Church and state are separate…sort of

Church and state may be separate, but sometimes they look strangely similar. The work of the PC(USA)'s 213th General Assembly in Louisville, with its internal elections, passionate floor speeches and host of committees reporting to an over-riding body, was much like that of a state legislature.

Scanning the Assembly, as moderator Jack Rogers called for votes and commissioners dutifully scampered to their desks to punch their red or green buttons, observers might have been in any statehouse in the land.

But the floor speeches and committee reports were only the beginning. The Assembly also included practical similarities, such as lobbying and strategizing, complete with caucuses and war rooms.

“I guess the lobbying was what surprised me more than anything. It was quite similar to our legislature. But it’s a way of life with us,” said Tom Campbell, a Presbyterian elder from Lewisburg, W.Va., and a member of that state’s House of Delegates.

Campbell, an observer at this year’s Assembly, said, “I suppose when you think about it, lobbyists are just trying to make people remember a certain point of view when they go to vote. But, still, I thought it was an interesting similarity to what we do.”

Moderate-to-liberal commissioners held the upper hand this year, and conservatives were unable to shake the hold their opponents had on the Assembly. Several conservative commissioners noted how organized the “liberal effort” was.

Despite numerous references during the Assembly to the “unity of spirit” allegedly pervasive among commissioners, few seemed unaware of a basic political tenet: There is strength in numbers and strength in organization.

But an organized majority produces unbeatable strength.

Around the country, state legislatures meet for constitutionally determined periods of time. The West Virginia body, for example, schedules a 60-day annual session, with interim meetings taking place throughout the year.

Although the length of time at a PC (USA) general Assembly is considerably shorter, following are some lesser-known characteristics — in front of and behind the scenes — common to both state politics and the Assembly.

* More often than not, the full body of lawmakers/commissioners takes the side of the committee’s report. And on the rare occasions this doesn’t occur, old hands grumble that younger ones don’t understand the process.

* There’s nothing so heady as being a senate president or a house speaker. Or a General Assembly moderator. The next best thing is chairing a committee.

* Although moderators and committee chairs run the show, counsels and clerks are kingmakers because they are the rule-makers.

* Most lobbying is done behind the scenes. As a commissioner from west Texas said following a crucial committee vote on abortion, “You know, the assassinating was done quietly in the hallways and the hotels.”

* Most of the time there is decorum on the surface. As a general rule, every time a near free-for-all erupts in a committee meeting or on the floor prior to a critical vote, the primary spokesperson of the victorious party says the following: “We had an open dialogue on the issue, and some differences of opinion were expressed. But each side handled itself in a courteous and professional manner during the exchange of ideas over this critical issue.”

When a General Assembly, not a legislative, committee is involved in the bloodbath, insert the word “prayerful” after “courteous.”

* Long floor speeches and idea repetition produce boredom. Quality floor speeches are appreciated, and quality floor speeches are seldom long.

* Deep down, most people enjoy a good fight. Losers may not be happy, but they’re often energized.

*Jaded reporters crack jokes at press tables.

*Many legislatures, like the General Assembly, open sessions with a prayer.

But there are also significant differences between political lawmaking and the General Assembly.

* Legislatures don’t have in-house youth advisory delegations. A person could only guess what chaos that would cause in a legislature.

* “Characters” permeate politics, often adding humor and perspective to the absurdities of political life.

Once again, back to West Virginia, where lawmakers recently considered a bill that would change the way fertilizer is regulated in the state.

Democratic Delegate A. James Manchin posed the following question: “Considering the verbosity of both houses of the legislature, would this control all types of fertilizer?”

Manchin, again, commenting to delegates on Punxsutawney Phil, who saw his shadow on Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pa., predicting six more weeks of winter: “I’ve never had any confidence in an animal, man or beast, who’s afraid of his own damn shadow.”

Perhaps a few more Presbyterian “characters” should infiltrate the General Assembly, for the sake of levity.

There is, of course, a notable exception.

Former General Assembly Moderator Marj Carpenter addressed about 400 people at The Outlook’s annual dinner on the eve of this year’s Assembly. Before challenging her denomination to handle its internal grievances with grace and good sense, Carpenter told the following story.

A Sunday school teacher once asked her young class what you call a furry little brown animal with a bushy tail. A little boy raised his hand and said, “Teacher, I know the answer’s supposed to be Jesus, but I swear it sounds like a squirrel.”

posted July 20, 2001


Randy Coleman, a statehouse reporter for a wire service in Charleston, W.Va., was a reporter for The Outlook at the 213th General Assembly.