By now, just about everyone knows about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the fiery sermons that have clouded the political prospects of Barack Obama, long a member of the now retired pastor's Trinity United Church of Christ. But all the controversy is also provoking curiosity about the Protestant denomination to which that predominantly black South Side Chicago church belongs—and about how Wright's brand of black liberation theology fits within the traditions of a largely white denomination with roots extending to America's colonial past.
To the Rev. John Thomas, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, Wright's preaching over the years has been in step with what he and others proudly describe as the UCC's progressive, diverse, and prophetically bold character. "I continue to support his ministry and his prophetic stance," says Thomas, though he adds that some of Wright's recent remarks "did not represent the style and theological depth that I've associated with him in the past."
Until Wright became the object of ubiquitous media chatter, the United Church of Christ was probably best known for its self-depiction as the church without a bouncer at the door. That reputation came out of a successful national branding effort launched four years ago by the still relatively young church that emerged in 1957 out of the union of two Protestant denominations, the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches, themselves products of earlier mergers of even older churches. Accentuating the UCC's progressive theology and its ethos of tolerance, the campaign kicked off with a TV ad that showed bouncers in front of a church admitting a white husband and wife but turning away a gay couple, a black woman, and person in a wheelchair. "Jesus didn't turn people away," the ad declared. "Neither do we."
Distinctive brand. Whether or not viewers liked the message, they now knew where the UCC stood. And the leadership of the church was pleased that the UCC—which had sometimes been confused with the more conservative Churches of Christ—now had a distinctive brand. "The campaign increased a sense of identity and pride within the denomination," says the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, the church's director of communications.
But not all UCC members shared that pride. To many pastors and laypeople, the campaign merely affirmed the church's drift away from orthodox Christianity and toward theological chaos and overly liberal political and social positions— typified, such dissenters now say, by Wright's inflammatory sermonizing. And that direction, they add, is the main reason that the now 1.2 million-member church has lost around 800,000 members since its founding and gone from 8,283 congregations in 1957 to 5,518 in 2007.
To some degree, the UCC's problems with dissension and defections can be found in most mainline Protestant churches today. But the UCC, by dint of its history, its system of governance, and its leadership, has become an even more intense arena of theological controversy. That history embraces several denominational histories, including that of the Congregational church planted by dissenting Pilgrims and Puritans who came to America in the early 17th century. Congregationalism arose out of dissatisfaction with Presbyterianism's hierarchical governance, and the tradition of local autonomy remains strong in the UCC to this day. That structure, says Robert Wuthnow, director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, "has given [the UCC] freedom to maneuver, allowing it to go in some wildly different directions."
The first mainline Protestant church to ordain an African-American pastor (Lemuel Haynes, in 1785), it became the first to accept a woman and an openly gay person into the clergy. Wuthnow says that during the 1960s, "partly because they were smaller, partly because they had a strong Northeast membership, and partly because they were so involved in the civil rights movement, they carved out a niche that was more progressive than those of other mainline churches."
In that period, the UCC also began to incorporate more black churches into the denomination. Minorities today make up about 10 percent of the membership, and predominantly black Trinity is the single largest congregation in the denomination. With prominent clergy and members like the outspoken Yale chaplain and pastor of New York's Riverside Church, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, and NAACP leader Julian Bond, the UCC moved on to embrace other progressive causes, including opposition to the Vietnam War, legal abortion, and gay and lesbian rights. In the mid-1980s, the church adopted its "Open and Affirming" program, by which congregations could choose to identify themselves as welcoming people of all sexual orientations. Recently, the nation's largest gay and lesbian congregation, the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, Texas, affiliated with the UCC.
But the UCC also contains strongly conservative elements, including those who embrace traditional Congregationalism's own rather austere Puritan theology. The Calvinist and Lutheran teachings of the Reformed and Evangelical traditions are still strongly rooted in congregations founded in Pennsylvania by German and Swiss immigrants and in the Midwest by later waves of Germans. While the Evangelical and Reformed traditions also include a commitment to social ministry and even a largely liberal political outlook, they hew to Christian orthodoxy.
Dissidents. But while studies have shown that more church members describe themselves as moderate than as either liberal or conservative, the church's strongest critics charge that moderates and conservatives are being ignored, and even shunned, by an ultraliberal leadership. A fifth-generation pastor from the German Evangelical tradition, the Rev. Mark Friz is the leader of St. Paul's Evangelical Church in St. Louis, Mo., one of the congregations that have left the UCC since the early 1960s. His congregation voted to disaffiliate in 1998, disenchanted, he says, by the larger church's lack of tolerance for a real diversity and by its fuzzy theology. "I would go to conferences," says Friz, "and hear many pastors saying that they didn't believe that Jesus rose from the grave."
His bigger grievance, though, was with the way the national leadership refused to recognize conservative voices, even organizing the selection process for the General Synods in a way that he believes left conservatives underrepresented. "Whenever the General Synod met," Friz says, "we all held our breath in fear they'd do something radical, as they did in 2005." In that year, the General Synod not only affirmed gay marriage but also encouraged the use of economic leverage (including selective divestments) on companies profiting from the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. Those pronouncements encouraged the biggest congregational exodus of congregations since the Sixties and Seventies, with more than 200 churches breaking away.
But UCC leaders see nothing novel in taking controversial positions. "The UCC throughout its history has been willing to take a risk and push the issues," says Thomas. He admits that embracing "prophetic" voices and positions like those of Wright has led to defections. But Thomas also thinks those positions, including ones conveyed in the branding campaign, have made the church more confident of what it is. "I think three years after 2005, we're pretty stable." And, indeed, 85 churches have joined in that period.
At the same time, Thomas insists that no position has ever been forced on all parts of the church by the leadership. Indeed, fewer than 1,000 of the church's some 5,500 congregations have signed on to the "Open and Affirming" program.
Whether an unabashedly progressive church can become a growing part of the American religious landscape is still an open question. "They may become the refuge for liberals from all sorts of denominations, " says University of California-San Diego sociologist John Evans, though he sees no evidence that the UCC's liberal branding campaign has worked. In the meantime, just as leaders of evangelical churches tend to be more politically conservative than most people in their pews, so the leaders of the UCC will probably continue to be to the left of most of their flocks. And that may only contribute to the view, particularly among many younger Christians who are leaving both mainline and evangelical churches, that overly ideological leadership is one of the weaknesses of contemporary institutional Christianity.