7-1 religion

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.

P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

7.1 (Winter 2007)

 

Religion and Politics

prae-16

 

Religion Against Itself: The Revolt of the Elite Church of Christ

Howard S. Schwartz

Howard S. Schwartz is the author of The Revolt of the Primitive.  He welcomes responses to this essay and may be reached at Oakland University (e-mail Schwartz@Oakland.Edu), where he is Professor of Organizational Behavior. 

Revolt of the Elites

     Appropriating the term revolt of the masses from José Ortega y Gasset, and then reversing its referent, the late Christopher Lasch introduced the concept of the revolt of the elites.

     Gassett’s subject was the man of the masses at the time of the Russian Revolution and the rise of fascism:

The mass man… had no use for obligations and no understanding of what they implied, “no feeling for [the] great historical duties.”  Instead he asserted the “rights of the commonplace.”  At once resentful and self-satisfied, he rejected “everything that is excellent, individual, qualified, and select.”  He was “incapable of submitting to direction of any kind.”  Lacking any comprehension of the fragility of civilization or the tragic character of history, he lived unthinkingly in the “assurance that tomorrow [the world] will be still richer, ampler, more perfect, as if it enjoyed a spontaneous, inexhaustible power of increase.”  He was concerned only with his own well-being and looked forward to a future of “limitless possibilities” and “complete freedom.”  (Lasch, 1995)

      The revolt of the masses, then, was a revolt against the idea of constraint, a revolt against obligation, and a revolt against the civilization within which these constraints and obligations were embedded and which they made possible.  Marxism and fascism, the ideologies of the time, were utopian ideologies.  They promised the ego ideal, “limitless possibilities” for the common people.  Under the circumstances, a revolt against constraint was not beyond comprehension.  Constraint and obligation, one could imagine, were only characteristics of the historical period, which would soon give way to something much more appealing.

     It was left to the elites of the time to uphold the values of civilization and the obligations that it imposed:

From Ortega’s point of view, one that was widely shared at the time, the value of cultural elites lay in their willingness to assume responsibility for the exacting standards without which civilization is impossible.  They lived in the service of demanding ideals.  “Nobility is defined by the demands it makes on us—by obligations, not by rights. 

But for Lasch, the relationship of the classes to the traditions of morality has been reversed.

    Once it was the “revolt of the masses” that was held to threaten social order and the civilizing traditions of Western culture.  In our time, however, the chief threat seems to come from those at the top of the social hierarchy, not the masses….

   [T]he masses have lost interest in revolution; their political instincts are demonstrably more conservative than those of their self-appointed spokesmen and would-be liberators.  It is the working and lower middle classes, after all, that favor limits on abortion, cling to the two-parent family as a source of stability in a turbulent world, resist experiments with “alternative lifestyles,” and harbor deep reservations about affirmative action and other ventures in large-scale social engineering…  They have a more highly developed sense of limits than their betters.  They understand, as their betters do not, that there are inherent limits on human control over the course of social development, over nature and the body, over the tragic elements in human life and history.

And, by contrast:

Today it is the elites,  however—those who control the international flow of money and information, preside over philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher learning, manage the instruments of cultural production and thus set the terms of public debate—that have lost faith in the values, or what remains of them, of the West.  For many people the very term “Western civilization” now calls to mind an organized system of domination designed to enforce conformity to bourgeois values and to keep the victims of patriarchal oppression—women, children, homosexuals, people of color—in a permanent state of subjection.

These elites, whom Lasch identifies with what Reich (following Daniel Bell) calls “symbolic analysts,”

are in revolt against “ Middle America ,” as they imagine it: a nation technologi­cally backward, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and com­placent, dull and dowdy. (p.6)

This revolt had a characteristic affect: 

It was, above all, however, the “deadly hatred of all that is not itself’ that characterized the mass mind, as Ortega described it.  Incapable of wonder or respect, the mass man was the “spoiled child of human history.”

And here again the place of the classes has been reversed:

Upper-middle-class liberals…  have mounted a crusade to sanitize American society: to create a “smoke-free environment,” to censor everything from pornography to “hate speech,” and at the same time, incongruously, to extend the range of personal choice in matters where most people feel the need of solid moral guidelines.  When confronted with resistance to these initiatives, they betray the venomous hatred that lies not far beneath the smiling face of upper-middle-class benevolence.  Opposition makes humanitarians forget the liberal virtues they claim to uphold.  They become petulant, self-righteous, intolerant.

And:

In the heat of political controversy, they find it impossible to conceal their contempt for those who stubbornly refuse to see the light—those who “just don’t get it,” in the self-satisfied jargon of political rectitude.   Simultaneously arrogant and insecure, the new elites, the professional classes in particular, regard the masses with mingled scorn and apprehension.

In sum:

In the United States , “ Middle America ”—a term that has both geographical and social implications—has come to symbolize everything that stands in the way of progress: “family values,” mindless patriotism, religious fundamentalism, racism, homophobia, retrograde views of women.  Middle Americans, as they appear to the makers of educated opinion, are hopelessly shabby, unfashionable, and provincial, ill informed about changes in taste or intellectual trends, addicted to trashy novels of romance and adventure, and stupefied by prolonged exposure to television.  They are at once absurd and vaguely menacing—not because they wish to overthrow the old order but precisely because their defense of it appears so deeply irrational that it expresses itself, at the higher reaches of its intensity, in fanatical religiosity, in a repressive sexuality that occasionally erupts into violence against women and gays, and in a patriotism that supports imperialist wars and a national ethic of aggressive masculinity.

     About the causes of this transformation, Lasch does not offer much.  He cites the decline of old money, with its roots in the community, and the rise in importance of success, which calls for the acceptance of a migratory way of life and an embrace of mobility.  The elite travel in their own circles these days; they are international, not national, and therefore their sense of being obligated to their countrymen is attenuated.  There is also the rise of meritocracy, which has provided this class with the illusion that it has earned its status on its own, and therefore owes nothing to those who have gone before.  Nor does it owe anything to those that will come, who will have to make it in their own time.  

The Function of Ideology

     Since Marx, it has become familiar to say that a ruling class creates an ideological superstructure that legitimates its dominant position in the economic base.  Within this ideology, the elite are worthy of their possession of the good; while those who have less, have less because they are less worthy.  From this standpoint, the characteristic beliefs of the current elite present a paradox.

     The problem is that, while the Marxist explanation may help us understand the elite’s detachment from, and even their contempt for, lesser mortals, it runs aground on the specifics of their beliefs.  The ideological items here are the familiar tropes of political correctness, which by all accounts is a product of the leftist politics of the sixties.  They do not proceed from an ideology that justifies privilege, but from one that excoriates privilege.  They take the side, not of those who have power and standing, but of those who, according to the ideology, have been deprived of them, and who have been deprived of them precisely by those who have the power and standing.

     Through their ideology, the elites as Marx recognized them were for themselves; their ideology buttressed their position.  By contrast, the elites that Lasch discusses are against themselves; their ideology undermines their position.  The revolt of the elites, in other words, appears to be a revolt against elites.

     This is so with regard to the economic position that Lasch sees as the prime mover here, but also regarding the racial, sexual, and sexual preference dimensions that are the overt content of the ideology; or at least that will be so if we assume that the elites in question are largely white, heterosexual, and male.  The ideology of elites would, one would think, celebrate their characteristics, not indict those who have these characteristics as oppressors.

     Another peculiarity here is that the elite ideology has an antagonistic dimension to it that is not generally present in class ideology.  In the Marxist analysis, the ruling class justifies its position, and maintains that it has a greater entitlement to the privileges of its position; but by the same token, it affirms the value of the lower classes within their diminished positions.  Indeed, the lower class acceptance of their position, which Marx calls “false consciousness,” buttresses the higher classes’ claims to theirs: this convenient concordance is easily parlayed into an affirmation of their goodness.  To be sure, with its sense of entitlement, an elite can become defensive and antagonistic toward what it considers to be threats to its standing.  Politically correct ideology, though, involves aspersions of moral badness from the outset, in the forms of racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on, without regard to any threats to its standing.  It is made out of antagonism.  We do not see here, in other words, a claim of entitlement for oneself with situational defensive antagonism when threatened.  A claim of entitlement is not put forth.  Rather, there is simply a moral program against others, which stands by itself.

      And who are these others?  Lasch says that they are “Middle Americans,” a term referring to their geographical location and class.  He also calls them “the masses,” and, more informatively, the working and lower-middle classes.  But this raises again a paradox, for if one assumes that the elite class sees itself as leading a group, the working and lower-middle classes are the group they are leading.  The elite’s status refers to that group; without it their elite status disappears.  Here again, the revolt of the elites appears to be a revolt against themselves.

     Altogether, then, Lasch leaves us with a problem, which is how to understand the relationship of this elite to its PC ideology.  It is an ideology of elite against elites; an ideology which stands by itself and does not relate to anything; an ideology against a group, but this is the group of which the elite are the leaders.

     What does this ideology mean, and why has this elite adopted it?

     The answer I will propose is that the PC ideology functions differently than does the classic ideology of an elite.  It does not justify the elite, but rather expresses its psychodynamic.  The task, then, is to understand the psychodynamics of this elite.  Lasch has identified it as the symbolic analysts, which he has also identified as the new ruling class of capitalism.  I agree with the first designation, but I believe the second needs some refinement.  The symbolic analysts have arisen not so much to dominate capitalism as to redefine it.  The ownership of capital, that is to say, no longer counts for very much.  What counts is the creation of meaning.  This suggests that the term “symbolic analysts” is a misnomer.  The new class does not so much analyze symbols as create them.

     The creation of symbols takes place across the full range of our economic activity.  One can see it easily in the “cultural production” that Lasch associates with the elites.  However, equal levels of creativity have transformed practices in areas one might think of as being constituent parts of the economic base, such as the “control of the international flow of money,” with which he also associates them.  For example, when Michael Milken reconceived the way financial markets function (Lewis, 1990) he was being as creative as any artist.  Or one can find creativity in a new idea of the way a computer’s motherboard relates to its processor, a reconsideration that can render the old way of thinking thoroughly obsolete almost overnight, and can turn the products of the old way into valueless junk.

     Creativity is the defining activity of the new economic order in much the same way that rationality is the defining activity of the old one.  To be sure, no economic activity in our time can exist without a degree of both of them, but their relative importance has shifted dramatically.

     What is important for our purpose is that creativity and rationality exist in a kind of tension.  Rationality works through established forms, but creativity creates new forms, which must destroy the old.  This tension is our issue.  If we want to look for the meaning of PC ideology, we must look at the psychodynamics of the tension between creativity and rationality.

     Psychoanalytically, it is the tension between the sphere of the mother, which Lacan calls the imaginary, and the sphere of the father, which he calls the symbolic.  The father brings understanding of the world as it has been wrought.  The mother is the muse.  She is the ear to whom the creative person speaks.

     Our developmental task with regard to the father is twofold.  First, we must subordinate ourselves to him, so that we may learn what he has to teach.  Then, having internalized what he has taught, we must separate from him as an individual and make our own way.  Our developmental task with regard to the mother is only to separate from her.  Subordinating ourselves to her is not a task at all.  Fusion with her is the baseline from which we start; it is the matrix out of which our individual identity comes into being.

     These developmental tasks are difficult, but each is difficult in its own way.  Subordination to the father is difficult because it feels like death—the sacrifice of our pristine individuality, which is experienced, to begin with, as exactly and entirely who we are.  Separation from the mother is simpler, though it is much more difficult because life seems perfect in her embrace.  Yet without that separation from mother, subordination to the father seems senseless, abusive, and intolerable; his very presence feels like an assault.  In this regard, development does not feel like a positive project but like a losing proposition, from which arises a tendency to reject it.  This rejection is what we call regression.

     There is another way of looking at this.  The father’s function is to make us independent of the father.  He teaches us what he knows, and when we have learned it, we do not need him any more.  We can rely on what we have learned and act independently based upon that knowledge, which is now a part of us.  The mother does not function to teach us independence.  Our relationship with her does not leave a precipitate of objective knowledge.  It is purely subjective.  Therefore, it cannot be relied upon in the same way.  James Baldwin speaks of the suicidal panic that a writer goes through after he has finished one book but has not gotten going on another.  He does not know whether there is another book in him, and he cannot know until he has written it.  The creative person is always dependent on the muse; and she may be there or she may not.

     This leads to a kind of primitive worship of the mother, which is the psychological substrate for the power of feminism and hence of the political correctness which represents its social program.

     Because of its dependence on the mother, and because of the felt necessity to reject the forms that the father has wrought, creativity has what we may call a regressive pull; regression is a felt and powerful temptation.  The rise of the symbolic analysts has, as a concomitant, a rise in the power of this regressive pull.  If we want to understand the ideology of the new elite, we must look at the dynamics of this temptation.

     I will explore these dynamics by looking at how they play out in the ideological expression of a specific elite.  The elite is the national governing structure of the United Church of Christ.  To explore the expression, we will consider a series of television commercials produced by the UCC and aired during 2004 and 2005.

Religion Against Itself

     On March 28, 2006 , the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the major TV networks had rejected an ad by the United Church of Christ, saying it violated their rules against controversial or religious advertising.  The article by Wyatt Buchanan, a Chronicle staff writer, says:

The 30-second commercial for the United Church of Christ will begin airing on cable networks and Spanish-language stations next week.  The ad, called “Ejector,” shows a gay couple, a single mother, a disabled man and others flying out of their pews as a wrinkled hand pushes a red button.  Text on the screen reads, “God doesn’t reject people.  Neither do we,” and a voiceover says, “The United Church of Christ.  No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.”  The church tried to run a similar ad in December 2004 in which bouncers outside a church stopped gay couples, racial minorities and others from entering.  The networks also rejected that ad.  (p. D12)

Both of the ads, which are available on the UCC website at http://www.stillspeaking.com/resources/indexvis.html, are well produced and slick, and end with images of happy and diverse groups of people, evidently representing what the UCC has to offer.

     Blogger and political psychologist John Ray, commenting on the article, has written:

A Leftist church (probably with a minute membership) was ostensibly trying to advertise itself but did so only by misrepresenting the great majority of Christian churches.  No follower of Christ rejects anyone from Christian services—any more than Christ rejected lost sheep—but some churches will endeavour to point the way to more biblical standards of behaviour.  Deceptive advertising is rightly banned and this ad was grossly deceptive and defamatory

     About one thing, Ray appears to be wrong.  The United Church of Christ cannot be said to have a minute membership.  Wikipedia says this about it: 

The United Church of Christ (UCC) is a mainline Protestant Christian denomination in the United States , generally considered within the Reformed tradition, and formed in 1957 by the merger of two denominations, the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches.  Currently, the United Church of Christ has approximately 1.3 million members and is composed of approximately 5,750 local congregations.

     On another matter, Ray is certainly correct.  The ads are defining the UCC as a church that differs from the others in that it does not reject people like gays.  This definition only makes sense if one believes that such rejection is the norm among Christian churches.  And in fact, on its website at http://www.ucc.org/index.php, the UCC declares, “… the ad acknowledges the rejection that many have experienced from organized religion.”

     But as Ray observes, Christian churches, followers of one who famously gathered social rejects around him, do not, as a general rule, reject people from services.  On the contrary, in a manner that almost anyone would regard as definitional, Christians believe that Christ, through his sacrifice, offers us redemption from sin, and that it is one of the main functions of the Christian church to extend that offer of redemption.  The result is that Christians characteristically deal with those they regard as sinners by offering salvation; attempting to bring the individual into the fold, not by expelling him.

     To be sure, there are matters which some would not consider sinful and others would.  Certain persons might well feel themselves rejected.  That will always be so, as long as one holds that anything is sinful.  But that there is sin is the very premise of Christianity.  Jesus did not die on the cross to abolish the category of sin; he died to redeem us from it.  And if Christians do not reject sin, even though they welcome the sinner as a person with a redeemable soul, it is hard to say how they can possibly be Christians.

     Yet the idea of Christians turning sinners away from services, absurd as it is, stands as nothing against the idea of Christians rejecting the disabled from services.  The idea that followers of Christ, who largely ground their faith in the belief that Jesus worked miracles in healing the sick, would reject disabled people from services because they are disabled is more than absurd; it is bizarre.

     But we must assume that the people who are behind the ads mean what they say.  After all, they define themselves through this idea.  It constitutes, by negation, who they are in their own minds.  They define their church as a refuge for people who have been rejected by “The Ejector,” and “The Bouncers.”  What is more, they believe that this sort of rejection is so common that they can build up their brand, so to speak, by appealing to its victims.

     Moreover, the concatenation of homosexuals, single mothers, racial minorities, and disabled people in the ads suggests that, in the mind of the UCC, the rejecting response of other Christians toward these groups grows out of the same impulse.  The attitude that other Christians are believed to hold toward disabled people, that is to say, is the same, though it may have a different object, as the attitude they hold toward single mothers, racial minorities, and homosexuals.

     The ads, in short, do not make a great deal of sense in their own right.  That suggests that the way to understand them is not in their own right, but as the expression of unconscious emotional forces.  Returning to our earlier considerations, we can see in these ads a clear expression of Lasch’s “revolt of the elites.”  Viewed as expressions of emotion, the ads clearly illustrate the kind of contempt for the masses that Lasch held the elites to have.  The charges of political incorrectness, in the form of the excoriation of “organized religion” for its racism, homophobia, etc., are manifest.  In effect, the ads, which overtly accuse organized religion of rejecting others, are themselves rejections, and what they reject is Christianity as it has been practiced in the United States and those who follow it—those, in other words, who represent “‘family values,’ mindless patriotism, religious fundamentalism, racism, homophobia, retrograde views of women,” and other postures of which Lasch has spoken.

     But in addition to that, the paradoxes that we saw in Lasch’s treatment are fully present.  The focus of criticism in the ads is the elite of the church.  The “wrinkled hand” which pushes the ejector button must surely be a church official, and the bouncers are clearly not acting autonomously.  They are wearing earphones and microphones.  Clearly they are in touch with someone who is giving them orders and clarifying what they are supposed to do.  But if it is the elite of “organized religion” that is being attacked, who is doing the attacking?  The United Church of Christ is, after all, part of organized religion and, at least as far as its public positions are concerned, entirely representative of the mainline Protestant denominations.  It therefore appears that these elites are attacking themselves.

The Purpose of the Analysis

     If this is so, it suggests that it is possible to explore the dynamics of the revolt of the elites through a study of the dynamics in the UCC that led to this ad campaign.

     We can do this by focusing on a set of questions raised by the irrationality of the ads.  For example, what kind of attitude can it be that UCC believes other Christians have?  Second, what is going in the mind of the UCC, or rather of the UCC elite[1], that leads them to have the notion they have about other Christians?  They certainly didn’t get that notion from reality, since in reality other Christians do not have it.  So where did they get it?  And finally, how can it be that, quite contrary to fact, they believe the notion’s reality to be ubiquitous?

     The answer I will propose provides a key to all of these questions.  It is that the attitudes that the UCC attributes to the minds of other Christians are not in other Christians, at least no more than they are in the mind of the UCC.  In truth, with regard to the orientation that I will describe, the UCC is simply part of mainline Christianity.  In fact, what I am saying is equally true of the other mainline denominations, including the Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches.

     The UCC believes these attitudes are in the minds of other Christians because it has projected them there.  This is what psychoanalysis calls “projective identification,” and I have elsewhere described its role in political correctness (Schwartz, 2003).  Briefly put, it projected them there because it couldn’t stand these attitudes being in themselves.  By projecting them outside, the UCC seemed to solve two problems.  It could get rid of the unacceptable ideas and it could give them a focus outside itself which it could find unacceptable, and in that way maintain its hatred of the ideas.  And the reason it finds these ideas ubiquitous is that the UCC brings them along wherever it collectively turns.  What we are seeing here is the externalization of an internal conflict.  It is not a conflict between the UCC and other Christians, but within the mind of UCC itself.

     But what are these ideas, and why are they so unacceptable?  For an answer to that, we need to turn to the psychology of political correctness.

     In my view (Schwartz, 2003), political correctness is based upon identification with what psychoanalysis calls the maternal imago—the primitive image of an omnipotent, perfectly loving mother that we all carry with us in the deepest layers of our psyche.  At that stage, the infant is narcissistic; it experiences itself as being the center of a loving world.  The primitive mother is the fantasy that personifies that loving world: she is part of the narcissism of the child.

     The problem is, what to do about our experience with aspects of the world that are not loving.  This is the question Freud addresses with his theory of the Oedipus complex.  The objective reality of the world is not built around us and does not care about us.  In psychoanalytic theory, this objective, indifferent reality is personified in the father.  We first encounter it in the form of the relationship that the father has with the mother, which does not revolve around us.  He has taken mother’s love away from us, we feel, and we respond to him with rage.   But remember that the father here is only representing the indifference of reality.  Rage against reality is obviously an unproductive strategy for living in the objective world.  Ordinarily this rage is overcome by an internalization of the father, and the reality he represents, to form the superego.

     The solution that underlies political correctness, however, is quite a different one.  In this psychology, we deny the objective character of reality, and hence the meaning of the father.  Mother’s omnipotence, her capacity to make our lives perfect just by her presence, would take care of us entirely, if her love had not been stolen by the father, who is seen here as an imposter.  He has taken mother by force and subterfuge and stolen her love and beneficence from us.  Oh, he tells stories about how he achieved something in the world to earn a place with her, but they are lies, built around the central lie that the external world is indifferent to us.  The world is not indifferent to us.  If it were not for him, the fantasy continues, the world would be a loving place, as it was when we were infants in our mother’s arms.  Get rid of him and we will again be in the state of perfect bliss of union with mother.  In the meantime, he is to be hated for his theft of love and deprived of it in the future.  Those from whom he has stolen it, who are in PC terms the members of oppressed groups, are to be loved in compensation.

     It is clear from its website that the PC orientation in the UCC is palpable and powerful.  Throughout the twentieth century, the UCC, through its elite, redefined itself as a leftist social action organization.  With the eclipse of Marxism, this agenda metamorphosed into the identity politics that provides the content of political correctness.  This political correctness placed impossible demands on the UCC elite, which it could only resolve with the kind of projection we see in the commercials.

     To put the matter briefly, the UCC identification with the mother redefined its function in terms of maternal love.  It would love each of us exactly as we are, and would make us feel perfectly loved in that way.  The problem is that this meant that it had to make demands upon itself that it could not fulfill, because of human limitations on the capacity to love and especially on the limitations reality imposes on the efficacy of love.  But these limitations were not acceptable and hence had to be projected outward.  “Organized religion,” insofar as it is imagined as the rejecting church, may be seen as a repository created for the purpose of receiving those projections.  But these limitations represent the objective indifference of reality.  The rejecting church, therefore, is reality, which is represented by the father.  Thus, by adopting this maternal identification, the UCC was not only setting itself up as being different from the father, but as his antagonist.  The point is that offering love, by itself, could not constitute a sufficient way of being.  The offering of love had to be accompanied by a rejection of the father.  These are two sides of the same coin.  That is the complex dynamic that led to the creation of those peculiar commercials.

     In a broader sense, however, what is involved here is a massive redefinition of the nature of the church, and indeed of religion.  We may think of it in terms of a movement between two ideas of the church, which we shall call the father church and the mother church.

     For psychoanalytic purposes, we may think of the ultimate object of religion as being the ego ideal: fusion with the primordial mother.  This immediately suggests that a church that takes a maternal orientation will be fundamentally different than a church that takes a paternal orientation.  The difference is that the father stands between us and the mother and makes demands upon us.  The promise is that if we become like the father, we can have the mother.  So it is with the father church: it makes demands on us that we must fulfill if we are to attain salvation.  The mother church does not.  It offers us salvation in the form of membership alone.  It does not go too far to say that the mother church sets itself up as God; it puts itself in the business of worshipping itself.  This is obviously quite a significant redefinition of the nature of the church and religion, and we can see it taking place all through mainline American Protestantism

The Father Church and the Mother Church

     For example, consider an article in First Things magazine (2005) by Philip Turner, the former Dean of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, and currently Vice President of the Anglican Communion Institute.  His thought here is directed specifically at his own church, the Episcopal, but he means it to apply to all of mainline Protestantism within the United States , which would include the UCC.

     Johnson begins by reporting that after serving ten years as a missionary in Uganda , he returned to the US to attend graduate school in Christian Ethics at Princeton .  Subsequent to that, he took a job at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest.  This is what he reports:

Full of excitement, I listened to my first student sermon—only to be taken aback by its vacuity.  The student began with the wonderful question, “What is the Christian Gospel?”  But his answer, through the course of an entire sermon, was merely: “God is love.  God loves us.  We, therefore, ought to love one another.”  I waited in vain for some word about the saving power of Christ’s cross or the declaration of God’s victory in Christ’s resurrection.  I waited in vain for a promise of the Holy Spirit.  I waited in vain also for an admonition to wait patiently and faithfully for the Lord’s return.  I waited in vain for a call to repentance and amendment of life in accord with the pattern of Christ’s life.

This was quite different from what his ten years in Uganda would have led him to expect, and it was no aberration:

     I have heard the same sermon preached from pulpit after pulpit by experienced priests.  The Episcopal sermon, at its most fulsome, begins with a statement to the effect that the incarnation is to be understood as merely a manifestation of divine love.  From this starting point, several conclusions are drawn.  The first is that God is love pure and simple.  Thus, one is to see in Christ’s death no judgment upon the human condition.  Rather, one is to see an affirmation of creation and the persons we are.  The life and death of Jesus reveal the fact that God accepts and affirms us.

     From this revelation, we can draw a further conclusion: God wants us to love one another, and such love requires of us both acceptance and affirmation of the other.

     In other words, God is love and makes no demands on us.  The church simply follows this model.  This is what I am calling the mother church.  The attack upon the father, defined here as social practices that have resulted in some being marginalized, follows from this.

     From this point we can derive yet another: accepting love requires a form of justice that is inclusive of all people, particularly those who in some way have been marginalized by oppressive social practice.  The mission of the Church is, therefore, to see that those who have been rejected are included—for justice as inclusion defines public policy.  The result is a practical equivalence between the Gospel of the Kingdom of God and a particular form of social justice.

     The church abandons its connection to its own doctrine, as it has come from the past and as it is reinterpreted through learned and authoritative theological discussion.  The word of God comes to be brought forward though spontaneity, within the overall frame of God’s inclusiveness, and unconstrained by the necessity of linkage to tradition.  In other words, the church speaks with the voice of God and what it does is an expression of divinity:

… changes in belief and practice within the church are not made after prolonged investigation and theological debate.  Rather, they are made by “prophetic actions” that give expression to the doctrine of radical inclusion.

Johnson continues:

Such actions have become common partly because they carry no cost.  Since the struggle over the ordination of women, the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops has given up any attempt to act as a unified body or to discipline its membership.

Certain justifications are commonly cited for such failure of discipline.  The first is the claim of the prophet’s mantle by the innovators—often quickly followed by an assertion that the Holy Spirit Itself is doing this new thing, which need have no perceivable link to the past practice of the church.

     The church as mother, who accepts us exactly as we are, believing what we want to believe, poses no demands.  It also imposes no ethical standard, apart from the embrace of inclusiveness itself.

     But the deep roots of the idea are in the doctrine of radical inclusion.  Once we have reduced the significance of Christ’s resurrection and downplayed holiness of life as a fundamental marker of Christian identity, the notion of radical inclusion produces the view that one need not come to the Father through the Son.  Christ is a way, but not the way…

     This unofficial doctrine of radical inclusion, which is now the working theology of the Episcopal Church, plays out in two directions.  In respect to God, it produces a quasi-deist theology that posits a benevolent God who favors love and justice as inclusion but acts neither to save us from our sins nor to raise us to new life after the pattern of Christ.  In respect to human beings, it produces an ethic of tolerant affirmation that carries with it no call to conversion and radical holiness.

     For Johnson, this represents the loss of what makes Christianity Christianity.  But we should also see within it the rejection of the Church as father, in the form of the demands made by the Church:

 In a theology dominated by radical inclusion, terms such as “faith,” “justification,” “repentance,” and “holiness of life” seem to belong to an antique vocabulary that must be outgrown or reinterpreted.  So also does the notion that the Church is a community elected by God for the particular purpose of bearing witness to the saving event of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

     It is this witness that defines the great tradition of the Church, but a theology of radical inclusion must trim such robust belief.  To be true to itself, it can find room for only one sort of witness: inclusion of the previously excluded.  God has already included everybody, and now we ought to do the same.  Salvation cannot be the issue.  The theology of radical inclusion, as preached and practiced within the Episcopal Church, must define the central issue as moral rather than religious, since exclusion is in the end a moral issue even for God.

     We must say this clearly: the Episcopal Church’s current working theology depends upon the obliteration of God’s difficult, redemptive love in the name of a new revelation.  The message, even when it comes from the mouths of its more sophisticated exponents, amounts to inclusion without qualification.

     Johnson’s word “obliteration” should not be taken lightly.  The mother church is, indeed, engaged in a project of obliteration.  This project of obliteration is what we see in the commercials of the UCC.  In order to see this clearly, we need to get a sense of the environment in which the church found itself, since the church conceived of the commercials as a marketing strategy for dealing with its environment.

The Marketing Strategy

     The ads were part of a program called The Stillspeaking Initiative (TSI).  Its meaning is that God is still speaking, so we should pay attention to what He is saying now, rather than take restrict ourselves to what He said in the past.  The brainchild of a former marketing executive named Ron Buford, the project’s conscious purpose was laid out in a series of annual reports put out by the UCC and available on their website.

     We will turn to the specific rationale for the ads in a moment, but first of all we must give the matter a bit of context.

     As I said above, UCC membership is by no means minute; however, it is shrinking.  Having begun with 2.4 million members, it lost over 40 percent over the following 50 years.  This was in keeping with the other mainline Protestant churches[2] of the United States .   In 1960, mainline church membership stood at over 29 million.  By 2000 this number had fallen to 22 million—a 21 percent drop.  Some mainline denominations have suffered even greater membership losses.  The Disciples of Christ suffered a 55 percent membership loss.  The Episcopal Church, at a 33 percent rate of attrition, shrank almost proportionately to the UCC (39 percent) during this period.

     This drop in membership needs to be contrasted with an overall increase in church membership within the US during the same period.  We will discuss the causes of this later on.  For the present, note that during the same 1960 to 2000 period, the following changes took place in other, non-mainline Protestant denominations:

           1960             2000

Assemblies of God:                       508,602        2,577.560

Southern Baptist Convention      8,731,591      15,960,308

Roman Catholic Church:           42,104,900      63,383,030

 

Perhaps even worse from the UCC point of view was that donations from member congregations to the national church had declined even more substantially.  The reasons for these declines are complex and we shall return to them shortly.  For the present, our interest is not in the real reasons, but in the UCC perception of the reasons.  Insofar as that perception has been conscious and publicly avowed, it provides the conscious rationale for the program as a marketing innovation.  To get a handle on it, we turn to the UCC annual reports, which are available on the UCC website at http://www.ucc.org/ocwm/.

     The line of thought and action that culminates in the ads begins in the annual report for 2003. They lay out the problem this way:

Current church growth statistics give us pause as we ponder what lies before us: while almost 1,000 UCC congregations (16 percent) are growing numerically, 52 percent of our churches show no membership change and 32 percent are losing members.  Local church giving increases at an average yearly rate of 2 percent; however, it is not enough to offset the harsh economic realities forcing congregations to make painful choices between staff, building maintenance, outreach, and giving to Our Church’s Wider Mission (OCWM).[3]

     Declining OCWM income has had a debilitating effect on national and Conference ministries, forcing cutbacks and curtailment of many important programs.

 And suggest the solution:

This annual report reflects our denomination’s accomplishments and highlights and, if we are honest, our setbacks and shortcomings.  It also announces the initiation of the Still Speaking Initiative—a bold plan for church-wide renewal.  In the days ahead, our churches will hear more about the “God is still speaking,” [sic] national identity campaign, which portrays the story, image and ministry of the United Church of Christ, inviting the unchurched into our congregations.  The Still Speaking Initiative also seeks to inspire greater generosity in our members and to increase giving to the local church and its wider settings—in the knowledge that healthy, vital congregations are the foundation and the future of the United Church of Christ.

The ads, then, will be part of a strategy to invite the unchurched into the UCC, as well as to increase contributions to support activities at the national level (referred to as the OCWM).

      It is anticipated that this program will place them “at odds with society… requiring resistance, daring and decisive action” as it did for their forebears.

     We often have been referred to as the “early” church, because we’ve been early in addressing the important issues facing our society and taking uncomfortable positions that sometimes go against cultural acceptability.  Why?  Because we love Jesus more than the lure of respectability. 

     Among these positions: 

• Forebears of the UCC were the first mainline church to take a public stand against slavery, in the year 1700.

• We were the first predominantly Euro-American church to ordain an African American as a minister—Lemuel Haynes in 1785…

• We were the church that initiated the defense of the Amistad captives in 1839, and supported their case to the Supreme Court, which eventually led to their freedom.

• We ordained the first woman to ministry, Antoinette Brown, in 1853…

• As a denomination, we were on the front lines of racial desegregation and, in 1959, we challenged the Federal Communications Commission to allow people of color to have access to and be seen on the televised airwaves.

• We ordained the first openly gay person, William Johnson, in 1972.

Thus, they are placing the action they are going to take in the same vein as social action initiatives they have undertaken in the past, and which they say have cost them some respectability.

     They go on to quote one of their laypersons: “Give up the comfortable.  Allow someone else to learn and lead, and with my eyes look around — there’s so much more God wants me to do.  And with risk comes blessing.”  And they say to themselves, “CONSIDER… OUR FUTURE… in support of a church embodying resistance and daring in our generation” (italics in original).

     They lay out the program this way:

     These are tough times for the Church.  Giving is down in mainline churches and, on Sunday mornings, most pews are filled with graying worshipers.  A recent survey revealed that 87 percent of Americans feel that religion is important to their lives.  Yet only 42 percent of Christians attend worship services on a regular basis.  Even more startling—85 percent of mainline churches are in a state of membership decline. 

     If so many people feel that religion is important, why do so few attend church?  There are several reasons: a large segment of our society has little or no church background; others feel that worship is boring and uninspiring; some maintain the church has lost its vision in society; others have had a negative personal experience in the church and feel unwelcome.

     The religious community faces a choice: either we do things the way we’ve always done them and continue to face declining membership, or we learn from our culture and embrace new ways to tell our story of faithful devotion to the gospel of Jesus Christ….

     The Still Speaking Initiative, in collaboration with Covenanted Ministries and Conferences, is in the initial stages of addressing the many challenges before us—spiritual, financial, and demographic.  New television commercials will air in 2004 to let the unchurched know about the UCC’s unique witness and welcome. …

     The 2004 annual report follows in this vein, and the program becomes evident:

2004 began with a mad scramble.  The decision had been made—full speed ahead with a strategic, five-year marketing plan to proclaim to the world that anyone could find a home in the United Church of Christ.  The Stillspeaking Initiative was formally established as an independent, inter-covenantal department reporting to the Executive Council, and an advisory task group was created….

From this it appears that the decision to launch the program, with its ads, had been made.  It was only after this that the advertising agency was sent out to find evidence.  Not surprisingly, they did:

     One of the first items of business was to hold focus groups in three test market areas to gain objective input into what unchurched people thought about the church….  Here are some excerpts from the findings of the report issued by the advertising agency working with TSI:

•  Almost no one in any of the focus groups was aware of the UCC.

•  Disaffection from the church was very apparent.  Everyone had a story stemming from personal rejection, disappointment, and the failure of the church to be there for them.

•  Several themes ran through the meetings. One, in particular, was emphasized repeatedly: the need for openness and acceptance of all God’s children by the church.

     Participants were unanimous—the church needs to be a welcoming place that uplifts one’s self-image and encourages individuals to be a vital member of the community

     The focus group leaders concluded that alienation was at the heart of these individuals’ disaffection with the church.  “Alienation is about real personal experiences and deep hurts that have caused people to turn away from the church.  It is not about the rejection of God or spirituality.”  However, even with deep levels of distrust—even anger—projected at the church, the focus group participants gave positive feedback.  Facilitators observed, “There appears to be a genuine opportunity to bring these people back because they are open to a welcoming church community and extended support system.”  The final report provided clear direction: “A positive, welcoming, come as you are message will reach the desired audience.”

     They describe the meaning of the commercial this way:

The 30-second TV commercial, “The Bouncer,” has been hailed as a masterful piece of storytelling in the tradition of Jesus’ parables.  The burley bouncers are a metaphor for that which alienates people from the church.  While no church actually has bouncers outside its doors, it’s obvious to many (often through the painful experience of rejection) that they are held at arm’s length.  For whatever reason—age, ethnicity, disability, socio-economic status, sexual identity, whatever—these children of God, in search of a spiritual home, feel left out in the cold.

     Along with the ad, the UCC redesigned its website to focus on the ad and the TSI, as well, which has its own logo and website (http://www.stillspeaking.com/default.htm).  The logo of the UCC is fairly conventional: 

  prae-711

The symbol of the TSI is a comma, from a quote attributed to Gracie Allen: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

     The home page of the UCC website was rebuilt around that comma, which had a flash display with pictures of diverse, smiling people running through it.  The text that goes with the comma is “God is still speaking,”  One might even say that the TSI had crowded out the older image of the UCC.  The logo of the UCC is small and below the main display.  On many computers it would not show up in the initial screen.  One would have to scroll down to find it, and there is no reason in the initial screen to suppose that one will find anything by scrolling down.  Many of the links take one to the TSI website, form which it is not easy to get back.

     At any rate, to hear UCC tell the story, they were on the verge of something big:

     With the roll-out of the commercial on independent and cable stations, and the resulting denial [sic] by CBS, NBC and ABC to air the commercial, we received more publicity than we could have hoped for.  During December, we posted 787,056 web visits (compared to 80,000 per month earlier in the year) and 137,103 visits to the “Find a UCC Church ” option (there were 4,000 hits in November).

     Testimonies from people alienated by the church filled e-mail boxes at the national setting, and many stories of hope were shared on the special edition Yule Blog at ucc.org.  Stories from pastors also flooded in, many about visitors checking out their churches…

     Under the headline “Stillspeaking’s ‘bouncer’ receives ‘biggie’ advertising award, the Church announced that 

     The UCC’s “bouncer” television commercial, which aired nationally in December 2004 and March 2005, has received one of the advertising industry’s most significant honors.

     The Association of National Advertisers awarded the United Church of Christ with its 2005 Multicultural Excellence Award for its 30-second commercial that touted the denomination’s insistence that “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.”

     But whatever awards and publicity were garnered by the ad, as far as its recruitment purpose was concerned, it was a flop.  According to the 2006 yearbook of the UCC, membership dropped during 2004 by 2.38 percent, the largest decline of any church surveyed by the NCC .  To be sure, there was only one month in 2004 in which the effect of the commercial could have been felt, but a landslide had been expected, and it did not happen.  Worse, as I write this in August 2006, the recently published UCC yearbook for 2006 reveals that membership in 2005 fell to 1,229,953, a drop of 3.3 percent from 2005.

     Though they were surely aware of these trends as they were developing, the UCC was undeterred and pushed ahead with the second commercial, which was be part of a campaign budgeted at 1.5 million dollars.  “To change would be to back down.  And the U.C.C. is not an institution that traditionally backs down,” said Michael Jordan of Gotham , the UCC ad agency.

     Yet reality still refused to shape up, and in the end it had its way.  On June 7, 2006 , the UCC announced that Ron Buford had resigned as head of TSI, effective June 30, and that he would take up a new role as “consultant with the Congregational Vitality Initiative (CVI) of the UCC’s Local Church Ministries to assist trainers who will incorporate the best of The Stillspeaking Initiative into CVI” (Administrator, 2006) .

     The TSI website, though removed from its dominant position, is still available from the UCC site.  It still celebrates the joyfulness of the campaign and tells us that

“Ejector” now ranks as “most popular commercial” on “ifilm” website.  The UCC’s new “ejector” TV ad is now ranked as the most-popular [sic] commercial at <ifilm.com>, a well-known online hosting site for videos.

However, without fanfare, they added another commercial to their site.  This one, which was intended as a follow-on to the Bouncer commercial, but almost never aired, is called “Steeples.”  It begins with a little girl reciting the nursery rhyme “Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.”  Then a diverse group says “all the people,” and there is the voice over which says, “God accepts al the people, so do we.  The United Church of Christ .  No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.”

The Unconscious Meaning of the Commercials

     As we saw, the commercials were introduced with the prediction that they would garner social disapproval.  The critical question is, why would “inviting the unchurched” be seen as the kind of groundbreaking progressive move that would stir such disapproval?  What had the commercials’ creators in mind that would be “risky” and would “embody resistance and daring”?

     In fact, they did lose respectability.  But I want to suggest that the response of the networks was not against the inclusiveness, but to the offensiveness of the ads themselves.  The disapproval the UCC elite rightly anticipated was not to the content of the offerings, but to their manner.

     In other words, the meaning of the ads is not the offer of welcome.  The message of welcome, as such, was represented in both ads by the final images of happy, diverse groups of people.   And in fact this was the full content of the “steeples” ad.  But the offer of welcome was obviously not what made the ads stand out.  What gave the ads their characteristic identity was the accusation of a refusal of welcome on the part of “organized religion.”   What the ads offered is not so much a welcoming church as an aggressive church: a church that resists and attacks oppression.  This is the only element of the ads that their producers could possibly have had in mind when they prepared the ground for social disapproval.  It was, of course, the antagonistic side that created the controversy and that was clearly responsible for the “edge” of which the UCC was so proud.

     But having said that the second meaning of the ad is resistance to oppression, we have hardly put ourselves in the position of understanding its controversy.  For, by itself, fighting against oppression is hardly more controversial than inclusion.  If the ads simply presented the church as fighting against oppression in some sort of abstract way, or even in the terms of fighting in the name of some commonly agreed oppressed group, there would not have been such uproar.  Obviously, the thing that caught the attention was that the ads represented the church as fighting oppression manifested by “organized religion.”

     It was “organized religion” that was rejecting people, causing them to be alienated from religion, and doing this in sufficient numbers that these rejects could be energized by the ad into joining the UCC and rejuvenating it.  It was this idea, combined with their placement of themselves in contrast to “organized religion” by offering what they called “extravagant welcome”, that gave the ads their particular flavor, their edginess, and was ultimately responsible for their failure to reach the church’s ostensible objectives.  This suggests that the ostensible recruitment objective was only one of the objectives.  The other was the bashing of “organized religion.”

     As we saw at the beginning, though, the charge that organized religion was rejecting people on the basis of disabilities and so on is absurd.  UCC could not have gotten the idea from observation of organized religion in the world.  What exactly was it that they saw themselves as bashing, and how did they get that idea?

Rejection in the Mind of UCC

     We can get insight into the mind of the UCC by looking at a website they set up to garner stories in response to the ads: www.rejectionhurts.com  This website offers itself as “an online community where people can share their personal stories of how they felt unwanted or alienated by organized religion.”  The stories are prefaced with this:

     Have you or someone you know ever felt rejected by religion?  Tell us your story here.  Please refrain from mentioning specific denominations or churches in your story.

     We will regularly post some of the stories that have been submitted.  We encourage you to visit this site often and pass it on to your family and friends

     I would like to note, at the outset, the evident conflation between feeling “unwanted or alienated by organized religion” and feeling “rejected by organized religion.”  Rejection, one would suppose, implies a positive, directed antagonism; not being wanted, however, is consistent with passive indifference.  The conflation is an important one, and will tell us much about the mind of UCC.

     Turning to the stories themselves, it must first be said that many describe events that can scarcely have been reported objectively or relate stories that can scarcely have been told in full.  In fact, in some cases the actions supposedly taken by the church or its parishioners are hard to imagine.  Some examples are below.  When direct quotes are used, the matter is unedited:

     A 68-year-old man is ejected from his church because he can only afford a $3,000 per year contribution, while they demand $7,000+.

     A woman attends the church her grandmother belongs to, but her husband does not attend.  When she gets pregnant, she is accused of lying about her marriage and buying a wedding ring for herself to cover up being pregnant out of wedlock.

     A woman is seen crying because, after 32 years of abuse, she leaves her husband, but is then told she must leave the church, to which she has belonged for all that time because she is “tainting the flock.”

     “While attending the wedding of a friend, in another denomination, my infant child [sic] began fussing as she was hungry.  Knowing her schedule I had planned to feed her during the service, but before I could get to it I WAS ASKED TO LEAVE.”

     “Having deligent [sic] tried to follow the endless series of rules related to my “church”, being constantly reprimanded for endless infractions and advised I needed to contribute more I had the horrible expirence [sic] of finding out my spouse was engaged in fornication with several members of the congregation.  I was chastised for failing to provide enough attention to her and working to [sic] much.”

     Of course, a degree of distortion and selective narration is what one would expect.  There is no control for the veracity of these stories.  One would have no way of knowing whether they present a biased view, or for that matter whether they are pure fantasy.  An individual who wanted to rehearse a grievance would know that he could present his story in the most favorable light and get it published in a world-wide forum.  The tendency to do that would have been very great, and it is impossible to imagine that nobody yielded to it.

     Our interest, though, is not in whether the stories are true.  We cannot know that.  What we can know, and what interests us, is the fact that UCC chose these stories to represent the kind of responses they thought validated their commercials.  They tell us what the meaning of the commercials was to UCC, and therefore offer insight into the way the church sees itself.

     That a selection process was in place is clear.  For one thing, the UCC acknowledged that they would only post only some of the stories.  Second, in an internal email to UCC pastors, and in an FAQ posted on the site, the officials said that they would not post messages of complaint from UCC members.  This is from the pastor email:

     We expect there to be “rejection” stories from UCC people who want turn [sic] the site to their own purposes.  These stories will not be posted.  People writing about internal UCC experiences may challenge us for not posting their story in notes to you.  Please feel free to frame your own reply or use something like this: “Rejectionhurts.com  is a witness to the world, not a showcase for internal theological or political debates and disagreements.  The clear focus of the Stillspeaking Initiative is to help people overcome their alienation from God.  It is to them that rejectionhurts.com is directed.”

     I tested the selectivity by submitting a story in which I claimed to be a woman who had recently moved to a more affluent neighborhood and found herself shunned by a church congregation for saying that she and her husband had voted for George Bush and supported the war in Iraq .  The story was not posted to the site.

     The following themes emerge from the stories.  First, there is no recognition on the part of any of these story-tellers that anything that they did was responsible for the outcomes they experienced.  These are all stories of egregious victimization at the hands of the rejecting church.

     No student of psychoanalysis will be surprised at such denial of responsibility, but we need to understand that we are looking at a Christian church here, and that one of the defining tenets of Christianity is that we area all sinners.  The acceptance of oneself as a sinner is the acceptance of responsibility.  By standing behind the moral validity of these stories, the UCC is accepting the denial of responsibility as a valid ground for membership in a Christian church and, in fact, validating the deflection of that responsibility onto the rejecting church itself.

     My favorite in this regard was the story called: Mohawks Not Welcomed:

I am gothic and a Christian [sic].  I happily attended a [non-UCC] church until I went on their youth camp.  I was put into the communal sleeping area with the 13-17 year olds (I am 21), and the entire weekend I had people coming up to me asking if I wanted them to pray with me, just because I had a mohawk and wore thick black eyeliner.  Their “meetings” were compulsary [sic] and they kept on encouraging people to come up to the front and get prayed over, to the point where they were threatening to point out individuals in the congregation.  When I tried to leave the meeting, they said that I had to stay or they would send me home in a taxi (which would have cost about $150).  After the camp was over, I never went back to that church again.

Consider here the way the writer takes the response to his Mohawk and eye-liner, which can have no function except to elicit a response, as illegitimate on the part of the church.  There is no acceptance of responsibility for causing that response.

     A second point is the failure to distinguish between indifference and rejection.  For instance:

I was raised in a literalist church.  In my mid-teens I was doubting, and discouraged by treatment from the other teens.  After all the youth programs, adult classes, and every Sunday worship, a woman with whom I had long worshipped shook my hand during one service and asked if I was new because she’d never seen me.  It shook my core that “godly people” would consider me so invisible.  It was a signpost of that church’s lacking… I am glad for the message and hospitality (and the seeking and partnering attitude) of the UCC, and the fair treatment I’ve received.  If other churches feel a sting from its message, then they should do some soul-searching. (I already did — now it’s their turn.)

     Third, similarly, there is a failure to acknowledge the viability of any rules or demands.  In some cases, this concerns specific moral principles, such as rejection of homosexual behavior, divorce, or sex outside of marriage

When a Different Lifestyle Doesn’t “Fit In”

In the early 80’s, after an extremely difficult time in my life, I reconfirmed my commitment to God and began attending a fairly fundamentalist church.  Although I was treated well and helped out (I was a single parent at the time, one of only about 5 or 6 in a congregation of about 500), I began to feel that I was more of a “project” of the women’s ministry than an accepted member.  I tried a few other Churches over the following years but I finally gave up altogether because I couldn’t deal with the intolerance towards others in different lifestyles.  I actually began to see the mainstream Christian church as a hostile place for many.

     In some cases, it runs to a rejection of rules altogether:

“I Will Now Find You.”

Wow!  I’ve just recently seen the very wonderfully conceived “ejector pew” commercial.  I do not physically identify with any of the ejectees, nor do I lead what some call an “alternate” lifestyle.  But, I have been so appalled and disgusted by the petty human squabbling over following some set of perceived rules….that I just have had to stay away.  And yet I need to be with people who are cognizant of the simple, powerful, perfect message of Love that Jesus continually gives.  So, to whomever wrote, directed, produced the ad: Thanks for seeking me out…and the 1,000’s of others just like me.  I will now find you!  I look forward to learning again…. smiles

And:

Stipulations Not Required

I recently saw your commercial and I was shocked, I’ve been searching for many years to find some thing [sic] worth believeing [sic] in but every major relegion [sic] has every kind of stipulation [sic] imaginable (even though the bible says not to judge).  Seeing that commercial gave hope to a very discouraged girl.  And I pray that you truly stand for every thing [sic] you advertised.  I’ll be checking out you site.

 Often, general moral rules are seen as personal affronts:

Twice Rejected

After 24 years in my church, I married a man of a different denomination, in his church.  My church didn’t seem to care about that, I was welcome.  Three years later, we’d divorced due to his mistreatment of me and his abandonment of the marriage.  Not long after, I was told that I could attend church, but I couldn’t participate in communion because I’d married outside the faith and then divorced.  I still attended, but sporadically.  One Sunday, my mother convinced me to go to church with her.  Everything was fine until the sermon.  It was about the “signs of death in the church”. According to the sermon, the worst was divorce and that those that divorce are going to hell.  I was furious.  I had done nothing wrong, and I was being told I was going to hell.  I turned to my mother, told her I was leaving and would never again set foot in that church.

     Fourth, there is in many stories a failure of the sense of proportion. Personal offenses are generalized to the church:

The (Negative) Power of One

We had a very interesting situation happen in our church… the woman who was the Sun. school teacher for our son during his confirmation year, did something we felt as parents was extremely UnChristian like [sic]…the very FIRST (& only time) time we served as greeters at our new Sancutary [sic], she met us (all 3 of us) and in a very demeaning tone point [sic] her finger and told our son how he hadn’t done his church work and she was definitely [sic] going to tell on him (the look on her face was nasty)…  After that she made him feel terrible [sic] in church school as well (she obviously didn’t like him), and made it a point to call me when and if he hadn’t done whatever [sic] she felt in a timely manner.  We haven’t signed up for anything since then and a year after that she was given a new title of a “new Stephen Ministery [sic] person.”  If we had gone to the church they couldn’t of [sic] done anything because she was and still is sneaky about such stuff.  Alot [sic] of the parents have known this.  We’re not as involved and could care less anymore and this incident has changed our like for this chuch [sic] totally, because of her.

     Or small events are elevated to massive assaults.  This is clearly the case in the previously cited account of the young man offended when “a woman with whom I had long worshipped shook my hand during one service and asked if I was new because she’d never seen me.  It shook my core that ‘godly people’ would consider me so invisible.”  Similarly:

In college, I was accosted by a teen girl whose church had sent her youth group to collar concert-goers and follow them to their cars arguing salvation, as if that would convince someone to instantly fall to the sidewalk and “become a new creature through Christ.”  I was appalled and insulted by their naively unquestioning insinuations—the only “new creature” I’d become was ignored and suicidal.  I was so angry at her hubris I wanted to punch her.

     Finally, while demands made upon the individual are denied and seen as affronts, demands made upon the church, even when unreasonable, are seen as entitlements.  For instance, in the story above, Mr. Mohawk takes it as one of the church’s affronts that “when I tried to leave the meeting, they said that I had to stay or they would send me home in a taxi (which would have cost about $150).”  Now, the only way this makes sense is if we assume that Mr. Mohawk wanted to be driven home, either in an individual’s car or in the church bus, and that this must have been, given the taxi fare, quite a far distance.  He is taking their perfectly reasonable refusal as a personal abuse.

     Altogether, what these stories have in common is that they are all expressions of resentment.  What stands out about these accounts is their pettiness.  They all represent personal, one might even say petty, grievances which are elevated to the point of high principle.  The existence of an external reality that makes demands and imposes constraints is taken as a personal affront.  Their premise appears to be that the world is supposed to conform itself to our wishes and validate us just as we are.

     Psychoanalysis tells us that this world is cast in the image of the primordial mother.  For a church to define itself as a place that will fulfill these individuals’ wishes, providing a feeling of validation to all these individuals who feel as if they have been rejected, means the church is offering itself in just that maternal way.

     We can also say that the interpretation of reality’s constraints as being the result of agency (Ejectors, bouncers) means that they are being interpreted as caused by the father.  What we see, then, is a rejection of the father in the name of the omnipotent mother.

Denial of Aggression

     Consistent with its identification with the primordial mother is a denial of aggression on the part of the UCC.  The ads are clearly accusations, aggressive acts, as the networks made plain their rejections. For example:

According to Jacobs, the church proposed two ads, NBC accepted one but. rejected the other because it “violated our longstanding policy against accepting ads dealing with issues of public controversy.”  The controversy, said NBC, stemmed from the ad’s suggestion that “other religions are not open to all people.”

Specifically, NBC said it rejected the ad not because it featured a homosexual couple, but “based solely on the fact that it suggests that gay couples, African Americans, Hispanics and people with disabilities are not welcome in some churches, which constitutes a controversial issue”  (http://www.broadcastingcable.com/article/CA 486541. html?display=Breaking+News&referral=SUPP).

     However, the UCC denies any aggression, saying that they are just messages of inclusion.  In their view, the ads were rejected because the “message of openness and welcome stated in the new UCC ad is ‘too controversial’.”  This is from an email sent out by the Justice and Witness Ministries (JWM) of the UCC:

Once again, a new UCC commercial, which invites all people into the church, has been rejected by the networks, their affiliate cable stations, and Viacom.  Every day, the networks air advertising laced with sexual innuendo, violence, materialism, and the politics of personal destruction, yet the message of openness and welcome stated in the new UCC ad is “too controversial” to be shown.  While some stations are still airing our ad, many communities, particularly those without access to cable, will never see this ad. 

If a spokesperson for CBS is to be believed, it appears that Buford went so far as to make up a conversation.

Buford said CBS executives had told him the subject would be considered advocacy advertising until the inclusion of gays and lesbians is common at churches in the United States .  But Jacobs challenged that statement.  “That supposed exchange is simply fictitious,” she said.  (KNOX National News, via Scripps Howard News Service, 3/27/2006 ).

We have no reason to doubt Buford’s sincerity in his contrary recollection of the conversation.  He is probably just remembering the sense of what went on in the only way that he could make sense of it, and then just filling in details that fit.  The primordial mother, after all, is made out of love.  There is no aggression in her, so therefore the UCC always acts with love and nothing but love.  The aggression is externalized onto those who refuse to accept and amplify the message of love, and then seen as directed against her and her clientele.

Marketing the Mother Church

     Interestingly, the best evidence seems to be that, despite what the UCC thought they found in their focus groups, it is the paternal church that appeals to parishioners, not the maternal.  This is a suggested by the rise in membership of more traditional denominations during the period of mainline decline, which we noted earlier and which is borne out by some specifically directed research.

     Methodologically, research attempting to assess the reasons for church membership is a difficult business, largely due to difficulties in defining what a church member is.  One of the better studies of recent times was done by Johnson, Hoge, and Luidens (1993) and also published in First Things.  In this study, they interviewed people who had been confirmed in the Presbyterian Church during the sixties to determine what had become of their religious life.  Their study, of course, confirmed that many had left the mainline church and that, for the most part, this was due to the fact that

religion itself had become low on their list of personal priorities.  They pray occasionally, they hold Jesus in high esteem, and they have some interest in such questions as the purpose of existence and the fate of the soul after death, but they do not consider it necessary to attend church in order to nourish what faith they have.

So what was true of those who remained church members?

In our study, the single best predictor of church participation turned out to be belief—orthodox Christian belief, and especially the teaching that a person can be saved only through Jesus Christ.  Virtually all our baby boomers who believe this are active members of a church.  Among those who do not believe it, some are active in varying degrees; a great many are not.  Ninety-five percent of the drop-outs who describe themselves as religious do not believe it. 

Of those that were church members, the hypothesis that had the best support was one offered

by Dean M. Kelley in his controversial book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, published in 1972.  Kelly argued that the mainline denominations have lost members because they have become weak as religious bodies.  Strong religions provide clear-cut, compelling answers to questions concerning the meaning of life, mobilize their members’ energies for shared purposes, require a distinctive code of conduct, and discipline their members for failure to live up to it.  Weak religions allow a diversity of theological viewpoints, do not and can not command much of their members’ time or effort, promote few if any distinctive rules of conduct, and discipline no one for violating them.  In short, strong religions foster a level of commitment that binds members to the group; weak religions have low levels of commitment and are unable to resist influences that lower it even further.

Similarly, within the mainline dominations themselves:

In Acts of Faith (University of California Press, 2000) Stark and Finke showed that United Methodist congregations with evangelical pastors had rapidly rising attendance and expendi-tures.  Although some congregations with evangelical pastors did decline, the rate was half that of congregations without evangelical pastors.  The Methodist conferences with the largest proportion of evangelical pastors and churches—those in the South and Southeast—have actually started growing.  (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/008/1.34.htm)

In a word, the father church grows stronger while the mother churches declines.

The Insupportability of Being Merely Human

     Earlier, I pointed out that the mother church adopts the position of God.  It is ultimately this identification that determines the repudiation of the father that we see in the commercials.  The father is only human, the primordial mother is not; she is divine.  But the members of the church, even its officials, are human.  Therefore they must take the parts of themselves that are merely human and refuse them entry to the church, or eject them once they are there.  We will refer to both of these as rejection.

     In the commercials, it appears that those being rejected are the ones who make church members, and especially the white males, uncomfortable.  I suggest that, at a deeper level, something else is going on.  It is not only those who cause the discomfort that are being rejected, but the discomfort is also being rejected.  The rejectees are functioning as classic scapegoats; they are taking the sins of the group along with them.  That is their function: their rejection has the purpose of maintaining the image of the group as the ego ideal by representing its shameful elements, which are then rejected.

     But whose discomfort is it that is being rejected?  I suggest that it is the discomfort of the church’s elite.  They are, after all, the elite of a Christian church, a religion whose foundational premise is that we are all sinners.  But as we have seen, the Church elite has identified itself with God, who of course has no sin.  This poses a real problem for them.

     Ordinary Christians may be able to maintain an image of themselves as sinners; this means that they can acknowledge and own their discomfort.  Therefore, their discomfort does not pose a problem for the church, and cannot be the psychological ground of the rejection.  We can see this most clearly in the element of the commercials that appears to be most odd, which was the rejection of the disabled.  As we saw, there cannot be a serious claim that a Christian church would turn somebody away because the person cannot walk.  But there is certainly a basis for saying that people, probably most people, feel discomfort in the presence of a person who has lost the use of his legs.  They remind us of the short distance between our own health and our own potential disability.  We do not want to know about this, and therefore are uncomfortable in the presence of someone who brings it to our mind.

     But this is as likely to be true of the church elite as of anyone else, and indeed more so, precisely since they cannot acknowledge their discomfort.  Hence, there is no ground for saying that the rejection is less about the elite than it is about anybody else.  But their discomfort is absolutely intolerable to them.  Something must be done with it.

     We began this analysis with the question who is the rejecting church, and what are they rejecting?   The answer is that the rejecting church is the elite of the UCC, and they are rejecting themselves.  But our exploration has brought us to the point where we can see that there is a level of meaning beyond that.  For we can see that, in reality, the discomfort that is being rejected is the discomfort of the elite.  What is really being rejected, then, is the elite itself.  They are both rejecter and rejected.

     This is what I call religion against itself.

Conclusion

     Our analysis has laid out a link that can take us back to the beginning.  The comma that the UCC claims to find at the end of God’s word is a repudiation of what has gone before, in the sense that it leaves it all open to revision and reinterpretation.  There is none of it to which one must subordinate oneself.  This is exactly the rejection of constraint that Lasch brought to our attention. To repeat his description of the elite citizen fashioned after Ortega y Gasset’s mass man in revolt:

He was “incapable of submitting to direction of any kind.”  Lacking any comprehension of the fragility of civilization or the tragic character of history, he lived unthinkingly in the “assurance that tomorrow [the world] will be still richer, ampler, more perfect, as if it enjoyed a spontaneous, inexhaustible power of increase.”  He was concerned only with his own well-being and looked forward to a future of “limitless possibilities” and “complete freedom.”

     What we can now see, though, is that rejection is not only on the social level, but on the individual, as well. The UCC elite are rejecting the demands made upon them by the Christian tradition, followed as it is by the body of the Church, but they are also rejecting the demands that they make upon themselves.  They must therefore reject themselves, and they must do this continuously and programmatically.  Whatever they are, they must throw over.  This throwing over is the only content that their identity can have, and indeed they can have it only until it is pointed out to them, which helps to explain their manifest fragility and sensitivity to criticism.  In the end, the identity of the creative person is what John Keats called “negative identity.”

     But Keats did not have in mind that this negative identity would come to constitute the organizing principle of society.  He thought of is as a feature of the creative individual.  Yet it is readily seen, ironically, that creativity is by no means a feature of the UCC.  Their positions, for example, are identical not only with the other mainline Protestant churches, but with leftwing social activist groups, even of the militantly secular kind.[4]  The television commercials may give them new expression, but what they express has by now become hackneyed and trite.

     The reason for this is that creativity has been undermined by its own regressive pull.  The function of the father in creativity has been lost.  The father is not the muse, but he teaches us the discipline that goes with the development of the creative craft and the production of the created work.  He gives us the advantage, in our own creativity, of what has gone before.  So it was that Isaac Newton, who more than anyone else created mathematical physics, said that the reason he could see so far is that he stood on the shoulders of giants.  In his absence, the apotheosis of one’s own spontaneity leads to no product but only to the destruction of everything outside one’s own emptiness.  Compare Ludwig van Beethoven with John Cage.  This is not creativity, but nihilism.

     What has been said of the elite of the UCC is equally true of the other elites to which Lasch referred.  Political correctness, their ideology, universally involves identification with the primitive maternal.  It therefore equally has no place for the merely human, which it must condemn and reject.  This reflection cannot lead to any optimism regarding the prospects for the society which these elites purport to lead.

 

References

Buchanan., Wyatt.  (2006).  TV networks reject ad from church: Say spot welcoming gays is controversial.  San Francisco Chronicle, March 28: D12.

Johnson, Bento, Dean R. Hoge & Donald A. Luidens.  (1993). Mainline Churches: The Real Reason for Decline.  First Things 31 (March): 13-18.

Lasch, Christopher.  (1995).  The Revolt of the Elites. New York : Norton.

Lewis, Michael.  (1990).  Liar’s Poker.   New York : Penguin.

Schwartz, Howard S.  (2003).  The Revolt of the Primitive: An Inquiry into the Roots of Political Correctness. Piscataway , NJ :

Turner, Philip.  (2005).  An Unworkable Theology.  First Things 154 (June/July): 10-12

  Notes


[1] When I speak here about the mind of UCC, I mean the mind of the UCC elite, those members who have the power to define the activities of the UCC, and who have defined it in terms of a certain outlook.  It is the outlook that this elite’s components share, together with the psychological processes that lead them to have this outlook, which is of interest to me.  I do not mean the attitudes of ordinary UCC members, or for that matter the attitudes of the ordinary members of any of the mainline denominations.  These are often strikingly different from those of the elite, a fact that has led to great conflict within the churches.  For example, the elite of the Presbyterian church, speaking in the name of the church, passed a resolution supporting economic divestiture from Israel and condemning its security barrier.  Shortly thereafter, a general meeting of church members voted, with a 95% majority, to rescind that resolution.

[2] By “mainline” I mean the following churches (Wikipedia):

[3] This is the umbrella for the church’s social activist programs.

[4] Compare the positions of the UCC with the National Council of Churches and the American Civil Liberties Union.