Presbyterian alphabet soup, again

To follow Presbyterian news updates, outsiders need to learn a few key facts.

The Presbyterian Church in America is not the same thing as the American Presbyterian Church. Also, Orthodox Presbyterians are not to be confused with Bible Presbyterians, Cumberland Presbyterians, Reformed Presbyterians, Associate Reformed Presbyterians or Evangelical Presbyterians.

This Presbyterian alphabet soup became less complicated in 1983, when the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. joined with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., the so-called Southern branch. This created the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which today has about 2.3 million members.

Is that clear? If so, take a deep breath because Presbyterian affairs are about to get more complicated as new divisions and unions reshape the churches that trace their roots to John Calvin and his Reformed branch of Protestantism.

"While we're seeing churches fly away from the core doctrines that once held them together, we're also seeing new bonds being formed that are truly interesting," said the Rev. Parker Williamson, whose work in the conservative Presbyterian Layman newspaper has made him a mainline Protestant lightning rod.

"We're seeing a realignment across the boundaries between our churches. This unity will be doctrinal -- not legal. There may not be a formal structure that forms out of all of this. We don't need a big new denominational headquarters to replace the old denominational headquarters."

These are, of course, fighting words at the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has been forced to downsize its Louisville staff several times in the past 15 years. Membership statistics and donations have declined in an era of conflict about biblical authority, ordination standards, sexual ethics and a host of ancient doctrines, especially the belief that salvation is found only through faith in Jesus Christ.

Meanwhile, these riptides of change have also affected the Layman, a newspaper born in 1965 when the old United Presbyterian Church began work on a modernized confession of faith. That fight reopened wounds from a 1924 battle, when its General Assembly decided that literal views of key doctrines -- such as the virgin birth, deity and resurrection of Jesus -- did not have to be used as a test for ordinations.

After decades of focusing on what has become the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Layman's August issue included several pages of coverage of events in the smaller Evangelical Presbyterian Church. In the future, said Williamson, it will include news about the Presbyterian Church in America and other conservative Reformed bodies.

This will get complicated because "lots of things are happening at once" as church leaders try to plan for the future, he said.

Some congregations have decided to stay in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), but their leaders are loosening their national ties. Williamson noted that leaders of the Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta have voted to try to stop their per-capita financial contributions from going to the national offices in Louisville. Instead, they want this money to back a new network called the Presbyterian Global Fellowship.

"So they're staying in the PCUSA, but they're doing what I call 'leaving, in place.' They're staying ... but they've made it clear that this isn't business as usual," he said. "Now that's the largest church in the denomination, so when it does something like that it gives cover for smaller churches and their pastors who have been afraid to take a stand."

Some churches are openly attempting to cut their mainline ties and join the New Wineskins/Evangelical Presbyterian Church Transitional Presbytery. Other congregations are revising legal documents that bind them to their regional Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) presbyteries, in case they want to exit in the future.

Leaders on both sides know it may take a U.S. Supreme Court decision to tie up the many loose ends in this legal fight -- affecting millions of dollars worth of pensions, endowments and church properties nationwide. Similar conflicts are shaking the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and other oldline Protestant bodies.

There will be unity in the future, said Williamson, but it will not look like the unity of the past.

"There isn't going to be a central, merged denominational office somewhere," he said. "The new church unity will be in new networks of people with common beliefs. It's going to look more like the World Wide Web, not the old industrial model."

W. Bush -- theological Rorschach test

In Iowa, some United Methodists want the president and vice president tossed out of their church for "chargeable offenses" against its doctrines on justice and peace.

"Our hope is that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney will recognize the sinfulness of their actions, sincerely repent for what they have done and move on to change their ways," say leaders of the liberal TheyMustRepent.com network. "Although we recognize the improbability of that outcome, we believe that with God all things are possible."

Meet President Bush -- theological Rorschach test.

Throughout this campaign, Catholics have debated Sen. John Kerry's claim to his place at the Communion rail. The Democrat has drawn both criticism and applause in pulpits and pews while wrestling with the specifics of his Catholic heritage.

Bush has been caught in a different vise. If he affirms specific beliefs, secularists and liberal believers call him a fundamentalist. If he declines to be specific, critics ask what he is hiding. Is he a fundamentalist, a born-again Christian, an ordinary megachurch evangelical or some other brand of believer?

The New York Times Magazine says the president's faith is irrational and dangerously simplistic. That's the word from journalist Ron Suskind, whose acidic Oct. 17 profile ignited fresh debates about religion and the White House. According to critics in this camp, Bush thinks he's on a mission from God and, thus, has the same black-and-white moral worldview as al Qaeda. The result is an American version of the conflict "raging across much of the world: a battle between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion."

Not all progressives agree.

Jeff Sharlet, co-author of "Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible," says it's nonsense to call Bush a fundamentalist. The president rarely digs into biblical details, at least not publicly, and lacks the rigid literalism at the heart of true fundamentalism. Instead, he talks about following his "instincts," his "gut" and his "heart" when he makes big decisions.

"Believing, it seems, is more important to the president than the substance of his belief," argues Sharlet, in an essay called "Our magical president" at TheRevealer.org.

The key to Bush is his belief that "if you believe you can do something, you can," he said. This "gentle disdain for perceived reality" is a kind of faith in faith itself. What many critics miss and what most of "Bush's more orthodox Christian supporters seem to dodge, is that this is not Christian doctrine by any definition. It is, in fact, a key element of the broad, heterodox movement known as New Age religion."

Meanwhile, one of America's top evangelical historians has decided he cannot step into a voting booth and endorse either candidate. This is news in some circles because Mark Noll teaches at Wheaton College, Billy Graham's alma mater.

"Seven issues seem to me to be paramount at the national level: race, the value of life, taxes, trade, medicine, religious freedom and the international rule of law," said Noll, writing in the Christian Century.

"Each of these issues has a strong moral dimension. My position on each is related to how I understand the traditional Christian faith. ... Yet neither of the major parties is making a serious effort to consider this particular combination of concerns or even anything remotely resembling it."

Another evangelical says Bush deserves special attention because he has gone out of his way to find favor with religious conservatives. Whatever Bush has said about the conversion experience that saved him from his wicked, alcoholic past, the available evidence about the rest of his life "raises questions about whether Bush is really a Christian at all," according to Ayelish McGarvey, in the American Prospect.

The president rarely goes to church, has little interest in evangelism, has a history of nasty campaign tactics, flip-flopped on the tough issue of embryonic stem-cell research, lacks humility about his mistakes and has edited the Bible down to a convenient set of commandments she calls "evangelical agitprop."

"I'm no Kerry fan. I mean, I don't think he's a very good Catholic," said McGarvey. "But if Catholics can dissect Kerry, point by point, then I think it's more than appropriate for evangelicals to do the same for Bush. What does it say about us if we're afraid to do that?"

'Progressives' in the pews

When the Rev. Robert Maddox went to work as Jimmy Carter's White House faith liaison, one of his main jobs was helping Beltway politicos lose their fear of born-again Christians.

The landscape has changed radically in the past three decades. What infuriates Maddox now is that Americans now automatically assume that religious believers are right-wing Republicans.

"People on the progressive side of things have not been doing a good job getting our message out," he said, during a break in a Washington, D.C., conference for the religious left. "We rolled over and let the Ronald Reagans and the fundamentalists grab hold of the media and define what faith means -- down at the level of bumper stickers and real life."

The gathering was called "Faith and Progressive Policy: Proud Past, Promising Future" and drew nearly 400 activists. Staffers for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops huddled with mainstream Jewish leaders and Muslim progressives. "Moderate" evangelicals talked shop with officials from the National Council of Churches. It was both reunion and pep rally.

Speaker after speaker said the key was finding unity in their creeds -- not strife. This worked in the civil rights era, the labor campaigns of Cesar Chavez and campaigns against apartheid in South Africa. They prayed that it could happen again.

The leader of the Center for American Progress, which sponsored the event, said exploring his Catholic faith has only made him more committed to liberal politics, said John D. Podesta, White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton. His faith has also helped him identify the forces that he believes must be defeated.

"In the past 20 years we've seen the emergence of religious leaders who tried to dictate legislation and public policy from their particular set of religious beliefs," he said. "The religious leaders who attracted the widest attention were often those with the narrowest minds. Rather than use their faith in God to bring Americans together, they chose to use it to drive us apart."

Truth is, faith has become the boldest dividing line in American politics.

A wave of surveys indicate that the best way to predict what voters will do on Election Day is to study what they do on the Lord's Day. Voters who worship more than once a week vote Republican by a ratio of 2-1 or more. A Time poll says the "very religious" support Bush over Sen. John Kerry, 59 percent to 35 percent. Those who call themselves "not religious" back Kerry, 69 percent to 22 percent.

The problem, said Maddox, is that conservatives used U.S. Supreme Court decisions on hot-button moral issues to drive a wedge between Democrats and voters in many Catholic and evangelical pews. The Baptist pastor gets red in the face when describing the founding fathers of the religious right, using vivid, rodent-related vocabulary that can't be printed in a family newspaper.

"Take Reagan," said Maddox. "He started talking about abortion and, all of a sudden, he was this great Christian candidate. ... Now we're in another election year and the right is still obsessed with sex. We have to tell the American people that this isn't about abortion and it's not about gay marriage. It's about the budget, health care and the war. At least, that's what we believe."

But the moral divisions are real, said Maddox. He estimated that 90 percent of those attending this conference are pro-abortion rights and the same percentage backs gay rights. Almost all of the Christians present would clash with traditional believers on other biblical issues.

Take, for example, the familiar verse in the Gospel of John in which Jesus says: "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me."

"Sooner or later," said Maddox, " the church crowd is going to wake up and realize that there are going to be a lot of people in heaven other than us Christians. I still believe Jesus is the way and the truth -- for me. But it's that last part that troubles me, the part that says 'no man comes to the father, except by me.'

"I don't think we can get away with saying that anymore. That might have worked in the '50s, but it's not going to work in the 21st century."