Just Political Economy Teleconference, 1983 | Presbyterian Historical Society

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Just Political Economy Teleconference, 1983

November 13, 2023

Billed as the first known gathering of its kind, the Just Political Economy Teleconference, held on December 3, 1983, convened a panel of experts and an audience of 2,000 Presbyterians from 36 presbytery or synod-run sites, to reckon with the idea of a Biblically just political economy.

The 1983 General Assembly had empaneled a Committee on Just Political Economy (JPE) to discern how the church would respond to the compounding crises -- unemployment, deindustrialization, homelessness -- brought on by the Reagan administration and America's nascent neoliberal consensus. In an introduction to the teleconference, the committee wrote, "The Christian Gospel speaks with power to all areas of human life," rooting its work in Biblical concepts of justice, and quoting Amos, "They have sold the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes." The committee described what would become known as the neoliberal era: "Wealth ebbs; jobs disappear in a growing realization that they will never reappear; whole industries wane and people and cities struggle to survive."

The committee counseled Presbyterians not to lose hope, but to take action. "Economics is not inexorable law," they wrote, adding that it was Congress that slashed taxes for the wealthiest, that exploded defense spending, that shrank welfare and food stamps, that authorized off-shore oil drilling. These actions that, taken together, immiserated a large swath of Americans, were not foreordained--they were consciously chosen. Those choices could be influenced.

The committee would deliver an interim report to the 1984 assembly, and its final report with recommendations to the 1985 General Assembly.

Staff of the Advisory Council on Church and Society (ACCS) sought grassroots feedback from local communities on the committee's work, and cable television came to the rescue. Videostar of Atlanta, Ga. would provide cable hookups to the local groups for $100; a satellite connection for more remote locations cost $1,000. Seattle Presbyterians gathered in a conference room at KOMO television. Northeastern Ohio Presbyterians met at the telecommunications center of the Diocese of Youngstown. Members of Albemarle Presbytery connected at First Presbyterian Church (Rocky Mount, N.C.).

In a high-tech television studio in the headquarters of Georgia-Pacific in Atlanta, on the morning of December 3, a studio audience gathered before the panelists. Among the panelists were representatives of Union Theological Seminary in New York, McCormick Seminary in Chicago, the World Bank, and one industrialist--the president of MacAllister Machinery in Indianapolis. A staffer from the American Enterprise Institute was invited but did not attend.

At 11:30 the program began with a video montage, then the group was convened by General Assembly moderator Randolph Taylor. Their work was to examine American economic policy in the light of the Biblical cause of justice. Their three focuses were unemployment, defense spending, and human welfare. The panel was followed by Jack Stotts, president of McCormick Theological Seminary, whose five minutes on "Calvin's sense of the importance of government" was a tacit rebuke to the Reagan administration's vandalism of government services and to the president who would say in 1986, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help."

Two hours of small group discussion convened at the 36 viewing sites, after which phone lines were open for live call-in and response from the panel. They were immediately jammed, viewers on the west coast waited until the end of the call-in period to be heard. Phone lines stayed on after the broadcast, and all comments were recorded, to be fed to the JPE committee.

The experiment in massively grassroots discernment was technologically fluent and progressive, and ironically revealed the deeply regressive politics of the Reagan era, with some respondents opposing mainstream Christian social teaching outright. One respondent, a Presbyterian who worked in video production in Seattle, said her group was overall enthusiastic about the event, adding that it was "good public relations for the Advisory Council on Church and Society, which has not always enjoyed a feeling that the local members are in favor of their policies." One Seattle Presbyterian, from the group gathered at KOMO-TV for the teleconference, said they were "concerned with the implication that all military spending is 'bad'"--a common Cold War response to Isaiah 2:4 -- and that the panel "crossed the threshhold between education and indoctrination."

Albemarle Presbytery told ACCS that its "quotes from the prophets are addressed to the Church and not directly to the American economic system," seemingly reviving the 19th-century doctrine of the spirituality of the church. Chicago and Blackhawk Presbyteries, convened by Richard Poethig, had "real division on the proper role of government in the economy," some people defending the "free enterprise system" and others calling for a "national full-employment policy." One commenter linked the nuclear arms race and the economy, expressing concern that any limitation of America's nuclear deterrent would add people to the ranks of the unemployed.

The video event was recorded, as were phone messages left by off-air callers. Presbyterians’ grassroots input would shape the final report of the Committee on a Just Political Economy in 1985. We've recently digitized the original video recordings, and you can watch them here:

A Presbyterian Town Meeting on a Just Political Economy, 1983, part 1

A Presbyterian Town Meeting on a Just Political Economy, 1983, part 2

A Presbyterian Town Meeting on a Just Political Economy, 1983, part 3

A Presbyterian Town Meeting on a Just Political Economy, 1983, part 4

Learn more:

Prophetic Witness: Dean Lewis and the Advisory Council on Church and Society

PC(USA) Matthew 25 movement: Eradicating Systemic Poverty