering a severe test of the integrity of her institutions. It is not a light thing to consider the impeachment of a President of the United States, nor is it a light thing that the elective and judicial processes were so abused by persons close to the highest office in our land. Although we are encouraged that even in the face of the moral crisis in our land there are signs of strength and renewal in the institutions of our country, we dare not fail to bring this crisis to an orderly and fair conclusion.

Therefore, the 114th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States meeting in Louisville, Ky., June 16-22, now resolves to call upon our churches and the people of this nation:

  • To pray that the officials of our government hear the holy God of Israel calling them through the responsibilities of their stations
  • To support the lawful and constitutional procedures for discovering wrong, determining guilt and assigning punishment
  • To join us in appealing to the executive, judicial and legislative branches of the national government to forego the abuse of personal gain and personal power in order to realize the high ideals of the common good envisioned by our forefathers.

The Relationship of Church and Government      

1.D. That Resolution 3 from W. Wirt Skinner, Mike Renquist, et al, (see page 96), regarding the relationship of church and government, be answered by the adoption of the following:

Whereas, separation of church and state does not mean separation of religion from government or politics, nor the divorce of religion’s basic moral and ethical principles from the conduct of public affairs; and

Whereas, the church is to be a voice of conscience in the secular affairs of state; and,

Whereas the church in all nations is influenced by, and is part of, its native society;

Be it therefore resolved that the 114th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States affirm:

  1. That the harmful potential in any concentration of governmental power makes necessary the distribution of power among those who make, execute and interpret law
  2. That the government is to protect the rights, liberties and well-being of all people
  3. That all public officials are subject to law in both public and private conduct.

Be it further resolved that the 114th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States encourage those youth of the church who are now considering a career in politics and encourage generations of church-persons to come to consider professional politics as an honorable profession and a public service entirely becoming to one who is in Christ.

Political Experience and the Moral Crisis

A Statement of the United Presbyterian Church, USA, with (some of the) recommendations following.

From the Report of the Assembly Committee on Authentic Christian Living, References B-14-d and B-26, pp.48, 192, 201)

America, at an historical moment of great wealth and power, finds herself in a crisis of moral integrity and direction. The extent of political expediency in her political life has been shocking, almost unbelievable to the American people. The very values of success, money, prestige, and power upon which America has depended are now exposed as the means by which the presidency and the inner councils of the national administration have been abused and corrupted.

In such a time the church cannot help but speak. The church finds itself speaking because its Lord sent its members into the world to tell the Good News of God’s Kingdom — Good News that both judges and saves. Called by the Lord to be an agent of reconciliation, the church must share both His word and His power toward judging and healing the crises that occur within and among persons and nations. As church persons we, too, have lost our moral voice because we have been content to affirm and enjoy those values that have created the current crisis.

In God’s reconciling work, political power functions with authority as it restrains evil and establishes justice in the social order. The high purpose of civil government as defined by John Calvin is “… to regulate our lives in a manner requisite for … society …, to form our manners to civil justice, to promote our concord with each other and to establish peace and tranquility” (Institutes IV, xx, 2). This purpose of government was affirmed when America constituted herself as a nation. She embraced this essentially moral definition of political power, under which authority may be exercised only when subject to moral restraints and the rule of law.  Our moral heritage as a nation is built upon the premise that no official — even the official of highest rank — is above the law.  All officials without exception are bound by oath of office under the Constitution to enforce the laws of the land impartially and faithfully, and to accept upon themselves those restraints that safeguard the people from tyranny.

It is the responsibility of the church to call upon ourselves and our nation to a vision and practice of righteousness. We are all implicated in the loss of vision and the perversion of practice.  There can be no scapegoats.  Our common implication in the web of injustice need not be a source of despair or self-deprecation. To confess God’s sovereign rule is to perceive God’s grace in the midst of his judgment. This grace is costly. It demands confession and repentance. It demands change. Such change cannot be achieved by minimal adjustments in the social order. What is fundamental is a renewal of our moral sensitivity — the reordering of our priorities and our acceptance of individual as well as corporate responsibility for the quality of life in our land.

We speak out not in anger but in sadness. We speak out not in presumption but with humility.  Therefore, as an Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the Unites States of America, we invite our people and all people of good will to join us in a self-examination of our individual corporate and national lives, to the end that we may change our ways and move toward moral integrity.

“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)

(Edited) recommendations Adopted (XIX. Reference B-14-d, pp. 201ff)

From the Report of Advisory Council on Church and Society, Paragraph 11. In response to paper “Statement on Political Expediency and the Moral Crisis” the committee recommends:

  1. That the statement included in the report of the Advisory Council on Church and Society entitled “Statement on Political Expediency and the Moral Crisis” become a statement of the 186th General Assembly (1974).
  2. That the local sessions institute parish-level meetings for the discussion of moral issues in the current crisis.
  3. That Christian people become involved in the political process in one or more of the following ways: (1) by participating actively in a political party, for example, by being involved in platform construction, policy formation, and selection of candidates; (2) by maintaining close and effective contact with public officials about their work; (3) by holding membership in non-partisan groups such as Common Cause and the League of Women Voters and The United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America Impact Office in Washington: and (4) by being informed concerning national policies and the processes by which they are influenced; (5) by participating in the civil government election process both as candidates and as electors.
  4. That our people support the orderly and expeditious use of the legal constitutional process of impeachment as a just means of resolving for the nation the current governmental crisis and of providing a process for determination of guilt or innocence. We encourage all those elected officials and members of the [civil] judicatory involved in the investigation or prosecution of the impeachment to pursue the highest level of non-partisanship and integrity.
  5. That the colleges and seminaries of the church re-examine their instructional programs to insure adequate exploration into these matters. We also point out the needs of such institutions to develop additional resources for ethical studies and policy analysis and commend these institutions to the support of the church and its members.
  6. That the 186th General Assembly (1974) commend the press for exercising its reporting responsibilities in bringing these matters to public knowledge and recommend that they give fair and impartial portrayal of all matters concerning the process of government.
  7. That the 186th General Assembly (1974) commend those involved in political corruption who have confessed their transgressions and urge any others who have been involved likewise to admit their guilt that they may seek God’s forgiveness, gain the country’s respect and foster health to the body politic.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?