PC(USA) General Assembly adopts guide on civic responsibility
by Christian Iosso | Special to Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Yes, the title is a tribute to the documentary on Fred Rogers currently in theaters, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? For about 40 years, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was featured on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) stations as a children’s — but really families’ — afterschool program.
But the other part of the title comes from a report recently adopted by the 223rd General Assembly (2018) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Honest Patriotism is intended to guide our civic responsibility as Presbyterians during “an unprecedented crisis of public dishonesty and chauvinistic nationalism.” The divisiveness found in U.S. politics today is a far cry from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which is precisely why we need to be “honest patriots” to stand against corruption and unfairness.
Fred Rogers would probably have been in agreement with Honest Patriotism. He exercised one of the most effective specialized Presbyterian ministries ever approved, teaching empathy and how to deal with all kinds of feelings, and doing much of it with puppets in a land of “make-believe.” Rogers was reportedly a lifelong Republican, and began his Mr. Rogers Neighborhood TV program in 1968, only indirectly addressing the contentions of the late 1960s. Yet by credibly living out his Christian values, Rogers’ work — lifted up in the documentary — still indirectly addresses the emotional extremism and make-believe of politics today.
Honest Patriotism is an intentionally short and theologically strong statement that addresses the unnecessarily conflictual politics of today directly, but without getting hooked by the divisive messaging itself. It sees the essential issues for Christians as truth and its close neighbor, honesty. To quote from its rationale:
“In the foundational moral law of the Decalogue, we are commanded not to bear false witness (Ex. 20:16). In his commentary on the ninth commandment, John Calvin makes it clear that we should not construe this commandment narrowly simply because its wording appears to apply to judicial proceedings. Calvin writes, ‘The purport of this commandment is, since God, who is truth, abhors falsehood, we must cultivate unfeigned truth towards each other.’”
Like many General Assembly reports, Honest Patriotism begins with affirmations that frame a set of practical recommendations, and then provides several pages substantiating those directions through Biblical, confessional, ethical and theological reasoning. The initial affirmation distills that reasoning in bold type:
“The phrase ‘honest patriotism,’ popularized in Donald W. Shriver’s 2005 book Honest Patriots, means ‘loving a country enough to remember its misdeeds.’ Such misdeeds are usually those times and places where particular groups were denied ‘equal protection under the law.’ Just as the ancient Hebrew prophets stood up to kings and queens, so have Christians understood the prophetic calling to entail a moral freedom to challenge the misuses of power, even within the church or state themselves, ‘in season and out of season.’ Honest Patriotism is thus a check on the exclusivist nationalism that otherwise denies equal respect to other peoples, conceals injustices committed by one’s own side in any conflict, and makes reconciliation and common action harder to achieve both in the United States and abroad.”
The recommendations deal with the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, regarding freedom of speech and access to accurate information uncontrolled by the U.S. government, corporations, or other governments, and regarding full access to the right to vote. Reformed Christian principles are applied to net neutrality, surveillance, and security of personal data; protections for whistleblowers and protesters; respect for a free press and the responsibility of public agencies to provide information to citizens, without suppressing scientific data or conflicts of interest.
Presbyterian elected officials and civil servants are invited to reply to the resolution in public forums. The church itself is to model full participation of all members in church councils and accountability of its leaders.
One of the recommendations reinforces another action of the General Assembly calling for a study of humanities teaching, including religion and ethics, in colleges and universities related to the PC(USA):
“In order to faithfully model critical inquiry, colleges and universities historically related to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are encouraged to continue to honor the role of the humanities, including the teaching of religion and ethics, in their curricula, so that the complex values of culture and society can be better understood.”
Linked to truth and honesty is a commitment to the rule of law that speaks to the role of judges:
“Recognizing that human law is a human creation and therefore subject to error, we nonetheless affirm the democratic principle of equal protection under the law, as enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Institutionally, this equal protection is guaranteed by an independent judiciary, the maintenance of which must continue to be a national priority. This has customarily meant laws to insulate judges from partisan politics as well as the use of objective qualifications in their selection, both of which approaches this assembly would endorse.”
We live in politically contentious times that challenge our thinking, beliefs and values. The judiciary in the U.S. has been accused of becoming a partisan body, rendering politically-motivated decisions that serve only part of the U.S. population. Many doubt a full and accurate census will be conducted, leading to further divisions based on incorrect or missing data about those who live in our country. Thus, honest patriotism may be needed at all levels as the Presbyterian contribution to our nation’s moral atmosphere and its institutions.
Christian Iosso is coordinator of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and an ordained minister in the PC (USA). He serves as the senior editor of UNBOUND, an online journal of Christian social justice, and has written numerous articles on peacemaking and social justice for The Presbyterian Outlook, Horizons, and Presbyterians Today. Iosso was the co-editor of Prayers for The New Social Awakening, also published by Westminster John Knox Press.
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