Nick Kristof Could Be Writing About the United Church of Christ

Over the last few weeks, Nick Kristof has written at least twice in the New York Times about the lack of ideological diversity on college and university campuses in the United States. Most colleges and universities seem to place diversity high on their list of values for the academy, but diversity seems only to involve race, class, ethnicity, some (but not all) religions, gender and sexuality. Ideological diversity is woefully lacking.

We know this all too well in our own household, as my husband is one of only a very small number of Republicans among the faculty at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and may be the only one to be “out” as a Republican. I remember when we first moved to the Colby community. There were a few people who were obviously standoffish with me, and with Joe. And, then after we had lived here for a little while and word got out that I did not share my husband’s political views, most of those people warmed up to me immediately, although they admitted that they couldn’t understand how any good Democrat could be married to a Republican. The situation has remained largely the same over the years.

In the United Church of Christ, there’s a similar situation. The denomination talks a great deal about “welcome” and “diversity,” that these are significant values, sacred even. Dig a little deeper, though, and it’s all too clear that welcome and diversity have limits. A visit to the UCC webpage offers a line-up of liberal (sometimes extremely liberal) causes and calls to action.

In and of itself, the UCC’s consistent liberal stance is not necessarily a problem. Churches and denominations are involved in all sorts of issues that pertain to the human condition—the good, the bad and the ugly (and in at least some instances, thank goodness for that).  And, many denominations and churches are, more or less, consistent in how their theology shapes their approach to situations and circumstances of how we humans live, govern ourselves, etc.

The problem for the United Church of Christ is its hypocrisy in upholding consistently liberal leanings, while also claiming to be a denomination of “extravagant welcome” to all. In many a UCC church (as well as on the denomination webpage) you’ll see and/or hear the refrain “no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

At the national level, though, that welcome actually goes only so far. More conservative voices are clearly missing.  As Nick Kristof has shared, diversity of ideology is important. When people surround themselves only with others with whom they agree, their gatherings become echo chambers. And, more than that, there is a tendency to stray to an unacknowledged liberal arrogance, where one side is considered “right,” and the other side not just wrong, but stupid.

In the United Church of Christ, a denomination with strictly congregational polity (local churches may follow, or not follow, the lead of the national body, as they themselves feel the call of the Spirit), diversity can be found at the local church level—at least, in the churches I’ve served. It’s certainly true at Old South. We have staunch Democrats, a few staunch Republicans, and an array of strong (and not so strong) independents (in Maine, there’s a value in independence). Somehow, we are all able to share this one church. And more than that, many find the diversity of ideology an attractive quality of the congregation. They like the exchange of ideas and have found ways of having thoughtful and respectful, if animated and heated at times, conversations with people with whom they disagree. Everyone benefits. The community is strengthened.

As I’ve found in my own house, diversity of ideology can be difficult and frustrating, but it also offers an opportunity for reflection and development of ideas. I can’t just take a side on an issue without knowing why I’m doing so. The same is true for my husband, and our children.

The national setting of United Church of Christ would do well to follow the lead of some of these local churches where ideological diversity is lived out. While it means that there are places where no strong “call to action” may be discerned and employed, I suspect that we may find a newer and deeper sense of what it means to be God’s people in the world. There’s more to witnessing than taking a political side, after all.  There’s more to welcoming than trying to force people to adopt certain views, or to marginalize those who don’t tow the ideological line.

To be truly welcoming is to appreciate all sorts of diversity, not just the kinds of diversity that make us feel good.   If God is still speaking, as the UCC slogan goes, then God is probably not solely speaking in support of liberal causes.  God may very well be speaking in ways that are hard to hear, and understand.  Leaders of the denomination should recognize this and should live, and work, more conscientiously by it.

Extravagant welcome should mean what it says.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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