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A Resolution on Honest Patriotism – Advisory Committee On Social Witness – PC(USA) 223rd General Assembly

July 3, 2018

A very good reflection for this 4th of July…

A Resolution on Honest Patriotism—From the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy.

Faced with an unprecedented crisis of public dishonesty and chauvinistic nationalism, the 223rd General Assembly (2018) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approves the following affirmations and directions for its mission and witness:


The 223rd General Assembly (2018) acts to lift up our church’s long commitments to active civic engagement, responsible citizenship, and prophetic witness; believing these commitments to be rooted in our faithful response to God’s call for Christians to be stewards of creation; and witnessing the corrosion of democratic institutions.

The phrase “honest patriotism,” popularized in Donald W. Shriver’s 2005 book, Honest Patriots, means “loving a country enough to remember its misdeeds.”1 Such misdeeds are usually those times and places where particular groups were denied “equal protection under the law.” Just as the ancient Hebrew prophets stood up to kings and queens, so have Christians understood the prophetic calling to entail a moral freedom to challenge the misuses of power, even within the church or state themselves, “in season and out of season.” Honest Patriotism is thus a check on the exclusivist nationalism that otherwise denies equal respect to other peoples, conceals injustices committed by one’s own side in any conflict, and makes reconciliation and common action harder to achieve both in the United States and abroad.

Drawing on our Reformed Christian reading of scripture and our church’s Preliminary Principles, which influenced democratic revolutions in Britain and the United States, this resolution addresses the vital freedoms of the First and Fourteenth amendments to the U. S. Constitution and their application to changes in the nature of communications, media, and the public square. We make this statement out of concern for both the God-given rights of persons and for the cultural commons that allows for the open transmission of our values and convictions.

1.     We affirm and honor the work of citizens of the United States who have chosen public service as part of their vocation. This includes, but is not limited to, civil service employees, members of the judiciary, and our elected representatives in the Legislative and Executive branches of our national government. Public employees of local and state governments also serve the common good. We further affirm, as part of our Reformed tradition, that their work is part of God’s design for the governance of creation.

2.     We affirm the imperative for honesty in the public statements, proceedings, publications, and theological witness of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), recognizing that our faith is based, at its core, on a commitment to truth. In like manner, we call upon all citizens, as well as governments, to recognize commitment to truth as a core value and to be vigilant in demanding honesty in our public and private interactions. Christians must scrutinize news sources and reject those that oversimplify or sensationalize conflicts and demonize other human beings and peoples.

3.     We affirm the protection of the freedom of speech, as enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. We recognize that meaningful civic engagement is dependent upon the protection of this freedom, which keeps our engagement lively, meaningful, and prophetic. As this freedom involves clashing ideas of what is true and false, the United States’ legal tradition makes it the responsibility of citizens and their elected representatives to develop measures of public accountability for truthfulness in the public square in all its forms: over public airwaves, through cyberspace, and through proactive requirements of public disclosure by government agencies and publicly chartered profit and nonprofit entities.

4.     We affirm the widest possible public access to information and to the products of cultural activity. We recognize that such freedom to listen is vital to the free exchange of ideas and to the practical application of freedom of speech. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) opposes any attempt to limit this free exchange, including but not limited to, monopoly ownership of media outlets and the dismantling of net neutrality. This excludes only the production and promotion of hate speech, designed to exclude others from such access or endanger their persons and property.

5.     We affirm the rights of all citizens to freedom of assembly. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) opposes any attempts to abrogate this freedom, including, but not limited to, attempts to criminalize, manipulate by false information, or in other ways delegitimize peaceful protest. New forms of surveillance by drone and electronic means, as well as increased use of military equipment by police forces, require increased public accountability of all policing and security agencies. Similarly, data gathered from electronic devices about personal communications and purchasing history should be governed by privacy protections and not used commercially or otherwise without permission.

6.     We affirm the freedom of the press, guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) opposes any attempts to abrogate this freedom, including, but not limited to, threats, intimidation, and the denial of access to certain members or organs of the press for partisan reasons.

7.     We affirm the rule of law as inseparable from our Reformed commitment to truth. Recognizing that human law is a human creation and therefore subject to error, we nonetheless affirm the democratic principle of equal protection under the law, as enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Institutionally, this equal protection is guaranteed by an independent judiciary, the maintenance of which must continue to be a national priority. This has customarily meant laws to insulate judges from partisan politics as well as the use of objective qualifications in their selection, both of which approaches this assembly would endorse.

8.     We affirm the need for free critical inquiry that is unhampered by censorship. Commitment to integrity and to the truth must also extend to those whose vocation it is to seek out the truth and to add to the store of human knowledge. We therefore oppose any governmental, educational, or other institutional restrictions on the initiation, maintenance, or publication of research.

9.     We affirm the right of citizens to participate in the democratic process. Fundamental to that process is the right to vote. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), in affirming its commitment to honest patriotism and responsible citizenship, therefore opposes any efforts to restrict participation in elections, including, but not limited to, voter suppression initiatives and racially based and/or partisan gerrymandering.

Directions for Its Mission and Witness

The 223rd General Assembly (2018) further approves the following measures for consideration by its members and congregations and action by its agencies.

1. In order to faithfully model civic responsibility and engagement, the members and congregations of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are encouraged to be active in civic life, engaging in critical and constructive discourse and prayerfully considering the import of the Gospel message to our body politic.

2. In order to faithfully model honest and open governance, all councils of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), from local to national, are encouraged to be open and transparent in their decision-making processes. At the same time, church procedures and expectations of staff and volunteers should not infringe upon the privacy and autonomy that support freedom of Christian conscience.

3. In order to faithfully model freedom of expression, all councils of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), from local to national, are encouraged to seek out and learn from diverse perspectives, and to examine their current practices so as to ensure no voice is silenced, however unintentionally.

4. In order to faithfully model full participation in governance, all councils of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), from local to national, are encouraged to make whatever accommodations necessary to ensure the full and active participation of members in the decision-making process of the church. These accommodations may involve, but are not limited to, the dissemination of relevant materials, the translation of said materials into appropriate languages, and the scheduling of meeting times for deliberation. All councils should consider part of their leadership to include a convening function designed to bring together leading thinkers in public conversation and constructive debate to engage members across the larger church in discerning what mission and discipleship entail.

5. In order to faithfully model critical inquiry, colleges and universities historically related to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are encouraged to continue to honor the role of the humanities, including the teaching of religion and ethics, in their curricula, so that the complex values of culture and society can be better understood.

6. The Presbyterian Mission Agency, through the Office of Public Witness, and other ministries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are directed to advocate and witness for policies consistent with the affirmations above.

7. Presbyterian elected officials and other civil servants are invited to respond to the affirmations and background statement and to participate in briefings, seminars, and adult education programs that may educate and engage our members.

Grounding and Charge:

These affirmations draw on a long tradition of Reformed involvement in the political arena. We are cognizant that we live in a time and place where it is incumbent upon us to speak boldly. We also know that we speak along with a great cloud of witnesses who have come before us. Nothing that we affirm here is wholly new, in the sense that our tradition has always viewed the faithful guardianship and exercise of our rights as citizens to be central to our mission.

The issues we address here have been the subject of the social witness policy of our denomination for generations. The 195th General Assembly (1983) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) adopted the report, Reformed Faith in Politics. Claiming that we are “inevitably political and religious,”2 that report outlines the theological and biblical rationale for our commitment to good government and “[a]ffirm[s] responsible participation in politics as an indispensable part of the calling of all Christians.”3

The 200th General Assembly (1988) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) adopted the policy statement, God Alone Is Lord of the Conscience. A comprehensive examination of religious liberty in both historical and contemporary contexts, this statement likewise endorses a robust Presbyterian voice in our political system, and calls us as a denomination to safeguard such participation. The report asserts:

… it is a limitation and denial of faith not to seek its expression in both a personal and a public manner, in such ways as will not only influence but transform the social order. Faith demands engagement in the secular order and involvement in the political realm.4

More recently, the 218th General Assembly (2008) approved a policy statement on voting rights and campaign finance reform, Lift Every Voice,5 which was updated in 2016 to include recent Supreme Court cases.6 The assembly spoke forthrightly to recent decisions that allow virtually unlimited and undisclosed sums to be spent in elections, and to decisions that weaken protections for minority voters.

It is in such a spirit and with such a faith that the above affirmations are offered. They are congruent with the long tradition of Reformed theology regarding the political order, and they both build upon and are dependent upon the stated policies of the denomination. Yet, in offering them now, we recognize an urgency of time and place. We believe that in moments such as these, when core values of robust democratic participation in the life of the commonwealth are under threat, we are called to claim our heritage and to offer our witness.


1.             Shriver, Donald W. Jr. Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember its Misdeeds. (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

2.             —Reformed Faith and Politics (New York and Atlanta: The Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1983) 2. See

3.             Ibid, 16.

4.             —God Alone Is Lord of the Conscience: Policy Statement and Recommendations Regarding Religious Liberty (Louisville: The Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1989) 48. See

5.             See

6.             See

7.             John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1995) Book II, Chapter VIII, 352.

8.             Ibid, Book II, Chapter VII, 309.

9.             Ibid, Book II, Chapter VIII, 352–3.

10.           Robert N. Bellah, et. al. The Good Society (New York: Knopf, 1991) 3.

11.           Ibid, p. 284. See also H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978) 199ff.

12.           The term patriotism carries with it a great deal of baggage including its etymological root in the word patria (fatherland). Aware of the problematic gendered nature of this term and the patriarchal heritage it may embody, we nonetheless hope to reclaim a type of love of country that has traditionally been denoted by this term. As will become clear, we see such love of country manifest particularly through civic engagement and active citizenship, which includes prophetic critique. We also note that such patriotism must always be constrained by our obedience to God.

13.           For further reflection on Paul’s theology of church and state as reflected in the letter to the Romans, see also Reformed Faith and Politics (New York and Atlanta: The Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1983) and God Alone Is Lord of the Conscience: Policy Statement and Recommendations Regarding Religious Liberty (Louisville: The Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1988).

14.           Calvin, Book IV, Chapter XX, 652. See also John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Romans, trans. John Owen (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1849

15.           John McNeill, “Editor’s Introduction,” Calvin: On God and Political Duty, ed. John T. McNeill (New York: MacMillan, 1950) XII.

16.           For a rich treatment of the various strands of Christian theology on engagement with the world, see H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Faber & Faber, 1952).

17.           Karl Barth, Community Church and State: Three Essays (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1968) 157.

18.           André Biéler, The Social Humanism of Calvin, trans. Paul T. Fuhrman (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1964) 23–24.

19.           In particular, see The Theological Declaration of Barmen and the Confession of Belhar in the Book of Confessions.

20.           John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988) 270ff.

21.           Barth, 177.

22.           Ibid., at note 1.

23.           Letty Russell, Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993) 35.

24.           “The Brief Statement of Faith” in Book of Confessions, Study Edition Geneva Press, Louisville: Geneva Press, 1996) 341–42.

25.           James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1975) 208.

26.           Ibid, 159.

27.           Ibid.

28.           Robert McAfee Brown, Spirituality and Liberation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1988) 134–35.

29.           Calvin, Institutes, Book IV, Chapter XX, 657.

30.           For a full treatment of PC(USA) policy on conscientious objection and civil disobedience, see God Alone Is Lord of the Conscience: Policy Statement and Recommendations Regarding Religious Liberty (Louisville: The Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), especially 20f and 90ff.

31.           With regard to the contemporary “carriers” of the four freedoms of the First Amendment, this resolution cannot do justice to the complexities of intellectual property law or the ways that “culture war” issues have been increasingly revived in political debate. A creative synthesis of political and cultural thinking on the “cultural commons,” however, can be found in Lewis Hyde’s, Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership (2010), which devotes much of its attention to updating the concerns of the U.S. founders in today’s cultural and media environment. There have also been proposals that an analogue to a nonpartisan “consumers’ union” be developed to rate the truthfulness of media outlets. Others favor returning to an updated version of the “fairness doctrine,” which required public broadcasters to present at least two sides of contentious issues.

32.           Barth, 186.

One Comment
  1. WOW!! 🙂

    Happy independence day to you and yours.

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