When incivility becomes the norm

November 16, 2016

This statement is a response to the violence on America’s streets after the election of Mr. Donald Trump as President–Elect of the United States of America.

I read several post-election statements and heard news accounts of violence, riots, and protests while in Central America visiting Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission partners. The news images were shocking to both our partners and me. We struggled to understand the results of the election, particularly given Mr. Trump’s stance on immigration, which was the theme of my visit. However, I was not as startled as my Central American friends. Serving as director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C., for six years prior to becoming Stated Clerk prepared me to understand the outcomes we face in electoral politics. Although I have shared parts of this writing before with congregations and audiences, there seemed to always be a sense of skepticism among the hearers. I proclaim the message once again, because the apparent shock for many has left people raising the question, “What happened?”

I wish to affirm in this moment that many in our congregations and communities hold legitimate fear about their safety and the protection of their human rights. We hold close our Muslim, Hispanic, African American, immigrant, and LGBTQ neighbors, and those from other marginalized groups. We hold close the women who give us life and the poor for whom daily bread is not promised. The rash of hateful harassment [1] reported in the wake of the election insists upon the urgency of the call to be one who “... executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:18–20, NRSV).

This writing is not a denial of the results of the election. President-Elect Trump is our newly elected leader. However, it is my hope that the post-election anger, pain, and frustration demonstrated on the streets will lay the foundation for a transformed political system in the years to come. Through coalition building and community organizing, we have an opportunity to create a vision of shared prosperity, safety, dignity, and justice that is truly inclusive and compelling to a broad base.

I insist, though, that no matter how robust the infusion of energy into the struggle for justice, it will never be worth the pain, suffering, and yes, death, which will be wrought by the promised policies of the incoming administration. My integrity as a spiritual leader commands me to face the reality that some of our communities are under grave threat. In my recent travels to El Salvador, I spoke with many who expressed fear for their family members’ safety in the U.S.; that the violence they fled El Salvador to escape would be brought upon them tenfold if they were deported back to their country of origin. People with preexisting conditions are troubled over what a sudden loss of healthcare would do to their wellbeing. Same-gender parents are rushing to finish their adoptions and secure their rights as a family. Survivors of sexual assault are contending with a culture that would elect to our highest office a known abuser. In this dark night, the doors of the Church are open as refuge, resource, and organizing home.

As Christians, we cannot accept a nation that normalizes violence, exclusion, and racism in our political rhetoric and public policy. We know God has called us to co-create a world where a dignified life is available to all, and anything less offers no suitable worship. In the coming months and years, “... From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Lk. 12:48 NRSV). We will be asked to open our church basements to late-night meetings, our sanctuaries to provide Sanctuary to those facing deportation, and to intervene in public harassment.

Just as the doors of the Church are open, so too are the doors to the movement for justice. We invite you to join us in our steadfast commitment to stand with the marginalized and our humble desire to contribute to strategy and vision that will help create the kingdom of God.

On the pages below are some of the ways General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have voted to affirm our commitment for a fair electoral process.

1.         We must advocate for campaign finance reform.

In 2010, the ‘Citizens United’ Supreme Court Case concluded that corporations are considered as individuals, having the same rights in the electoral process.[2] Although corporations cannot vote, they are allowed to contribute unlimited funding into the political process through super PAC’s (political action committees, groups “able to accept unlimited political donations”). No wonder we are witnessing so many wealthy people with political influence advocating for laws that cause damage to whole communities of people. These same laws swell the pockets of corporate wealth. Once politicians are elected, their votes are guided toward paying back the corporations or wealthy individual donors through their votes. Former Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons wrote a response regarding the Citizen’s United Case.

“I am concerned about the pressures this decision puts on individual candidates and office holders and on the integrity of the election system as a whole,” Parsons said, noting that the decision undoes decades of federal campaign finance legislation and “historic Presbyterian wisdom about the dangers of corruption by special interests.”

Parsons’ statement outlined recent General Assembly statements on campaign finance and electoral form, concluding “this decision is likely to reshape the political process in profound ways, and to reduce the voice of citizens, churches and other groups without unlimited money.[3]

In this most recent election, both presidential candidates were tied to financial contributions that impacted their political positions on issues from Palestine/Israel to immigration; wage scales to environmental issues; engaging war to peacemaking; and more. Politics is controlled by big money contributions on every side. The Prophet Jeremiah was willing to speak boldly before a powerful institution of his day. He challenged the temple priest who beat him and locked him in the temple storehouse for refusing to retreat from his committed discipline of telling the truth about God’s righteousness. He spoke, “I feel a fire shut up in my bones” (Jer. 20:9, NRSV). We Presbyterians who have a history of declaring God’s Word must possess this same faithfulness in the current day.

2.         Reinstatement of the Full Voting Rights Act

“Our mutual responsibilities for love of self and neighbor, peace and justice (right relationship), affirmed repeatedly by covenant [communities organizing themselves], from Exodus to the Pauline and pastoral letters, to reflect the ... greatest commandment to ‘love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and neighbor as thyself.’”[4]

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that the conditions over the past fifty years had changed and it must be proven that a half-century of advances still placed us in a similar position as in 1965.[5] The court left it up to the Congress to make the case and sign the full bill into law. The Congress has not made any significant attempt to reinstate the Voting Rights Act. This decision gave states the latitude to engage in racial exclusion through gerrymandering, and to establish voter ID laws (including photo ID’s) in order to vote.

The same Supreme Court that gave corporations the ability to be viewed as individuals in the political sphere determined that historical protections for persons historically disenfranchised from voting were no longer needed. These types of laws are established in some states where there have been very few (if any) cases of voter fraud in years. These laws make it more difficult for persons who have struggled with the court system (formally incarcerated and those who have experienced police intimidation and abuse) to register due to fear and feelings of intimidation. With the high number of African Americans being killed in police shootings in the United States, and educational and economic disenfranchisement, one can make the case that historically disenfranchised communities still live under a veil of discrimination.

We should have learned a lesson from the voting debacle in Florida during the 2000 presidential election. Hanging chads and voting machine errors in Florida were at the center of the George W. Bush and Al Gore race for the White House. The Supreme Court decided the winner of the election. The outcome was questioned largely because of malfunctioning voting machines and practices that made voting more difficult at polls located in underserved communities. It would seem that this lesson learned in a flawed election would be enough evidence to enforce better precinct oversight, rather than placing more burdens on voters through picture identification laws, especially when voter fraud is not an issue.

3.         Advocate for the Full Emancipation of Felons Who Have Served their Sentences

Professor, writer, and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander and others have documented the laws that prohibit persons from voting. She documents the impact of mass incarceration and felony charges as an impediment to voting among both current and former inmates. Race is a central theme in her writing due to the long sentences issued to African Americans (particularly males) for drug charges during the war on drugs. Many of the charges in the 1980s primarily gave African American men felony charges and stripped them of their right to vote, even after serving their time and being released from prison. These men and women should not be punished for the rest of their lives after serving the required sentences by the court. Today, some of these same drug charges would not even warrant a felony conviction.

Alexander tells this story to illustrate the injustice:

Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises—the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life. Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.[6]

Irrespective of our class standing in the United States, we are reminded in biblical scripture of our mutual responsibilities for love of self and neighbor, peace and justice (right relationship), affirmed repeatedly by covenant communities, from Exodus to the Pauline and pastoral letters, which reflect the double or greatest commandment to “love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and neighbor as thyself.”[7]

Multinational corporations and wealthy donors paid for this election, as they have over many years. We will remain in a debilitated condition after every election until we raise the consciousness of our communities across this country regarding the electoral process. It is not enough to weep and expect pastoral letters from Church leaders when our candidate is not elected. We must vigorously put feet on our prayers and reclaim democracy in the United States. Simply put, commit to capturing the energy from the streets and transforming it into a long-term strategy to change the system, so that liberty and justice for all will have a new meaning in our lifetime.



[1] “Over 200 Incidents of Hateful Harassment and Intimidation Since Election Day” https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2016/11/11/over-200-incidents-hateful-harassment-and-intimidation-election-day.

[2] How Citizens United Has Changed Politics in 5 Years

The controversial Supreme Court ruling has remade how campaigns are run in the U.S.

By Gabrielle Levy | Political Reporter Jan. 21, 2015, at 12:26 p.m. http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/01/21/5-years-later-citizens-united-has-remade-us-politics.

[3] PC(USA) stated clerk issues statement on Supreme Court’s election finance decision

Parsons: Unlimited spending by corporations ‘challenges democratic ethos’

FEBRUARY 3, 2010 https://www.pcusa.org/news/2010/2/3/pcusa-stated-clerk-issues-statement-supreme-courts/.

[4] Lift Every Voice: Democracy, Voting Rights and Electoral Reform. The Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 2008, p. 3.

[5] Ibid. How Citizens United Has Changed Politics in 5 Years.

[6] Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. http://newjimcrow.com/about/excerpt-from-the-introduction.

[7] Lift Every Voice: Democracy, Voting Rights and Electoral Reform. p. 4/Lk. 10:27.

무례함이 표준이 되었을 때 

  1. trump won the presidency. Done. Let's wait and see how he will govern us. Christian values in question by his words and actions: equal respect and treatment of all people economic justice negotiation over retaliation dignified discourse and common courtesy condemning American white terrorists mercy We will "wait and see" - without sabotage - but in the meantime I will cry out to God for hope and help.

    by Elizabeth Graham

    January 10, 2017

  2. Thank you! I feel so lucky we have visionary and courageous leadership in the PCUSA! I support you 100%!!

    by Krista Keosheyan

    December 14, 2016

  3. "hate crimes" I guess there have been some, but the victims have largely been Trump supporters. But, seeing as Trump supporters are irredeemably deplorable bitter clingers, nothing done to them can be condemned by a man of God.

    by Richard Aubrey

    December 5, 2016

  4. I am personally offended by this. I spent 28 years of my life in the service of this country, and find my church leaders comments repulsive. It makes me question if I should remain a member of PCUSA . I was baptized in June 1941, and now feel abandoned my church.. O by the way I am also an Elder

    by Richard J Schmus

    December 1, 2016

  5. AMEN

    by Renee Austin-Harris

    November 30, 2016

  6. Thank you, Dr. Nelson for your prophetic voice. I hear and understand the pain of those who don't believe that the PCUSA should take any political stance. But I also believe that these are different times. Trump supporters obviously do not fall into any homogenous category, as many have voiced here. But regardless of what voters feel, many of us so-called liberals reel in shock at things that Mr. Trump has said publicly in recent months. And the protests represent real fears, based on those public statements. And it's appalling how many Trump supporters took the "winning" of the election (he actually lost the popular vote, didn't he?) as permission to engage in hate crimes. THAT's what the folks who did not support Mr. Trump are protesting. Call it what you want, but bigotry and racism are alive and well, and WRONG. We have much work to do to set things right, beginning with, as you pointed out, reform.

    by Deborah Coe

    November 30, 2016

  7. In response to Susan and the 29 Nov post. As a TE for over 35 years, UPC/PCUSA. With views and points of reference diametrically opposed to the Louisville establishment. Never confuse the public pronouncements of the Moderator, Stated Clerk, or even policy arms of the bureaucracy, OGA, PMA with speaking for you, or your church, or your pastor. When an employee of the OGA, PCUSA speak, they do so primary for themselves primarily and at the extreme of limits, the specific office they are employed by. There is no Roman or Episcopal concept of Bishophood or "ex-cathedra" in their public policy pronouncements. Nor binding on the whole or part of the Body. The welcome, or lack of it, you may feel from a local church, pastor, or presbytery is many times a very localized and personal matter related directly to issues and personalities of that pastor or church, and should not be implied to other levels of the organization. Now many, many, many good and faithful people of faith, people of integrity and common decency have determined for whatever reason they need to leave, depart, flee the PCUSA. Some attempt so with the physical property. with mixed results for all. Others just as decent and faithful, just as Christian and as committed to the Lord have determined to stay, remain for whatever reason. I respect and honor both, as we all should. But I think at the end of the day the same Lord who is Lord of the PCUSA is the same Lord of the EPC, ECO, and any other alphabet combination. And you will find a home and peace in one or all.

    by peter gregory

    November 30, 2016

  8. I'm just curious after reading this, it is possible to have voted for Donald Trump and remain a member of the PCUSA? I ask because this statement suggests that anyone who voted for him supports all of the things you discussed in this statement and also supports all of the corrective actions you advocate. There are legitimate arguments why some of these may not be wise courses of action (e.g. Citizens United didn't, in fact, play any significant role in Trump's election. Clinton, on the other hand relied much more heavily on speech that was enabled by Citizens United). There is also no objective evidence that the Voting Rights Act as it stands today impeded the vote of any citizen. It did remove outdated restrictions on states that had long ago reformed voting laws. So I'm just curious. Am I still welcome in the PCUSA? This is a serious question, because I am a life-long Presbyterian, a three time Elder, and I don't feel welcome in my own denomination anymore.

    by Susan Fillippeli

    November 29, 2016

  9. During this election period, we as "the church" entered into a period of discernment. We sought and are still seeking answers that only GOD can provide. We must have faith in GOD's ability to accomplish his will through this process. Regardless of who is potus, GOD remains on his throne and is in control! IMO using your Platform as "Clerk" for political purposes is a misuse of that position! Secularism has jaded people's judgement! Thinking that your "wisdom" could curtail the wisdom of The Holy GOD is disappointing! Isaiah 55:8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Daniel 2:20-22 Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding; he reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him. Psalm 106:13 They soon forgot his works; they waited not for his counsel. Psalms 27:14 Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait , I say wait on the Lord. Isaiah 5:21 Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight! Romans 1:22 Professing to be wise, they became fools. GOD's commandments and precepts do not conform to secular views and niether should we, so I charge you with this: To stand firm in the faith and put on the whole armor of GOD! Why? Because the devil is roaming, looking to devour you! Praise,Glory, and Honor be to the one true GOD.

    by Ken Stanley

    November 18, 2016

  10. Thank you, Rev. Nelson. I am saddened by the first 2 commenters to your letter in this stream who, inexplicably, are turning a blind eye to the hate and terror of white supremacy and xenophobia that are being sanctioned by the president-elect and his appointees. I hope, with God's help, to repent of all the ways that I have chosen a position of safety and stand on the side of justice with my sisters and brothers and all the suffering creation.

    by Deborah Meinke

    November 18, 2016

  11. I guess our Stated Clerk does not believe God is in control.

    by Kim Cassady

    November 17, 2016

  12. Most curious. I have wondered post-election that if all the pundits and self-appointed cultural elites who speak in almost apocalyptic terms in response to the election, would make the same invectives if the other candidate had won? My guess is no. So whom is Rev. speaking too and why, if not to rally a partisan base post an election defeat. I have found that civility and cultural vulgarness is indeed a two way street. And on that matter his PCUSA has much to reflect upon.

    by peter gregory

    November 17, 2016

  13. Dear Lord not again. I started reading this article thinking it might be a condemnation of the riots ensuing after the election and a condemnation of those who would continue to categorize those who voted for President- elect Trump as racists, misogynists, bigots, islamaphobes, homophobes and anything else ending in "phones" or "ists." I and others who are members of PCUSA who voted for President -elect Trump are none of those things and are as Christian and Presbyterian as are you. Please stop making us feel otherwise and maybe just once condemn the rioting and name calling against us as frequently as you condemn us. The incivility that has become the norm is the name-calling by those who consider themselves the "righteous" christians and Presbyterians who somehow view themselves as the only ones anointed with the answers .

    by Patricia Small

    November 17, 2016

  14. magnificent. prophetic. hopeful. thank you.

    by Ethel

    November 17, 2016

  15. Thank you very much for your letter, Mr. Nelson. As a Presbyterian I feel hopeful by your words. As a Pastor working with the Latino community, your words will bring much needed hope. Some of your points I raised during my sermon last Sunday and I am glad to now feel supported by your witness to our present challenges. You may not speak for the Church, but certainly you speak from the Gospel, and I am thankful! If I may add one more request, please, lets also speak with same power about the threat we and millions around the world face, if we disregard US commitments to fight Climate Change. I am very afraid of the new administration denials to the Paris agreement and the reality of Climate Change. We can no longer leave our guide down. In prayer with you,

    by Rev. Neddy Astudillo

    November 16, 2016

  16. Hasn't it ever entered your mind that maybe it is God's will that Mr. Donald Trump was elected President?????????????

    by Grace Russ

    November 16, 2016

  17. Thank you for your leadership and wise counsel. Your words have helped God lift me up from the pit and to realize that the fight is not only worth it, but part of God's expectation of those through whom God seeks to be love in the world.

    by Julie Lehman

    November 16, 2016

  18. Mr. Nelson, I found no your opinion of the election very inflammatory, and not backed up by fact. Many things have been said and written that are tearing this nation apart. Let's give the new administration a chance to act first. Let's preach love, for all, charity toward all, and quite dividing everyone into groups.

    by Laura Powell

    November 16, 2016

  19. Thank you for your leadership Dr. J. Herbert Nelson! As the exposure of hidden and unhidden "isms" comes to light, may God's Light transcend upon us and give us all the strength, wisdom and love we need to bring transformation, healing and peace to our country. May justice and righteousness prevail for all people!

    by Scott Prouty

    November 16, 2016

  20. Thank you. I hope the church will also take a stand opposing hiring Stephen Bannon as the chief advisor to Mr. Trump.

    by Sylvia Popelka

    November 16, 2016

  21. Thank you for the analysis, and encouragement to stand firm.

    by Jeffrey Cheifetz

    November 16, 2016

  22. Thank you for articulating what so many of us are struggling with. It is the church's job to articulate the Gospel, and, as you said, put feet to our words.

    by Joan Roane

    November 16, 2016

  23. We, the remnant of God's people, have the same responsibility of continuing building upon the New Community while simultaneously walking toward The Promise Land until we get to that great NEW CITY. The new heaven, and the new earth are right before us, more clearly, today, than ever; let us join in this pilgrimage of ministry and mission together in solidarity with each other as well as serving "the least of these" for The Spirit of the Lord is upon me (and us), because the Lord has anointed me (and us). He has sent me (and us) to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (LUKE 4:18-19; ISAIAH 61:1-2 CEB).

    by William Reyes

    November 16, 2016

  24. Thank you for reminding us as PC(USA) that we are called to work for justice. Inspiring words.

    by Dale Jackson

    November 16, 2016

  25. I have been in tears frequently since the outcome of the election. I am fearful for what can possibly happen with a president who says such terribly offensive things about our citizenry and others. I pray that God will safe us from this kind of hatefulness.

    by Ruth Henss

    November 16, 2016

  26. Prophetic Leadership! Thanks for being the voice of the church. Be strong and of good courage.

    by Warren Lesane

    November 16, 2016

  27. Thank you

    by Suzanne GRIFFITH

    November 16, 2016

  28. Thank you. I wish my US Catholic Bishops would issue just as clear Christian statement. Unfortunately I fear it will not be forthcoming.

    by Victor Sansalone

    November 16, 2016

  29. These are all great ideas. Simplify them and get them out there. In addition, coordinate with other faith groups.

    by Mary Waddell

    November 16, 2016

  30. Badly done, Mr. Nelson. You really should clarify that this is your personal opinion, not a representation of the PC(USA) as a whole. While you start by denouncing the incivility following the election, you quickly move to such divisive words as "death which will be wrought by the promised policies of the incoming administration". Your words promote the division between "us and them", which, as a Presbyterian, you very well know, is the epitome of idolatry. Again, badly done, Mr. Nelson.

    by Jennifer Poe Umphress

    November 16, 2016

  31. Thank you Mr. Clerk for standing with the least of these, our sisters and brothers. Blessings!

    by Rodney A. Foster

    November 16, 2016

  32. I am so thankful that someone from the leadership of our national church has spoken up with clarity, honesty and faithfulness to the gospel!

    by Rev. Jill Ulrici

    November 16, 2016

  33. I am proud to be associated with a denomination that cares about the future of the USA and its citizens.

    by Patsy Nwagbaraocha

    November 16, 2016

  34. Thank you Mr. Stated Clerk and all working to hard in the GA offices.

    by William G. Nottage-Tacey

    November 16, 2016

  35. Thank you for your clarity and statement of truth and considering our role in the church

    by Bobbie McGarey

    November 16, 2016

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