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.” Meanwhile, “support for autocratic alternatives is rising. The share of Americans who say that army rule would be a ‘good’ thing had risen to 1 in 6 in 2014, compared with 1 in 16 in 1995.” These trends are “strong[est] among young people” (Amanda Taub, “How Stable Are Democracies? ‘Warning Signs Are Flashing Red,’” New York Times, November 29, 2016).
And recent polling suggests that “about half of Republicans would support postponing the 2020 presidential election if President Trump proposed” such a delay. This means, polling analysts noted, “that a substantial number of Republicans are amenable to flagrant violations of democratic norms” (Ariel Malka and Yphtach Lelkes, “In a New Poll, Half of Republicans Say They Would Support Postponing the 2020 Election if Trump Proposed It,” Washington Post, August 10, 2017).
What does all this mean for the United States and for United Church of Christ (UCC) congregations?
An undemocratic America would likely be a police state. In such an America, many more unarmed people of color could get shot by white police officers. But ironically, violent confrontations like the one in Charlottesville would be rare, because dissent and protest marches would likely be declared illegal. A government-sanctioned policy of racial and ethnic segregation would ensure that non-white people were denied equal rights and treatment.
An undemocratic America would employ God, the Bible, and the Church to serve propagandistic ends. In such an America, the president and other political leaders could hold frequent televised “national prayer breakfasts,” and similar events, in which they would wax eloquently about their religious faith and their utter reliance on divine guidance. In such an America, some churches would be co-opted into supporting the leaders and party in power—just as some German churches found it convenient to embrace the Nazis and their horrific policies in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
An undemocratic America would likely be hyper-patriotic. In such an America, many traditional hallmarks of civil religion—like the singing of the Star Spangled Banner and other patriotic songs during Sunday worship services, and the display of the American flag in church sanctuaries—would receive official sanction. In addition, pastors could be subjected to various tests of political loyalty, and pressured to display patriotic symbols, flags, or photographs of political leaders prominently in their church buildings.
An undemocratic America would value conformity, and punish dissent and diversity. In such an America, people and churches that support the leader and party in power, would thrive. Those that don’t would be scrutinized, marginalized, and punished.
In an undemocratic America, people and churches will survive by hunkering down. They will parrot the official ideology, eke out a quiet existence, mind their own business, and avoid exercising their “prophetic voice.” An undemocratic America will be listening and watching. In such an America, individuals and churches will have little autonomy and no right to privacy. The right of people to associate freely—to gather, formally or informally in church buildings, homes, movie theaters, or online for worship—may be restricted. Their e-mails may be read; their phone conversations may be monitored; and even the traditional privileged communication of the pastor-penitent relationship—may be circumscribed or suspended.
In an undemocratic America, multiculturalism and racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity will be discouraged. Churches may be penalized for supporting progressive ideas and movements. UCC congregations may be pressured to “roll back” their Open and Affirming covenants, and terminate their support of such organizations as Planned Parenthood and Black Lives Matter.
I realize that this is a dour assessment of where America and the Church may be headed. The good news is that it won’t work. Eventually, we will all be forced to realize that stern authoritarian leaders and government are not what we need. Equally, we will realize that America is no longer a White, male-dominated, heteronormative society, and that there is no going back to the 1950s, let alone to some neo-fascist utopia loosely modeled on the German experience in the 1930s and 1940s.
In the final analysis, I admire democracy and the United Church of Christ for many of the same reasons—because, at their best, they are unabashed in their celebration of cultural, racial, ethnic, and political diversity, and they inspire maximal freedom of thought, speech, and conduct. They tell us that we are all accepted and valued just the way we are—whoever we are. And I worry greatly that both may be on the wane.
Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.