I found it an interesting exercise over the last week or so to see the reaction to a particular political candidate declaring he was a Presbyterian and, with some corroborating evidence, he could specifically be affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). An interesting set of reactions ensued, most seeming to have the implicit or explicit expectation of “How could he be one of us?” I will return to that at the end, but my reaction to the reaction is “If the PC(USA) is a big, inclusive tent why can it not include him?”
In case you have missed it, the political candidate in question is Donald Trump. His Presbyterian affiliation was not a mystery if you caught the early religion media coverage like the Religion News Service’s article 5 Facts About Donald Trump: A Presbyterian who collects Bibles, or World Religion News’ article Donald Trump is a proud Presbyterian. It really seemed to catch people’s attention when he Tweeted last weekend “I am now in Iowa getting ready to speak. People are always amazed to find out that I am Protestant (Presbyterian). GREAT.” For the record the current retweet count is 1002 and the favorite count is 2812. There are far too many replies to spend time counting those. And for good measure he also posted on Instagram a picture of him with his confirmation class at First Presbyterian Church, Jamaica, Queens, New York.
Let me drill down in this a little bit, but this is probably a good time for me to add the clarification that this is mostly a thought exercise and that where I am going with this is far from an endorsement of his – or any – political candidacy. This is intended to be a case study aimed at considering the question of membership in the PC(USA) and the church as a big tent that includes a diverse group of people. So based on the confirmation photo we can confirm that he joined the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1959. I have not asked the church if he is still carried on the rolls and a direct inquiry on the Facebook page has not been answered. And while First Pres seems to be the first answer to his affiliation, Marble Collegiate Church , a congregation in the Reformed Church In America, seems to be regularly mentioned as a more current choice and one source says that is where he is a member. An old Faith and Reason article does a good job of listing his various church associations.
But let’s consider his self-identification at face value – make it a hypothetical situation if that makes you feel better. He says he is a Presbyterian, can we work with that? A lot of people have trouble with that including a response on twitter that says “He have better luck convincing ppl he’s Rasta.” and a Washington Times column by W. Scott Lamb titled “Donald Trump is a Presbyterian? Who knew? – When it comes to Presbyterian theology and social witness, Trump is an equal opportunity offender.” Taking it one step further, I am sure dozens of Reformed theologians, at best, cringed when he was interviewed last week and when asked if he had asked God for forgiveness:
“I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so,” he said. “I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”
Yes, it sends chills down my spine just doing the cut-and-paste. (And his other comments in the article about the Lord’s Supper are equally cringe-worthy.) But now let us turn to the PC(USA) Book of Order. Specifically, what does it take to be a member? G-1.0302 says:
A congregation shall welcome all persons who trust in God’s grace in Jesus Christ
and desire to become part of the fellowship and ministry of his Church (F-1.0403). No person shall be denied membership for any reason not related to profession of faith. The
Gospel leads members to extend the fellowship of Christ to all persons. Failure to do so
constitutes a rejection of Christ himself and causes a scandal to the Gospel.
So in the PC(USA) membership requires a profession of faith – which he would have done as part of his documented confirmation class. It does not require an understanding of the Reformed doctrines of Original Sin, Pervasive/Total Depravity and the need for confession and pardon for sin. But I will acknowledge that his comments do point to a problem with the “trust in God’s grace” part.
Now, one would expect a member once they have joined to continue growing in their faith, something we don’t have documented in this case. But to be a member, following the period of instruction, requires professing your faith in Jesus Christ and God’s grace, renouncing evil and saying that you intend to participate. Further agreement with church doctrine as guided by the confessions or policy statements of the General Assembly are not in there.
And yes, to be clear, the standards are much higher for the ordained offices of the church. We have an example from another denomination this week where a pastor/theologian was removed over his doctrinal views and the Presbyterian Church in America is in the continuing process of deciding the extent to which those officers that hold tenets of what is known as the Federal Vision theology deviate from the Westminster Standards.
It is also worth noting that he would also probably have problems in those Presbyterian branches that “fence the table.” Even in the PC(USA), if his attendance has been low – although he does say he attends regularly and especially Christmas and Easter – he could easily be removed from the active rolls. And even if he were an active attender one would hope that through the word preached, the sacraments administered and church discipline his understanding of Reformed theology would be developed. You could even go so far as to argue that regular attendance might moderate or change views that you don’t agree with.
But returning to the thought experiment, my question is not really about the specific individual here except to the extent that based on his history we know that he has been confirmed in a predecessor denomination and he self-identifies as a Presbyterian. But we also know that he is outspoken and has views not in line with pronouncements of the General Assembly, remembering that the GA speaks only for itself. So here is the question for the PC(USA): “Is the tent big enough to include an individual that publicly expresses views that some (many?) would strongly disagree with but who has the characteristics for membership and who seeks to be considered a member of the denomination?”
The answer is left as an exercise for the reader…
[Editor’s note: For those of you going to Big Tent – enjoy. I am hoping to read lots about it. I am about to begin my August quiet period and will probably have more to say about Big Tent and the big tent a few weeks from now.]