The Wages of Supersessionism: BDS and the Decline of the American Mainline

Note: Below is the prepared text of a talk I gave on a webinar kindly organized by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. The audio of the talk and the subsequent Q and A session can be found here. The webinar took place on Oct. 20, 2020. I deviated somewhat from these prepared remarks, but they capture the gist of what I said.

A weathervane steeple of a mainline church in Boston, Mass. (Photo: Dexter Van Zile)

As most of you probably know, I have been a fairly vocal critic of the mainline Protestant community’s stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict over the past 15 years. I don’t write so much about these churches as I used to, in part because they no longer have the ability to direct the agenda for discourse in American society that they had even 10 years ago.

A decade or so ago, I would be speaking to you in anguished and polemical tones about what these churches were doing or what they were going to do. Now with the Owl of Minerva perched on my shoulder, I think I can tell you what happened and why it happened with a greater sense of understanding.

In the course of the past few decades, these churches went from priding themselves for their respect for the Jewish people to being major purveyors and consumers of rhetoric demonizing the Jewish State and Jews who supported it.

They went from lamenting the destruction of Jews in Europe, and the role Christians played in that destruction, to depicting American Jews who are supportive of Israel as being enemies of democracy and human rights. They did this with the passage of BDS resolutions at their national gatherings and by producing books and materials that problematized Jewish efforts to defend Jewish life, liberty, and sovereignty.

In the story told by these churches efforts to protect Jewish life was blameworthy, while Palestinian efforts to deprive Israeli Jews of their lives, safety, and sovereignty were lamentable but understandable.

Israel was targeted with loaded theological and moral condemnation, while Palestinian actions are accorded a forgiving sociological context devoid of moral agency. The mantra I used to describe this phenomenon was “Theology for the Israelis, sociology for the Palestinians.”

The overall impact of this messaging was to give license and support to anti-normalization activists in the West Bank and excite feelings of fear, resentment, and isolation on the part of Israeli and American Jews.

This is exactly the opposite of what you should want to accomplish if you were really interested in promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinians in the Holy Land. We shouldn’t dismiss the impact of mainliners who visit the West Bank and meet with Palestinian leaders. They gave Palestinian elites the impression that they had more support than they actually had.

Another problem with the statements and publications associated with the BDS campaign in the mainline is that they were marred by anti-Judaic polemics that delegitimize the Jewish state and frighten and antagonize Jews in the U.S. and Israel. This was particularly true of materials produced by the Israel-Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church USA.

I think the crucial problem for these churches on a theological level is not hostility toward Jews per se, at least not at first. The hostility was directed not at Jews, but toward Jewish self-defense and collective expressions of Jewish idea and sovereignty, which in the abstract aren’t the same thing, but in practice are indistinguishable from one another.

As I have said previously, somewhat polemically, is “These folks like their Jews beleaguered.” They can get along fine with Jews who rely on them for protection and assistance, but when it comes to Jews who are willing and able to defend themselves, well there’s a problem. They will lament their failure to stand with Jews during their time of trial and then condemn Jews when they defend themselves.

To illustrate my point, I want to draw your attention two books published by Pilgrim Press, the official publishing house of the United Church of Christ. The first book was published in the early 1980s. Its titled Witness to the Holocaust and was edited by Azriel Eisenberg. It’s a very powerful compendium of testimonies about the Holocaust in Europe.

Fast forward to 2003 when Pilgrim Press published Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told about Israel and the Palestinians. I’ve written a lot about this text, which is frankly, a touchstone of contempt and dishonesty toward Israel the folks who support it. The front cover of this text shows a young Palestinian boy preparing to throw a rock at an Israeli tank.

Jewish victims are valorized; Jews with power to defend themselves have been anathematized.

The two worst offenders on this score were the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ. These churches have passed BDS resolutions stating that they would, or should, sell stock in companies that do business with Israel’s defense establishment. The Episcopal Church has approved an investment screen that will likely result in the sale of stocks related to Israel.

In my articles about the mainline, I reminded readers that these churches have been losing members in absolute terms since the mid-1960s and have been in decline as a percentage of the American population for a lot longer than that. I did this in part to encourage Israelis and American Jews who were the target of mainline polemics not to take these arguments to heart.

There are times when I was tempted to argue that these churches were dying because they supported BDS. Instead, they embraced the BDS movement because they were dying and were using anti-Zionist activism as a way to shore up their community on a number of levels.

By attacking Israel, they were differentiating themselves from their long-time rivals in American society, Evangelical Protestants who have enjoyed a period of resurgence and newfound influence in the political arena since the late 1970s and early 1980s. Mainliners offered up an ugly caricature of Evangelicals as supporting Israel for solely eschatological reasons. They attacked Israel to help portray Evangelicals as what Susan Harding calls the “repugnant other.”

It was a bank shot so to speak.

BDS activism also gave people in the mainline Protestant community, if you pardon the bluntness, something to do aside from the normal, day-to-day work that comes from running churches that have been experiencing a decline that no one really knows how to stop.

What I’m trying to get at is that the participation of these churches in a campaign that delegitimized Israel, facilitated Palestinian anti-normalization efforts and antagonized American Jews was not initially motivated by antisemitism, but was an instrumental policy that provided goods to these churches that had little, if anything to do with peace in the Middle East.

The primary effect of so-called peacemaking resolutions put forth by mainline churches was not peace between Arab and Jew in the Holy Land, but the maintenance of mainline identity and status in American civil society.

On a pragmatic level, BDS resolutions helped elites in these churches generate media coverage for the churches they lead. Engaging in open conflict with American Jews over Israel generates publicity and a feeling of importance that these churches would not otherwise enjoy.

The Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ were able to garner a burst of sympathetic coverage when they passed BDS resolutions in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

At one point during an interview, former president and general minister John Thomas said that by affirming a BDS resolution in 2015, the United Church of Christ was “joining a much broader coalition to amplify the weight of our action.” The UCC was along for the ride, not steering the boat.

This isn’t how it used to be. Mainline churches set the parameters for discourse in American society and provided the people who effectively ran the country up until the 1960s. Historian David Hollinger writes, “Prior to 1960, if you were in charge of something big and had opportunities to influence the direction of the society, chances are you grew up in a white Protestant milieu.”

They were upstream in the river of social influence. These days they are downstream.

People joked about the Episcopalians and Presbyterians as being the “frozen chosen” but these and other churches had the influence necessary to make a good case that they were in fact, “chosen.” They comprised an establishment that helped define what it was meant to be an American. That’s no longer the case.

Mainline churches simply are not the dominant force in American society they once were. They have been superseded by the forces of secularism and rationalism that they ironically enough, they deployed their rivalry with Evangelical Protestantism in the United States. In his book An Anxious Age: The Post Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, Joseph Bottum describes how the manifestation of post-Protestant ethic that has coincided with the collapse of mainline churches from which it sprang.

The way I put it, riffing off of Bottum’s book, the social gospel put forth by Walter Rauschenbush in the early 1900s has devolved into the social justice movement, without the gospel.

The elites who run what’s left of the Protestant establishment are now on the outside looking in. These churches and the people who run them have been supplanted, or more precisely, superseded, by a Post-Protestant establishment that Bottum describes as having taken control of the credentialing institutions on the American scene.

This elect class that Bottum describes, embraces a secular world view that is rooted in the mainline ethos, stripped of its religious component.

This is where the “supersessionism” comes into play. By sitting in judgement of Israel, and in opposition to Israel-loving Evangelicals who have been ascendant since the 1980s, mainline Protestants are attempting to re-affirm their status as a chosen group, uniquely fit to lead the American people into modernity even as their churches are dying and have been superseded by Post-Protestantism.

By enlisting in the BDS movement, mainline elites signaled that they accepted the tenets of Post-Protestantism, while still maintaining a modicum — but not too much — of religious belief of their own. Their goal was to demonstrate they are on the right side of modernity while.

By participating in the BDS movement, mainline elites affirmed their status as the chosen over/against Israel and Evangelical Protestants to demonstrate their continued value and relevance to American society, which largely ignores them on a cultural level even as they espouse and impose an ethic these churches helped establish and promulgate.

In his book, The Chosen: The History of an Idea, and the Anatomy of an Obsession, Avi Becker writes “Jews are often rejected because of the will of others to become the Chosen.”

I think that’s part of what’s going on. The mainline churches have endured a humiliating loss of status in American society and elites in these churches have tried to counter this decline with BDS activism.

In light of what I’ve just told you, it’s reasonable to ask if this activism is the last gasp of dying churches, why should we worry about what they say about the conflict? Why not just ignore them?

My first response is that the presence of mainline churches in the anti-Zionist movement can be used to protect other groups in the movement from charges of extremism and bigotry. “Look, we got the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists and the Episcopalians with us. How bad can we be?” These churches may not have the institutional muscle they once did, but they do have symbolic power as historic arbiters of right and wrong in American society, even in their twilight.

My second response is that what happened in the American mainline can shed some light on what has happened in other institutions in American society.

Written by

Shillman Research Fellow for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis. His opinions are his own.

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