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

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Chris Xenakis

Chris Xenakis is a pastor, an adjunct lecturer in political science, an old school black and white photographer, and a sometime amateur actor.