Something is Profoundly Wrong at the Heart of the White Church

This post was originally published on the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog, on the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) website on August 27, 2018

“Charmaine Pruitt wrote the names of 12 churches on strips [of paper], and dropped them into a bag. It was Sunday morning and time to pick which church to attend.”

That’s how journalist Campbell Robertson began his investigative account of how Christians of color are abandoning white Evangelicalism (“A Quiet Exodus: Why Blacks Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches,” New York Times, March 9, 2018).

“Two years earlier, there would have been no question,” Robertson continued. “Ms. Pruitt would have been getting ready for her worship service” at Gateway Church, a mostly-white megachurch in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. But she stopped attending that church after realizing that it was not meant for people of color like her.”

She pulled a strip of paper out of the bag. “Mount Olive Fort Worth. That was where she would go that day.”

Remarkably, Ms. Pruitt’s story—a story about racism in the white church—was not dredged up from America’s Jim Crow past; rather, it was composed and published in 2018.

In recent decades, sociologists and religious leaders had dared to hope “that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning might cease to be the most segregated hour in America.” Denominational leaders talked about “racial reconciliation;” religious organizations dedicated themselves to integration; and many Christians of color “join[ed] white-majority congregations. Indeed, the 2012 National Congregations Study reported that more than two-thirds of those attending white majority churches were worshiping alongside black congregants.”

Then Donald Trump was elected President; white Christians went ga-ga over the election results; and that was the end of racial reconciliation.

Actually, the erosion started before the 2012 election. Black congregants in white churches “had already grown uneasy as they heard prayers for law enforcement;” they heard that they should keep their eyes fixed on Jesus; and “they heard that the church was colorblind—but they never heard their pastors condemn police shootings of unarmed African-Americans.”

Many Evangelicals “did not even know” who Trayvon Martin was. When Christians of color mentioned his death, white church members accused them of “being divisive.”

If white pastors and congregants sensed the disquiet, they “didn’t talk about it much,” Robertson noted. They seemed to think, “O.K., there may have been racial conflict in America, back in the 1960s. But it settled down. People of color got a national holiday—Martin Luther King Day—and then a Black president. What more do they want?”

In the weeks before the 2016 election, it was impossible to miss the not-so-subtle message proclaimed from Evangelical pulpits: If there is a minor “race problem in the country,” it isn’t important. But this “election is extremely important. The country is in trouble” economically; “a critical Supreme Court appointment awaits;” and the Democrats want to “us[e] ‘your taxpayer dollars,’ for abortion [and] to change our constitution . . . .”

To read more of this post, go to the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog on the CARD website, at

Candy Is Dandy, But Caring for People Won’t Rot Your Teeth: Why America Needs Big Denominational and Governmental Social Justice Programs

This post was originally published on the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog, on the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) website on June 11, 2018

In a recent Washington Post column, conservative commentator and pundit George F. Will argued that big government, and big government programs, can’t solve America’s problems or help those who are struggling. As conservative orthodoxy from the Reagan-era, Will’s argument was old stuff—but it caught my attention because of its unwelcome implications for America and the Church —and because I was confused as to what exactly Will was opposed to: big government programs, liberalgovernment programs, modern-day government programs, or some, all, or none of these.

Will praised the 1944 G.I. Bill of Rights, an enormous government assistance program enacted at the end of World War II to help millions of men who were being discharged from the armed forces in buying homes and going to college. “The G.I. Bill used liberal mean to achieve conservative results: Rather than maintaining people as permanent wards of government, it created an educated, property-owning middle-class equipped for self-reliant striving.” By contrast, Will saw Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program of 1964-1965 as disastrous for America; he regretted liberals’ tendency to “idealiz[e] government as a disinterested [and] neutral arbiter ensuring fair play.” The truth is that “government officials [are not] more nobl[e or] unselfis[h] than lesser mortals;” rather, government is easily “manipulated by those who [can] navigate [its] complexities.” It “is invariably regressive, transferring wealth upward.”

“The past,” Will concluded—including the era of Johnson’s Great Society, when the federal government “said it could create ‘model cities’ and other wonders, and people believed it—was less romantic in fact than it is in memory.”

Will is correct—and his piercing words deflate grandiose schemes of the left and the right. If liberals seek to create egalitarian great societies, conservatives similarly talk about making America great again, and returning America to some imagined heteronormative, Christian, Pro-Life, and White ideal. But the past was never as “great” or “ideal” as we imagine it. Will’s words also apply to the American Church, and to churchgoers’ wistful recollections of “the good old days”—which they invariably situate in the 1950s and the early 1960s—when their pastors, their worship, their youth, and their communities were (at least, in their recollection) perfect.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with government—or Church—leaders aspiring to be “neutral” and “disinterested arbiters ensuring fair play,” or for that matter, striving to “perfect” society. But our aspirations must be tempered with reality and a Niebuhrian recognition of limits, a kind of humility that recognizes that no political or denominational program, and no congregational social justice ministry, will ever achieve actual perfection, or result in total unmitigated good.

In his column, Will noted that Americans have lost trust in government, but of course, Americans’ distrust of government is not a constant—just as Americans’ indifference toward the church is not a constant. The more nuanced truth is that many Americans don’t like government or the church until they need it. Thus, anti-government Tea Party adherents still ask for FEMA disaster relief when their homes and land are inundated by flooding or other catastrophes. Similarly, Ronald Reagan conservatives, who believe that the best government is the least government, still cash their monthly Social Security checks. And people who don’t attend worship services will still drop by a church dinner when they want a good meal, or contact a pastor when they are facing a crisis.

To read more of this post, go to the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog on the CARD website, at

Praise the Lord and Pass the Bump Stock and Ammo Canister

This post was originally published on the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog, on the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) website on April 23, 2018

I was a third of the way through the children’s sermon at Cornfield and Dairy Farm UCC Church. It was the last Sunday in Epiphany, and I was discussing our upcoming Veggie Fast—a New York Conference initiative to get UCC church people to reduce their consumption of meat and dairy products one day a week during Lent. Participation would be completely voluntary. Even though Cornfield and Dairy Farm UCC was a tiny rural church surrounded by, well, cornfields and dairy farms, I thought it would be beneficial for our children—and our adult congregants—to learn about and participate in this Lenten exercise.

Suddenly, Fred, a middle-aged choir member, became visibly upset. “I’m not taking part in anything you’re talking about!,” he screamed. “No church has a right to tell me what I can eat! I’ve had enough of you and your liberal denomination’s nonsense!” And with that, he and his wife put on their coats and stomped out of the church—with Fred ranting all the way up the center aisle and out the door. Honest to God, it was right in the middle of morning worship—there was nothing subtle about it. Everyone in the congregation was electrified. Our two children and their mother were so frightened by Fred’s crazy act that they never returned to the church.

I stammered my way through the remainder of that service as best I could. Afterwards, a church leader said to me, “Don’t worry about what happened today; that’s just Fred.”

That afternoon, I called our church’s co-pastor, Martha, to tell her about the fracas. She suggested we contact the county sheriff—which we did. We knew that many members of the congregation—including Fred—were culturally and politically conservative. Perhaps they saw the Veggie Fast as an intolerably liberal political program. Or maybe our dairy farmers saw it as a threat to their livelihood. But it was clear that something else was going on. Fred’s explosive outburst seemed to be a harbinger of an emotional or mental disturbance. Did Fred have a weapon in his home? We thought he did. Was he the kind of person who might bring it to church and start shooting? We didn’t know, but we could not rule that possibility out.

After that incident, Martha would always preach with her cell phone on the pulpit, and the Sheriff’s Office on speed-dial. Fred’s outburst—and our church leaders’ subsequent decision to allow Fred to return to church without putting security policies and behavioral covenants in place to prevent similar disturbances in the future—was the beginning of the end of Martha’s and my ministry at Cornfield and Dairy Farm UCC. We would never again feel comfortable leading services there, and we soon resigned.

I was reminded of Fred’s outburst by the November 5, 2017 shooting at the First Baptist Church at Sutherland Springs, Texas, in which a gunman killed 26 people. Many of us think that a mass shooting “can’t happen in our church,” or in any UCC church—but I suspect we’re whistling past the cemetery. Gay nightclubs have been targets of mass shootings. Churches of color have been shot up. So have Planned Parenthood offices, mosques, and synagogues. I don’t know why it couldn’t happen in a UCC church.

In a recent articleCNN religion editor Daniel Burke noted that, after reading numerous headlines about “bomb threats at more than 100 Jewish Community Centers, vandal[ism] and attack[s at] dozens of mosques” and synagogues, and “shootings at churches across the country,” people might well believe “that sacred spaces are unsafe and that religion is under attack in America” (“The Truth About Church Shootings,” November 10, 2017).

To read more of this post, go to the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog on the CARD website, at

Why Is It So Difficult to Engage in a Sacred (or Even a Civil) Conversation on Race? Racism, Class, and the Psychological Wage of Whiteness

This post was originally published on the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog, on the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) website on April 16, 2018

In 1935, W. E. B. Du Bois coined the expression, “the psychological wage of whiteness” to refer to “the sense of entitlement” felt by rural and working-class Whites in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America. As University of Utah political scientist Ella Myers characterized Du Bois’s argument, “whiteness serve[d] as a ‘public and psychological wage,’ delivering to poor whites a valuable social status derived from their classification as ‘not-black.’ Du Bois’s account of compensatory whiteness” explained how exploitive owners and bosses, functioning [in a climate of] “racial capitalism,” appeased their white workers by assuring them that despite their destitution and misery, at least they were not black (W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward the History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 [New York: Harcourt Brace, 1935], and Ella Myers, “Beyond the Wages of Whiteness: Du Bois on the Irrationality of Antiblack Racism,” Items: Insights from the Social Sciences, The Social Science Research Council, March 21, 2017).

I thought of Du Bois’s “psychological wage of whiteness” after reading J. D. Vance’s poignant and revealing autobiography, Hillbilly Elegy, which chronicles his upbringing in Appalachian Kentucky and Ohio.

“I may be white,” Vance writes, “but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with millions of working-class white Americans” who live in and near the Appalachian Mountains. For hill people, “poverty is the family tradition.” We “do not like outsiders or people who look, act, or talk different[ly] from us.” Appalachian religion is heavy on emotion but light on helping impoverished children do well in school. Vance’s people react to adversity “in the worst way possible. From low social mobility to poverty to divorce and drug addiction,” this region is “a hub of misery” (pp. 3-4, 7).

What Vance disliked most about his childhood was “the revolving door of father figures. I hated how often [Mom’s] boyfriends would [abandon us] just as I’d begun to like them. Caught between various dad candidates, I never learned how a man should treat a woman. I learned little [of] what masculinity required of me” other than “getting drunk, and yelling at and hitting women” (pp. 88-89).

Today, many rural and working-class Whites live in Vance’s “irrational world: We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs,” financed by “high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for spending money, and declare bankruptcy, leaving them full of garbage. We [don’t] work when we should be looking for jobs”—or “we’ll get a job but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness, or stealing merchandise, or [drinking], or taking five thirty-minute restroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work” but make excuses “for why we’re not working” (pp. 146-147).

Family communication often takes the form of yelling. “At least one family member uses drugs.” Under stress, “we [physically assault] each other” in full view of other family members. “The neighbors call the police to stop the drama” and “our kids go to foster care.” Parents yell at their kids for performing poorly in school, “but never give them the tools—like peace and quiet at home—to succeed.” The elementary and high school students Vance recalls did not work hard, and were not challenged by their teachers. Most did not go to college. Many dropped out. “Failing [did not] bring shame or other bad consequences” (pp. 56, 147).

“American working-class families experience a [high] level of instability”—so their violent arguments are not surprising. When Vance’s sister was asked by her husband, “What’s wrong with you? Why do you fight with me like I’m your enemy?”—she replied: “In our home, it was difficult to tell friend from foe” (pp. 228-230).

I suspect that Vance’s story is foreign to many of us in United Church of Christ (UCC) congregations. It is not our lived experience, and we have no idea how chaotic and difficult life can be in some families.

Of course, it is a fool’s errand to stereotype white rural and working-class people; they are not all like the “hill people” in Vance’s autobiography just as they are not all tiki-torch-carrying White supremacists or gap-toothed “rednecks” living in trailer parks. Yet many are poor and under-educated; many feel economically “stuck” and find the American Dream unattainable; many blame the federal government for their problems; and many do not like people of color and religious minorities.

I come away from reading Hillbilly Elegy with two distinct and somewhat opposite impressions. First, Vance’s stories—and the problems that he writes about—are not unique to Appalachia or to white people; rather, they have to do with being poor. Spousal abandonment, bitter family conflicts, opioid addiction and alcoholism, unstable living conditions, unemployment, under-resourced schools, and unmotivated students are common maladies in poor rural and working-class communities.

Second, while these stories of social decay and deprivation have little to do with race, they have everything to do with racism and the psychological wage of whiteness . . . .

To read more of this post, go to the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog on the CARD website, at

Five Things I Think I Think about Committees on Ministry (COMs)

This post was originally published on the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog, on the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) website on January 22, 2018

After serving for nine non-consecutive years and counting on the Susquehanna Associations (New York Conference’s) Committee on Authorized Ministry, I have arrived at some speculative conclusions and definitive conjectures about the work that we and other Committees on Ministry (CoMs) do, on behalf of the United Church of Christ (UCC).

You know about CoMs. They are the “workhorses” of UCC Associations; as such, they are as busy and important as (if not moreso than) any other Association or Conference board or committee. CoMs support the authorized ministers of their Associations. They license lay ministers for sacramental ministry; they direct the training and preparation of ministerial candidates (known as Members in Discernment, or MIDs);  and they recommend qualified candidates for ordination. CoMs organize ecclesiastical councils and ordination services. They look after ministers’ continuing education, required training, and “standing.”  CoMs meet with non-UCC ministers who seek UCC affiliation;  they interview authorized ministers who are newly arrived in an Association, and/or newly-called by Association churches;  they install ministers; and they assist ministers when they become embroiled in conflict with their parishioners. Indeed, many a Conference Minister has remarked that while there are no bishops in our denominational polity, if any UCC persons or entities do the work of bishops, it’s the CoMs—because they guide, facilitate, and “authorize” ministry and ministers’ careers.

So here are five things I think I think about CoMs:

1.  I think that CoMs (and Mainline Protestant denominations) do too many things. Read that paragraph again (above) that describes all the things that CoMs do. It’s an exhausting list—and we can well wonder if CoMs can do all those things thoroughly and well! Even so, we would be hard pressed to say which of these traditional tasks can or should be eliminated.  Overwork—and perhaps over-functioning—are significant dilemmas for the Mainline Church.  Many denominations today have all the earmarks of overgrown, aged bull moose, lumbering along as best they can. Their racks are so awkward and heavy that they would break their necks if they had to change course or respond nimbly to a threat.  Meanwhile, agile, energetic, and young, postmodern congregations (“Church 3.0” gatherings, in UCC General Minister and President John Dorhauer’s parlance) and Millennial ministers are like carefree field mice, scampering and zig-zagging beneath and in between the legs of the giant ossified creatures.

2.  I think that American Mainline Protestant denominations are rapidly decentralizing. We are living during a time of accelerated change—and the future is moving past unwieldy denominational structures and rigid rules, requirements, and traditions about ministerial authorization, church polity, and doctrinal faithfulness.  As that happens, the influence of seminaries and religious organizations is diminishing; meanwhile, individuals, small groups, and local congregations are being empowered.

Denominational leaders don’t quite know what to make of this decentralizing phenomenon. Thus, . . .

To read more of this post, go to the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog on the CARD website, at

On Recognizing the Church Even When It No Longer Looks, Sounds, Worships, or Acts Like the Church We’ve Known

This post was originally published on the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog, on the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) website on December 11, 2017

In a provocative September 2017 article, church consultant Sarai Rice of the Congregational Consulting Group asked if a church that doesn’t look, sound, worship, or act like a church—or at least, the way most of us assume a church should look, sound, worship, and act—is really a church.  This question, of course, is fraught with inherent bias and circular reasoning;  as Rice herself noted, whenever it is asked, it is usually worded in a way “that anticipates a negative response” (Sarai Rice, “But Is It Still A Church?,” Congregational Consulting Group, September 11, 2017.)

In all likelihood, those who ask this question are not guided by pernicious motives, or trying to be hypercritical. In the United Church of Christ, Committees on Ministry and Conference staff may ask, “Is it really a church?” if they are flummoxed by the diversity of ministries and congregations they oversee.

Then again, asking, “Is it really a church?” may be about resisting change and innovation in a congregation’s worship and ministry;  it may be saying, “We’ve never done it that way before—so change back, and do it the traditional way!!!”

So Rice asked: “Is a congregation a church if it has no pastor and no intention of acquiring one, only different ‘pulpit supply’ preachers each week, with [uneven] preaching skill[s and] theological knowledge?”

“What if no dollars are being spent on [mission, or outreach, or on] anything other than the building and the weekly preachers?”

“If all that’s left” are eight people who gather every other Sunday “to sit and chat, is it still a church?”

Some of us might say these are not real churches. But as church scholars, consultants, and denominational officials remind us, the church is changing and rebirthing itself, phoenix-like, in ways we may not understand.  In his 2015 book, Beyond Resistance, UCC General Minister and President John Dorhauer describes various iterations of “Church 3.0” that meet on farms, in yoga studios, in bowling alleys, in homes, and in re-purposed church buildings, and are “pastored” by women and men who don’t have, and don’t care about having, any formal theological education or ecclesiastical authorization, and who combine elements of Roman Catholic mysticism, Evangelical piety, Buddhist chanting, Islamic dietary law, Hindu rituals, Native American shamanism, and/or Druidry in their celebrations.

Journalist G. Jeffrey MacDonald tells the story of Simple Church, a new church in Grafton, Massachusetts, in which “congregants gather for a sacred meal every Thursday evening, the table conversation serves as the sermon, and freshly baked bread provides nourishment, communion,” and a steady revenue stream. “There is no weekly bulletin,” and participants “need not profess any confession or statement of faith. Nor are they expected to be members of solely one church; many also belong to [more traditional] churches.”

In light of such manifestations of Church 3.0, I believe that the important question we must ask is not, “Is it really a church?” but rather, do traditional churches—the churches of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—work anymore? As David L. Odom, the Executive Director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School queried, “what do we do when the ways we [worship and do church] bring us comfort but no one outside the church”—not even our children and grandchildren—“is paying attention” (Dave Odom, “Name Your Mission, Develop Strategies and Then Evaluate Impact,” Faith & Leadership, September 5, 2017)?

To read more of this post, go to the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog on the CARD website, at

Fake News, The Church, and the Complicated Usefulness of Facebook

This post was originally published on the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog, on the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) website on November 20, 2017

So, I’m not on Facebook, but several of my congregants are—and over the years some of them would e-mail me these little stories, jokes, and “factoids.”  Many of these e-mails were neither funny nor factual. Some were patriotic or religious in a schmaltzy-superstitious way. Many were racist, homophobic, misogynistic, and/or Islamophobic. Many were conspiratorial. Many attacked President Obama. All of them had been copied and re-copied—probably off of Facebook—and sent and re-sent, until, finally, they made their way into my inbox.  I deleted them as soon as they came in.

I don’t receive those e-mails anymore—perhaps because Barack Obama is no longer President;  or maybe because my congregants figured out that I’m a liberal and stopped sending them. But after almost forty years of ordained ministry, I have learned something about how “fake news” can spread in a nation and in a faith community.

The term, “fake news” has gained notoriety in American journalism, politics, and pop culture over the past couple years, largely because President Trump uses it repeatedly to accuse the news media of lying or distorting the truth—but also because, as Time editor Nancy Gibbs notes, the President himself “says a great many things that are demonstrably false” (“When a President Can’t Be Taken at His Word,” Time, April 3, 2017, p. 5).

Writer and New York Times book reviewer Hanna Rosin notes that Americans’ addiction to “fake news” and “alternative facts are not momentary perversions but are [deep-rooted] habits baked into our DNA.”  From the earliest days of our history, we have given ourselves over to “florid, collective delusion[s].”  Recall our Thanksgiving mythology concerning the gentle Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock—they were actually “Puritan zealots” who “vowed to hang any Quaker or Catholic they found” in America.  Or think of the “mystic visionaries” of the 1700s—who insisted “that they didn’t have to study any book or old English theologian to know what to think, that whatever they felt to be true was true.”  Or consider the “explosion” of hucksters and hucksterism that took America by storm in the 1800s—like P. T. Barnum, who boasted that “nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public,” and “William Cody, [who] toured the country playing Buffalo Bill, fake-scalping actors playing Cheyenne warrior chiefs, and then actually scalping and killing real Cheyenne warrior chiefs” (“Fake News: It’s as American as George Washington’s Cherry Tree” [A Review of Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History (New York: Random House, 2017)], New York Times, September 5, 2017).

For radio talk show host Kurt Andersen, Americans’ “promiscuous devotion to the untrue” is directly related to their faith in God and their belief in the Bible.  Americans believe in all sorts of things—“telepathy, ghosts, angels, and demons;  that the Genesis creation [story] is the word of God;”  that “heaven [and] God exis[t];  that global warming is a hoax;  that the pharmaceutical industry has hidden evidence of natural cancer cures;  that extraterrestrials have visited Earth; that vaccines cause autism;  that [President Obama] was (or is?) the anti-Christ;”  that the “government adds mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals;” and that “U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.” 

To read more of this post, go to the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog on the CARD website, at

The United Church of Christ in an Undemocratic America

This post was originally published on the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog, on the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) website on September 25, 2017

The violence in Charlottesville, and President Trump’s subsequent statements attributing blame “on both sides,” left Americans reeling and asking difficult questions: Where did these Neo-Nazi hoodlums come from, and how can we get rid of them? What will it take for racism and racial violence to end in America? What will it take to bridge the deep cultural, economic and political chasms that separate urban people from rural people, the poor from the wealthy, and Red America from Blue America? Our xenophobia—our hatred of people who do not look or think like us—is dissolving the mortar that has held the bricks of our society together. The American Dream and democracy are up for grabs.

Up to now, most of the denominational officials, bloggers, consultants, and experts who have written about the future of the American Church have focused on institutional decline. They have written about Millennials dropping out of church, and they told us that there’s no going back to the “golden era” of the 1950s. They have speculated about how failing churches can “die well,” and they have pondered what comes next—house churches, virtual (online) churches, worshiping groups that meet in bowling alleys, or something else.

But what if the future of the American Church is different from how we bloggers, consultants and experts envision it? What if the Neo-Nazis and racists win? What would it mean, for the United States and the Church, if our democratic institutions, and American democracy itself, collapsed or were subsumed under some kind of authoritarian leadership and government?

That possibility is not as far-fetched as you might think. Fascist ideas and movements have been “quite popular in America” in the past, notes University of Toronto political scientist Seva Gunitsky. In the 1930s, the appeal of anti-democratic sentiments “extended far beyond the fringe, reaching prominent citizens such as Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh.” Lindbergh and his wife admired totalitarian government, calling it, “‘the wave of the future’ and [a] ‘good conception of humanity.’” And Father Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest and apologist for European fascism, enjoyed a large national radio audience (Seva Gunitsky, “These Are the Three Reasons Fascism Spread in 1930s America—and Might Spread Again Today,” Washington Post, August 12, 2017).

More recently, political scientists Yascha Mounk of Harvard University and Roberto Stefan Foa of the University of Melbourne have challenged the theory of “democratic consolidation, [a] bedrock assumption that once a country becomes a liberal democracy [with] a robust civil society” and a middle class, “it will stay that way.” Their research suggests instead that a process of “deconsolidation [is destroying] liberal democracies. [In] numerous countries, including the United States, the percentage of people who say it is ‘essential’ to live in a democracy has plummeted.” 

To read more of this post, go to the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog on the CARD website, at

Is Autonomy Turning UCC Authorized Ministers and Churchgoers into Turtles?

This post was originally published on the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog, on the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) website on August 14, 2017

After listening to endless media debates over fake news and alternative facts, Russian intrigues in our politics and elections, and how angry and divided America has become, I thought about the social atomization in our communities, and how so many churches and Christian people are cut off from one another. Then I thought briefly about the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation which we have been celebrating this year, and about Martin Luther’s courageous devotion to truth, and his principled stand against religious legalism and corruption. But mostly, I thought about Harvard University political scientist Robert D. Putnam’s essay, “Bowling Alone:  America’s Declining Social Capital” (Journal of Democracy 6:1, January 1995, pp. 65-78).

In his essay, Putnam argues that Americans’ level of “civic engagement” and “the vibrancy of American civil society ha[ve] declined notably [in recent] decades” (“Bowling Alone,” 1995, p. 65).

Trust in public institutions has collapsed, Putnam explains. “In the 1950s and 1960s, 75 percent of Americans said that they trusted their government to do the right thing.” Today, only 19 percent say they do (Putnam, interviewed by Russ Edgerton, American Association for Higher Education, 1995).

Putnam is not simply entertaining nostalgia for a bygone era when he says this. “School performance, public health, crime rates, race relations, community development, teen suicide, economic productivity, even simple human happiness—all are demonstrably affected by how (and whether) we connect with our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers” (“Lonely in America” [Putnam interviewed by Sage Stossel], The Atlantic, September 21, 2000).

In the past, we Americans were not as isolated from one another as we are now. “When Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, it was [our] propensity for civic association”—our “social capital”—“that impressed him as the key to mak[ing American] democracy work.” If a neighbor’s barn burned down, the entire community came together to help rebuild it (“Bowling Alone,” 1995, pp. 65-66).

For Putnam, social capital is crucial. This term “refers to [the] networks, norms, and trust that facilitate cooperation for mutual benefit.” It encompasses our “connections [to] our friends, neighbors, community, and institutions.” Indeed, “life [is much] easier in a community blessed with substantial social capital,” Putnam argues—but social capital is in short supply in America today (“Does Diversity Really Work?” [Putnam, interviewed by Michel Martin], National Public Radio, August 15, 2007, and “Bowling Alone,” 1995, p. 67).

Over several decades, Putnam has noted fundamental shifts in the United States, in:

Political Engagement.  Since “the 1960s, voter turnout [has declined] by nearly a quarter. The number of Americans who report [having] ‘attended a public meeting on town or school affairs in the past year’ has fallen by [over] a third.”  We are not reading or watching the news the way we used to, and our “direct engagement in politics and government has [deteriorated] over the last generation,” despite our relatively high levels of education (“Bowling Alone,” 1995, pp. 68-69).

To read more of this post, go to the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog on the CARD website, at

Homesteading: What Does It Mean When UCC Authorized Ministers Don’t Move?

This post was originally published on the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog, on the UCC’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) website on June 12, 2017.

According to George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, Americans are not relocating from one part of the country to another, the way they used to. Increasingly, they are staying put (“The Unseen Threat to America: We Don’t Leave Our Hometowns,”, February 2017).

“Americans [imagine] themselves as great movers” and migrators, Cowen explains—and indeed, they were, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “People move[d] for better jobs, marriages, a different climate, new social networks, or just to shake things up.” But since the 1980s, “long-distance moves have declined for all groups: homeowners, renters, dual-income couples”—and the well-educated. Indeed, “interstate migration has fallen 51 percent below its 1948–1971 average. Moving within a state fell 31 percent. [And] moving within a [single] county fell 38 percent. Th[e]se are steep drops.”

Cowen attributes “the decline in residential moving [to] the growth of occupational licensure,” increasing cultural and economic homogeneity throughout the United States, and a reduction in “job-switching.” Many workers today are staying in jobs that are tolerable, even if they are not ideal, he notes. “Poverty and low incomes have flipped, from being reasons to move”—to becoming “reasons not to move. Those who most need to move are, on average, the least likely” to do so.

This trend is evident in the American Protestant Mainline Church. Historically, authorized ministry was a peripatetic vocation; parish ministers relocated often—and some still do. Barna Group research conducted in 2009 reveals that the average tenure of mainline pastors in their churches is only four years (“Report Examines the State of Mainline Protestant Churches,” Barna Group, December 7, 2009). Many of these pastors move hundreds of miles every time they rotate into or out of a church.

But there are indications that more and more authorized ministers are staying put. Indeed, there is an important clergy analogue to Cowen’s observation that workers are hanging on to jobs that are tolerable, even if they are not ideal: United Church of Christ (UCC) General Minister and President John Dorhauer writes that he “now advise[s] clergy not to even think about looking for another church if they are [currently] in one that is paying them a living wage with benefits” (Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World [Chicago: Exploration Press, 2015], p. 51).

Ministers are not moving—in large part, because their partners and spouses work outside the home today (they didn’t, at least not as much, a couple of generations back), and because pastors’ family members now have networks of friendship and community that they don’t want to give up. In addition, ministers are buying their own homes—most do not want to live in a parsonage, and they do not want to have to sell, move, and buy a new house every four years. Indeed, clergy are reacting negatively to the tumbleweed existence of their predecessors in ministry; they want to grow roots in a particular geographic location. Then too, “homesteading”—residential permanence—works for many ministers.

To read more of this post, go to the Vital Signs & Statistics Blog on the CARD website, at