The Realpolitik of the PCA National Partnership

The Realpolitik of the PCA National Partnership

Written by I. C. Light |
Wednesday, November 10, 2021

It is clear that, regardless of whatever disclaimers they proffer, and whatever misgivings its members have expressed in the past concerning the church’s enthusiasm for partisan politics in the national sphere, the National Partnership has essentially become a political party within its own denomination. It is time that the leadership of the National Partnership at least own up to what is a clear distinction between what the emails reveal they have been doing, and what other dissimilar groups (like the GRN) do.

One of the more intriguing classes I took as a nascent undergraduate in business school was a two-credit-hour primer on common law. The instructor – a practicing attorney – availed himself of several opportunities to illustrate a concept that legal practitioners well understand namely, that activities which may be legal may not always be ethical.  For our purposes, one may assume that whatever abides by the letter of the law is legal, and that which abides by the spirit of the law may be considered ethical.  For the sake of my interest today, there’s another considerable aspect to the political-moral calculus – that of norms.  Norms are those conventions we adhere to in the social sphere that signal to others that we’re engaging them in good faith.  We do it as a means of reducing the burden of anxiety among all members of the group. For example, although it’s rarely codified, every culture has its own conception of what “personal space” means, and it makes us nervous when someone broaches ours.

The National Partnership, while established in “confidence,” is a clearly organized political apparatus within the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). The recently unveiled trove of 9 years’ worth of email communication among its members demonstrates at least this much.  No, it doesn’t reveal anything nefarious, per se, as one of its members pointed out in a blog post. And perhaps there is nothing unethical revealed, either. But it clear that the members of the National Partnership have expediently eschewed the political norms of the PCA in a way that doesn’t bode well for the seemliness of the church’s future political timbre – especially if their particular brand of politics becomes normalized in the PCA.

Another categorical distinction needs to be made, given that National Partnership members have publicly espoused the belief that their organizing efforts amount to nothing more than garden variety denominational politics. But many of us disagree on that point. There are politics and then there is realpolitik. Politics, writ large, is founded on principles that are essentially moral or ideological in nature. The one who engages in realpolitik, on the other hand, usually claims to be motivated by certain tenets, but doesn’t shrink back from questionable methodology so long as it achieves practical goals – even if long-held norms may be violated in the process. The manifold principle which undergirds PCA politics is that we be “Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed Faith, and Obedient to the Great Commission” – all well and good.  But realpolitik is what’s happening within the National Partnership, despite its many disclaimers to the contrary.

Browsing the emails in the leak, I was struck by the apparent lengths that the members of the National Partnership have gone in their own minds to convince themselves that they are not a political party. Its cognoscenti repeatedly assert that their purpose is not to function as a bloc. Given the blowback likely generated after one of the organization’s helmsmen made the bold proclamation: “if unified, we can win every vote [at this year’s GA]!” – it would have been a mere matter of future prudence to disclaim any intention to facilitate bloc voting. Apparently, they acknowledge that bloc voting is frowned upon in our ecclesiastical context, and it behooves such a group to ward off any accusations of impropriety or partisanship, especially since our milieu ought to be thoroughly animated by spiritual concerns.

But elsewhere in the of emails, the pretense that the NP disavows the practice of bloc voting was blown to smithereens by a terse plea from its leadership. Agitated by the loss of key votes during a meeting of the General Assembly, NP leadership emailed its members with an urgent plea for reinforcements: “Get into the hall and be counted!” Now, ask yourself – would you send out such an unmistakable signal if you weren’t certain that the recipients of such an email would vote along with you? (Hint: this is realpolitik.) The point is that the National Partnership doesn’t need to facilitate bloc voting because it is already assumed that its members will vote according to the “advice” issued ahead of the assembly, without respect to whether its members have any knowledge of or interest in the individuals for whom they are voting.

Another disturbing characteristic of the National Partnership, at least as far as it is represented in in the emails, is a conspicuous reference to miscellaneous “NP Presbyteries.”  This is the sort of ad-hoc terminology a person utilizes when he sees institutional capture as a legitimate means to the advancement of his agenda.  The emails also reveal that NP leadership make a regular habit of analyzing their numerical strength on various boards, committees, and presbyteries so as to prioritize where they ought best to marshal their resources for maximum political advantage. One particular email even boasts glowingly about the NP’s perceived ability to alter the composition of the Standing Judicial Commission in a way that they wouldn’t be able to, absent their activism (and bloc voting).  Again, this is realpolitik. 

In all fairness, realpolitik is exactly what we expect of our elected representatives.  We expect them to operate according to the agenda of whatever constituency supports them. But everyone knows that, while a governor may claim to want to “be a leader who governs on behalf of all Gondorians,” it is clear that their principles and mission stand in opposition to those of competing groups.  That is the norm in secular politics – it’s what you expect from your rotary club, HOA, or the United States Congress. But it is not, and ought not be the norm in the PCA – at least, that is, if we’re all going to carry in common the banner of being “Faithful to the Scriptures, True to the Reformed Faith, and Obedient to the Great Commission.”  And given the high ethical standard becoming of the members of Christ’s church, it could be unethical for churchmen to embrace realpolitik.

An NP member recently blogged that the content of the emails revealed much ado about nothing – that they merely confirmed what we’ve all known about the National Partnership for a long time.  I agree with him in substance, but I would say this is a bad thing, not a good thing. There is more at play in the emails than whether one statement or another crosses the “Ninth Commandment” line.  The question is not one of whether NP members brazenly broke the law of the Church, but one of the kind of ethics and norms the church should embrace. This should not be a logical leap for those who preach about living according to the spirit rather than the law.

A rift occurs when one group, having convinced themselves that they (and not others) are the true defenders of the “founders’ vision of the PCA.” This implicit claim, of course, is an unfalsifiable appeal to the authority of men (many of whom are no longer with us) who likely would have disagreed among themselves if they’d been asked what a faithful manifestation of their vision might look like 50 years later. (I remain unpersuaded that even the most “missional” among them ever envisioned that it might include ministers who identify themselves as “gay” in the public square, but that’s another story.)  But when members of a group adopt such a lofty self-conception as the National Partnership has, it’s not long before such a group becomes convinced that “denominational health” (how I wearied of seeing that phrase in the emails that I read!) ultimately depends upon the throughgoing implementation of one’s own high-minded agenda. The ends justify the means. After all, if others cared about reaching the lost as much as we do, then they would certainly agree with our methods.

There seems to be no openness within the National Partnership to the possibility that a broader conception of “denominational health” – one which reflects the opinions of the whole church, rather than the vision of the anointed few – might mean that certain aspirations in the National Partnership agenda are rejected according to the providential will of God.  There seems to be no room in the mind of NP leaders for a category of presbyter who knows his American church history and understands that small doctrinal compromises today will give way to larger compromises down the road, and that if we sacrifice orthodoxy for mission then eventually both will be lost – regardless of whether that sacrifice is misidentified as “contextualization.”

It is clear that, regardless of whatever disclaimers they proffer, and whatever misgivings its members have expressed in the past concerning the church’s enthusiasm for partisan politics in the national sphere, the National Partnership has essentially become a political party within its own denomination. It is time that the leadership of the National Partnership at least own up to what is a clear distinction between what the emails reveal they have been doing, and what other dissimilar groups (like the GRN) do.

In all fairness, having an annual fellowship dinner (like the NP does) that anyone can attend is open and aboveboard.  Conducting a webcasted conference (a la the GRN) in which speakers openly defend their positions on ecclesiastical matters, seeking to persuade others to think likewise, is also open and aboveboard. And as long as democracy is our modus operandi there will always be friends talking amongst teach other, exhorting one another to vote for the “good guy” whom they are assured will do a good job. This is normal in the course of politics as such.  Engagement with PCA polity in good faith means attending GA with the openness to having your mind changed by floor debates, and considering abstention from voting for men whom you know nothing about (or have only heard about from one group’s “advice”). This is organic engagement with the process according to its simplest possible conception in the trust that whatever providence comes about in the outcome of the process is truly God’s will and not the product of the sort of realpolitik which has become the norm in the secular sphere.

Secular politics is always subject to shifting norms, because it is usually a zero-sum game and its participants don’t share the same mission or presuppositions. This generates constant political innovation as each side tries to get an edge on its opponent. It also necessitates all manner of 2nd and 3rd order regulations to govern the use of these instruments so that matters don’t break down entirely.  But in the PCA, any inclination to establish an apparatus within the denomination – believing that, in so doing, a group can wield an outsized influence over the actual majority – ought to be resisted for the sake of the “denominational health” which National Partnership members claim to desire. Health, after all, is about the integrity with which the body works as a whole, not just what a subset of its high-minded members want.

The National Partnership ought to cease the realpolitik which they have thus far embraced, and they ought to do it publicly.  If the National Partnership really wants the “healthy denomination” they claim to want, they should abandon whatever political machinery they’ve thus far constructed, and its members should – in “good faith” – return to engaging the body politic according to the simplicity for which it was implemented.

Either that, or they should just go ahead and declare themselves to be a political party in order to alleviate the concerns of impropriety shared by those who would otherwise organize to oppose them. In other words, if realpolitik is going to be the norm, then let’s go ahead and formalize it.  Continued assertions that what the NP does are within the established norms of the PCA only turn the temperature up.  Again, nobody is asserting that what they’re doing is illegal in terms of the laws of the church, but it should be clear to all that they are at least in violation of norms that we’ve all embraced, at least until recently.

So far, many in the PCA who oppose the National Partnership’s agenda (including ranking members of the GRN) have expressed their distaste for these controversial and decidedly un-Presbyterian methods and declined to adopt them in tit-for-tat fashion.  But it stands to reason that if the National Partnership persists, then power politics of the most naked sort will inevitably become the modus operandi of the PCA’s courts. How would we feel about filibusters and cloture as part of our parliamentary procedure?  What about constant, obnoxious abuses of parliamentary procedure by those who well understand Robert’s Rules but believe that their vision of “denominational health” is just too important to God’s cause to abandon merely because it’s opposed by the majority?

  1. C. Light is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America in the greater Dallas, Texas area.
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