Accountability and responsibility are related ideas that are central to political, constitutional, and institutional arrangements in Western liberal democracies. However, political elites in non-democratic systems are generally not held accountable by citizens through such arrangements, and accountability is primarily a means of securing the compliance of state functionaries to the will of these elites. In liberal democracies the terms “accountability” and “responsibility” are often used in common discourse as if they were synonyms, but they are not. The former is a concept that embodies a number of different types, with a common theme of answerability by an accountor to an accountee, usually—but not necessarily—in a hierarchical relationship designed to ensure compliance and control. Responsibility, on the other hand, speaks of the associated but different domain of individual moral choice, where often conflicting duties of obligation are experienced by those in official positions. Beginning in the 1980s, the so-called new public management movement, which brought major changes to many Western systems of public administration, sought to enhance the accountability of public bureaucrats, especially their answerability to their elected political superiors. The effects have been mixed and uncertain, often with unintended consequences, such as the reinforcement of risk aversion and blame shifting and gaming behavior. The quest for accountability is inherently a political process, in which “holding to account” may often depend much less on any forensic determination of specific culpability and much more on evidential and political disputation, where the search for the “truth” is highly—and increasingly—contestable.
Mainline Protestant denominations in the United States have a history of using divestment as an economic form of nonviolent moral activism. While such activism can have a domestic focus, at times church divestment efforts have emphasized foreign policy issues as an extension of church activism in the areas of social justice and moral reform. Churches have used economic activism such as divestment from apartheid South Africa and investment screens to prevent church pension and other funds from being used for products and services—such as alcohol, tobacco and munitions—deemed “immoral” by church bodies. The case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict illustrates the broader themes and tensions involved in church divestment debates, given the media coverage that has been generated by the topic due to the special relationship between Christians and the holy land and the troubled history of Christianity and anti-Semitism. Some Protestant denominations, particularly those with a history of engagement in Israel/Palestine, have responded to the Palestinians’ call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) to advance their freedom and human rights. However, such responses have not been immune from debate and controversy. Some mainline Protestant denominations, including the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), the United Methodist Church, and the Episcopal Church have debated resolutions dealing with church divestment from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Such resolutions have resulted in pushback from some parties, including efforts to criminalize boycott of Israel.