Despite the flap it’s caused even internationally, many Presbyterian churchgoers are not aware of the vote the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) took last summer to authorize a process of selective, phased divestment in some companies doing business in Israel.
And among those who did know, there were differing opinions about the wisdom of what the assembly had done. A survey found ministers and liberals tending to favor the divestment action, and laypeople and conservatives tending to be opposed.
That vote, expressing protest over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, has sparked discussion and debate between Presbyterians and Jews all across the United States, has drawn the attention of Palestinian Christians and Israelis, and has prompted some other Christian denominations to consider whether to follow suit.
The poll of 2,995 Presbyterians, conducted in November 2004, found that most lay people surveyed (61 percent of members who responded and 51 percent of elders) were not aware of what the assembly had done. Most ministers did know — 65 percent of pastors and 50 percent of specialized clergy surveyed said they were very aware, and another 30 percent of pastors and 36 percent of specialized clergy were somewhat aware.
The Presbyterian Panel survey was conducted by the PC(USA)’s Research Services office, part of an ongoing series of surveys it has done over the years. In this poll, surveys were mailed to 2,995 Presbyterians last November and 1,784 responded, including 398 members, 603 elders and 783 ministers.
The survey found that:
More laypeople opposed the divestment action than supported it (42 percent of members responding opposed it, 28 percent favored it). But a big chunk — 30 percent — didn’t know what to think; they had no opinion. Among elders responding, 46 percent opposed the divestment action and 30 percent favored it; 23 percent had no opinion.
Ministers were both more aware of the assembly’s action and more in favor of it. Of those who responded, 48 percent of the pastors and 64 percent of the specialized clergy favored the divestment action; 43 percent of the pastors and 24 percent of the specialized clergy opposed it. Only 9 percent of pastors and 12 percent of specialized clergy had no opinion.
Liberals favor the divestment strategy more than do conservatives — although within neither group is there anything close to unanimity. Fifty percent of liberal members responding favored the divestment action, as did 77 percent of liberal ministers (33 percent of the liberal members surveyed opposed the action, and 17 percent had no opinion).
Among conservatives, 55 percent of members responding opposed the divestment action, as did 75 percent of the conservative ministers who participated. Among conservative members, 17 percent favored the divestment plan and 18 percent had no opinion.
For moderate members, 35 percent of those responding favored the divestment plan, while 30 percent opposed it; for moderate ministers, 50 percent favored the divestment plan and 38 percent opposed it.
In an interview, Bill Somplatsky-Jarman, who’s staff liaison to the PC(USA)’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee, said the most common reasons he’s heard Presbyterians give for opposing the assembly’s divestment action is that they view Israel as “a friend of the United States and an ally, and beleaguered” by Palestinian terrorism.
The Presbyterian Panel also found that more Presbyterians surveyed opposed Israel’s construction of a security barrier than favored it. Those oppose to construction of the barrier were 41 percent of members, 46 of elders and 66 percent of pastors; those in favor were 30 percent of members, 29 percent of elders and 22 percent of pastors.
The survey also asked questions about other issues involving Israel and Judaism, including questions about evangelism and about Christian Zionism. It found that:
Asked about Israel’s right to exist, more Presbyterian church members agreed (41 percent) than disagreed (26 percent) with this statement: “Because of God’s promises to Abraham, the contemporary state of Israel maintains a divine right to exist.” But 53 percent of pastors disagreed with that statement.
More than six in 10 (63 percent) of pastors disagreed with the statement, “The state of Israel will be the catalyst for the ‘end times’ described in the Bible.” More than half the members surveyed (55 percent) said they were not sure.
Asked whether “Christians should seek to convert Jews to Christianity,” more people surveyed disagreed (46 percent of members and 43 percent of pastors) than agreed (30 percent of members and 39 percent of pastors). And more agreed with this statement — “Jews are already in covenant with God and do not need to become Christian to receive salvation” — than disagreed (36 percent of elders and 47 percent of pastors agreed, 35 percent of elders and 33 percent of pastors disagreed).
More pastors and laypeople responded “Yes” to this question than “No” when asked if the PC(USA) should seek to establish Messianic congregations “inviting those of Jewish background to explore Christian faith while maintaining Jewish religious and cultural practices.” To that question, 44 percent of members and 54 percent of pastors surveyed answered “Yes” and 28 percent of members and 35 percent of pastors surveyed responded “No.”