Posted on May 7, 2008

Examining the United Church of Christ

Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom, Real Clear Politics, May 6, 2008

In his recent incendiary remarks, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. claimed that criticism of his views is nothing less “an attack on the black church launched by people who know nothing about the African-American religious tradition.” {snip}

Happily, Chicago’s Trinity Church is an outlier in that regard. Most black churchgoers belong to congregations that are overwhelmingly African-American and are affiliated with one of the historically black religious denominations such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) or the National Baptist Convention. Rev. Wright’s Trinity Church, on the other hand, is a predominantly black branch of a white denomination that is not part of “the African-American religious tradition.” The United Church of Christ (known until 1957 as the Congregational Church) has a little over a million members; a mere 4 percent of them are black. Fewer than 50,000 blacks in the entire nation worship at a UCC church.

In contrast, 98 percent of the National Baptist Convention’s 4 million members are African Americans. Add in black Methodists and Pentecostals, as well as other black Baptists, and the total comes to more than 14 million members of an organized, predominantly African-American church. These churches include a substantial majority of all black adults today. In terms of sheer demographic weight, they clearly represent the “African-American religious tradition”—as Rev. Wright’s branch of a overwhelmingly white denomination does not.


Some of these churches are led by figures like Rev. Wright, an adherent of what is called black liberation theology, which rejects racial integration and stresses the experience of black bondage. But not many. C. Eric Lincoln’s mid-1980s survey of the leaders of 2,150 black churches found that two-thirds of them said they had not been influenced by “any of the authors and thinkers of black liberation theology.” Indeed, 63 percent did not believe that the black church had “a different mission from the white church.” A third did not even think it was “important have black figures in [their] Sunday school literature.”

This integrationist vision is at one with the values of most Americans. A glance at the National Baptist Convention and the AME web sites is revealing. They feature what one might expect of any religious denomination—a statement of their creeds, the tenets of the theology and worship practices that distinguish their faith from others. There is almost no indication that these churches are predominantly African American. The closest they come to mentioning race is the AME’s statement that its basic beliefs do not “differ from what all Methodists believe.” The church, we learn, separated from the main Methodist body two centuries ago because of “man’s intolerance of his fellow man, based on the color of his skin.”

The web sites of Rev. Wright’s Trinity Church and the national body to which it belong stand in shocking contrast. {snip}

It is no accident that Rev. Wright’s Trinity Church is affiliated with the highly progressive United Church of Christ. The UCC had its first Jeremiah Wright back in the 1960s, when it tolerated the activities of Rev. Albert Cleage of Detroit, a pioneer preacher of the gospel of Black Power. Cleage was determined to “dehonkify” Jesus. Jesus was black, he insisted, and a black revolutionary. {snip}

The web site of the UCC currently features plans for a May 18 “sacred conversation on race” in which white participants will need to acknowledge “the sins” of their “ancestors” and their own “failures to confront racism.” Non-whites who have “suffered the ravages of racism” will be expected only to keep their “rightful indignation” and their “temptation to despair” under control. The conversation is desperately needed, we are told, because “the quality of life for the majority of racial and ethnic people is worse today in many ways than it was during the 1960s”—a ludicrous claim.

Clearly, Rev. Wright does not speak for mainstream black churches—and he has done them a gross disservice by claiming to do so. {snip}