What is the future of multiculturalism and American diversity now that Barack Obama is no longer President? And what is the future of the United Church of Christ (UCC) as a multiracial and multicultural church?
As I write these words, it has been two-and-a-half years since Donald J. Trump came down that gilded escalator in Trump Tower and announced his unlikely presidential campaign. And it has been a year since our new President raised his right hand before Chief Justice John Roberts and grasped the reins of American power. Since then, the new Administration has not forestalled demographic change; if anything, social transformations seems to have accelerated in the United States.
One of the most profound ways in which the Trump presidency is different from the preceding Barack Obama Administration has to do with how well
or poorly the new Administration acknowledges and honors the multiculturalism that exists in the United States, and how it supports and protects America’s racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual/gender diversity. Many of us recall Trump’s complaint, issued during a 2016 campaign rally, that he had no time for political correctness and multiculturalism. Yet if the new Administration is to succeed, it must be responsive to the problems, needs, and aspirations of all of the American people—including African-Americans, Latinos, Muslim-Americans, and immigrants.
The UCC has a unique vantage point from which to observe both the Trump presidency and America’s ongoing struggle with race relations and multiculturalism. As a multiracial, multicultural Church, our denomination has an abiding interest in racial justice, and a strong concern for traditionally-marginalized subgroups in America, including the LGBTQ community, women, ethnic, racial, and religious minorities, and the disabled. But as “a denomination of smaller congregations” (according to Center for Analytics, Research and Data statistics, “nearly half of all UCC congregations have 50 or fewer people in worship attendance each week, and 8 in 10 congregations have 100 or fewer people in weekly worship”), and as a diverse denomination (our polity defines us as diverse—rather than liberal!), some of our congregants are conservative theologically and culturally, and some voted for President Trump, and some (but hopefully not many) think that white supremacists and the “Alt-Right” have interesting things to say.
Indeed, sometimes our cultural and theological diversity puts National Church staff, Conference Ministers, and pastors—who are progressive, and committed to a multiracial, multicultural, open and affirming, socially-just Church—at cross purposes with the congregations and Associations they serve.
There are at least two reasons why Americans—including UCC people—need to come to terms with multiculturalism, and learn to appreciate America’s rich socio-cultural diversity. The first is self-interest.
The U.S. population is changing demographically. It is becoming less white, less European, and more global in appearance and outlook. This fact is incontrovertible; our nation has evolved over the past 242 years, from its origins as a Eurocentric, patriarchal, heteronormative, and Christian hegemonic culture to what it is today—a country that reflects the racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity that is evident throughout the world (Robert P. Jones, Daniel Lombroso, and Caitlin Cadieux, “We’ve Reached the End of White Christian America” , The Atlantic, October 13, 2016). The 2016 election did not change these demographics or lessen their significance; nor did it mark a White Christian resurgence—because, the numbers aren’t there for that to happen. America is no longer a majority White Christian country.
Admittedly, “nonwhites still punch below their weight on Election Day,” says Paul Taylor and the Pew Research Center: “Many are too young to vote, many aren’t citizens, many aren’t politically engaged, [and many are] barred from voting [by] restrictive I.D. laws. [Even so,] over time, a mix of demographic and behavioral change is likely to shrink these deficits. The Census Bureau projects that nonwhites will become the [U.S.] majority population in 2043, and will have closed the [electoral] gap” (The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown [New York: Public Affairs, 2014], p. 2).
We live in a new America. As I tell my students at SUNY-Cortland, this is no longer your grandparents’ America; White nostalgia is not going to bring the 1950s back, and only those who can celebrate the diversity of this new America will be able to survive, let alone thrive, in it. Unless you plan on being a hermit for the rest of your life, working and living in complete isolation from others, we will likely be meeting and interacting with people who look, talk, worship, and love differently than you, every day, for the rest of your life.
A second reason why we need to celebrate our multiculturalism, as well as the socio-cultural diversity that defines America, has to do with the general interest.
The general interest can be traced back to the writings of Plato and Aristotle, who argued that the purpose of politics is to enable people to live the good life. The ancient philosophers admired the Greek city-state of Athens, but they criticized the Athenian rival, Sparta, in large part because Sparta was one-dimensional—it was little more than a militarized national security state. Whereas Athenian citizens enjoyed and taught their children music, art, gymnastics, literature, politics, and various trades, the Spartans focused only on one thing: soldiering. Militarism was their way of life. Indeed, Plato’s and Aristotle’s ultimate condemnation of Sparta was that despite the military prowess and fighting spirit of her soldiers, and despite Sparta’s impressive “superpower” status, for all of those things, Sparta had lost the good life.
The good life is the ancient idea that life should be about more than making money, getting ahead, fighting wars, and defeating enemies. It is the idea of civility, decency, and looking out for one another. It is the idea of overcoming our prejudice and intolerance—our racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia.
Plato’s and Aristotle’s observations about Athens, Sparta, and the good life have direct bearing on U.S. culture and politics. America is—or should be—much more than the world’s preeminent military superpower and national security state. Our national focus should be on enhancing and guaranteeing the quality of life, living standards, happiness, and rights of all who live on American soil. And this requires coming to terms with multiculturalism and the diversity that defines America.
Analogously, the Christian church—and all world religions—are keenly involved in feeding, housing, and caring for the poor; in embracing the immigrant, the stranger, the marginalized and dispossessed; and in fighting social injustice, oppression, and discrimination. Most religions emphasize civility and respectful communication—and embody some version of the “golden rule”—the injunction to “do unto others as we would like them to do unto us.”
Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideas about the good life, and the teachings of Christianity and of other world religions, have influenced the natural rights tradition of political thinkers such as John Locke during the seventeenth century—and then inspired the American Founding Fathers in the eighteenth century, and the drafters of the United Nations (U.N.) Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the twentieth century.
Proclaimed as “a common standard of achievement for all people and nations” on December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration “se[t] out fundamental human rights to be universally protected” (“Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” United Nations). These rights can be summarized in terms of a single key idea: All human beings should be free and equal in dignity and rights, regardless of their race, ethnicity, sex, gender, religion, national or social origin, property, or other status—and should treat one another as brothers.
Collectively, these rights make the multiculturalism argument for us. They tell us in no uncertain terms that we must celebrate people as they are—not just the people of our country or church—but all people, in their magnificent diversity.
The United Church of Christ has taken the imperative of a multicultural and diverse America to heart. In 1985, the Fifteenth General Synod “call[ed] on UCC congregations to covenant as open and affirming,” and to “welcome lesbian, gay and bisexual people in the same spirit and manner” in which they welcome heterosexual members; to “address the needs and advocate the concerns of lesbian, gay and bisexual people in [congregations] and in society;” and to “adopt and implement policies of non-discrimination in hiring, promotion, membership, appointment, use of facility, provision of services, [and] funding.”
Eight years later, the 19th General Synod issued a pronouncement, “calling the [UCC] in all its settings to be a true multiracial and multicultural Church: to acknowledge and confess their sins of racism, to refrain from racial discrimination and bigotry, to confront indifference, ignorance and neglect, to act to stem the tide of racism in American society,” to “use an inclusive and equitable procedure for the recognition of calling, placement and standing of ministers, and to ensure equal access to employment in all [UCC] settings.”
These were historic and prophetic commitments by our Church, and they continue to speak to us and to challenge us in our day. But the work is not finished. As my wise friend, Susan Fast, reminds me, we cannot rest on the accomplishments of the past—nor can we become discouraged when progress seems slow. Because every generation has to be taught anew to fight racism, homophobia, sexism, and religious parochialism and bigotry.
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.