Who are you calling liberal?

Despite the UCC”s resistance to use the word outright, “liberal” often is used to describe us—even though a denomination-wide survey reveals that UCC members identify more readily as “conservative” rather than “liberal.” So how did this come to be? Are we really that liberal?

“As a denomination, the United Church of Christ always has occupied the progressive, liberal end of the religious spectrum,” reads a reporter”s recent description of the UCC in a Las Vegas newspaper.

Similarly, the secular Religion News Service perennially uses the catch phrase, “one of the most liberal mainline Protestant bodies,” to identify the UCC in its news stories. Even the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod describes the UCC—pejoratively—on its website as “one of the most liberal of all church bodies.”

To be sure, many UCC members relish the denomination”s left-wing identity. A quick internet search reveals that a number of UCC churches use the words “liberal” or “progressive” to describe either their individual congregations or the denomination as a whole.But for the UCC”s more-conservative members and congregations, the L-word is akin to fingernails on a chalkboard. And perhaps they have a point.

The 2001 International Congregational Life Survey, which included 21,000 UCC respondents from more than 800 congregations, found that UCC members were slightly more likely to self-identify as “conservative” rather than “liberal”—both theologically and politically. True, nearly half of respondents huddled somewhere in the middle, but, on the whole, the numbers tilted to the right.

The same study also found that UCC members—more so than other mainline Protestants—listed “traditional hymns” and “biblically-sound preaching” as being essential ingredients in a good worship service. How”s that for “most liberal”?

“I preach in 30 to 40 [UCC] congregations a year and the number of our congregations that are decisively liberal is not very many,” says the Rev. David M. Greenhaw, president of UCC-related Eden Seminary in St. Louis. “Mostly, our church people are moderate. They are not very liberal, and the liberal movements are at the periphery of the church, not the center of it.”

However, on the whole, one cannot deny the leftleaning legacy of the UCC and its predecessor bodies, says Greenhaw, a church historian. “We do have a history, as [UCC General Minister and President] John Thomas likes to say, of “getting there early.””

Greenhaw says there are at least four distinctive types of liberalism Ñtheological/philosophical, social, political and economic—and in at least some of these respects, the UCC could be considered liberal—especially in more-subtle, less-controversial ways.

The UCC”s theological liberalism, for example, is evident in its embrace of intellectual inquiry into matters of theology and scripture, as well as its long-held commitment to ecumenical dialogue and partnership, Greenhaw says, noting that these are liberal values shared widely in the UCC, but certainly not among all faith traditions.

Moreover, he says, “We believe in a social environment that allows people to be more free from constraints on behavior—not careless, but not overly restrained.”

“Accidentally liberal”

But while the UCC may be theologically and socially liberal, when it comes to politics, it”s “accidentally liberal,” Greenhaw theorizes.

Greenhaw says the UCC, founded in 1957 by the union of the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, was a much more difficult enterprise than most realize. The tenuous 30-year effort that led up to the merger grew out of a deep ecumenical spirit that pervaded a generation of church leaders—many of whom, he points out, either retired or died not long after the union occurred.

“By the time the merger actually happened,” Greenhaw says, “[the succeeding generation] didn”t share their same sense of ecumenical emergency.” This only made the differences between the two churches seem more prominent.

The Congregational Christian Churches believed strongly in congregational autonomy and were largely comprised of the “establishment class”—those with middle-to-upper incomes, says Greenhaw, while the Evangelical and Reformed Church had grown accustomed to a more-connectional polity and its members were less established financially because many were the first- or second-generation of immigrants.

“They began to ask, “Why is it that we merged with these people?”” Greenhaw says, “and that was being said on both sides.”

The result, says Greenhaw, was a search for common commitments, and since the two differed significantly on matters of theology, worship and polity, they did share an interest in social ministry.

The Congregational Christian side offered a history of activism rooted in abolitionism, women”s suffrage and ordination, public education and civil rights. The Evangelical and Reformed side came from a tradition of the “social gospel” and was involved deeply in the establishment of hospitals, schools, orphanages and nursing homes.

Just as significant, Greenhaw says, was the fact that the UCC was coming into its own during the 1960s, an era of culture-critique when an emerging school of religious thought—known as “liberation theology”—began calling the institutional church to recognize its complicity in the systemic, social sins of racism and sexism (and later, homophobia).

Therefore, Greenhaw says, the UCC”s General Synod quickly became established as the church”s primary teaching “office” on important, complex social issues—a tradition that continues nearly 50 years later. Unfortunately, he says, as the General Synod has grown more liberal, disaffected more-conservative members increasingly have stayed away.

“In the UCC, there is no central location of teaching, but there is an accidental location called the General Synod,” he says, “but the problem is that it has lacked the capacity to connect with the people in the pew. It has shallow roots of support in the life of the church É even though I have found myself in personal agreement with many of the stands we have taken.”

Defined by “formality”

The Rev. Elizabeth Nordbeck, professor of ecclesiastical history at UCC-related Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre, Mass., says—whether we like it or not—churches are defined by their formal statements and denominational habits.

“I happen to know some Mormons who drink coffee,” Nordbeck muses, to indicate how a church”s social stances—in this case, the Latter Day Saints” teaching that adherents should abstain from caffeine—may not necessarily be shared by all members. Still, she says, a church”s teaching defines its liberal/conservative, restrictive/unrestrictive posture.

“A church is described by its formality, even though there is a distinction between its formal statements and the way in which the people in the pews respond to those formalities,” Nordbeck says. “Is the UCC a liberal denomination? It is and it isn”t. I would argue that the UCC”s formal statements are liberal and those are the things that people are asked to pay attention to, even if not all members respond.”

However, Nordbeck says, when one examines the individual histories of each of the UCC”s merging streams, there are fascinating stories of how each tradition taught liberally that “our understanding of truth is not confined to doctrines of the past.”

“We have this long history that goes all the way back to our beginnings, that we have understood that God is still speaking, that in the words of Pastor John Robinson in 1620 “that God still hath more truth and light to break forth from God”s holy word”—and that is profoundly liberal,” Nordbeck says.

“It means that we are not bound to the shackles of previous generations, and while we do not set out to change the old, old story, we do intend to make it new for each succeeding generation,” she says, “just as the opening words of the UCC Constitution ask of us.”

As an example, Nordbeck points to frontier Christians” evangelical insistence on “no name but Christ, no creed but the Bible.” It was a radically liberal stance, she says, pointing out that the Christians, like the Congregationalists, were among the first to offer women opportunities to teach with authority in the church.

“A lot of people looked at the Christians and thought they were nuts,” she says.

The Rev. Paul H. Sherry, UCC president from 1989 to 1999, says, “All the traditions of the UCC have such strong histories of social transformation and each was involved in the great issues of their time. É Different forms, yes, but each has deep roots of proclaiming the gospel through social transformation.”

“Dynamics”—not “labels”

Since 1968, the Rev. Art Cribbs, pastor of Christian Fellowship UCC in San Diego, has lived in 19 different cities, and in each one, he”s been a member of a UCC congregation.

“Within the context of each of these, there have been people on both ends and in the middle. So I would not be quick to want to label the church as a whole,” Cribbs says.

So, instead of attaching labels that never quite capture the true essence of an individual, much less an entire church, Cribbs says he is more comfortable discussing the unique “dynamics” of the UCC.

“We argue points personally and theologically Ñ with passion and intelligence—and that is the wonder of the UCC,” he says. “Opportunities are there for a range of ideas and experiences to be shared and appreciated, as opposed to saying, “Don”t ask the question.” There is this emphasis on being fully engaged.”

“We”re not afraid to find ourselves in the crucible. É We don”t believe that someone should be quiet but can have a relationship that uses the voice and ears, that engages the heart, mind and soul. We say, “Be open to the world and go into the world.”” Cribbs says. “Now does that make us liberal or conservative? I”m not sure. É So leave it up to others to define us, if they must.”

The church”s very nature is to be both conservative and liberal, argues the Rev. Frederick Trost, retired Wisconsin Conference Minister.

“The mothers and fathers who helped bring the UCC into being were wary of all who would soften or compromise [the] faith,” Trost says, adding, “[But] our faith is neither static nor rigid. We do not live in the first century, nor do we build “booths” in the 16th century. É We have been summoned to proclaim the faith in the 21st century É to express the faith of the saints and the martyrs in simple, compelling, fresh and daring, new ways.”

“There is a radical nature to this faith, certainly in terms of the biblical commitment to the lost, the empty, the oppressed and those who cry out from places of crucifixions at the margins of society,” he says. “This is sometimes described as “liberal” by our friends and our critics. I leave that to the linguists and the politicians. The question for faith remains, “Is it faithful?””

A progressive polity

The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, editor of The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ, says the UCC is perceived as a liberal or progressive denomination because “its polity allows General Synod to take actions that other denominations cannot take. It has been able to be cutting edge, not because everyone in the UCC agrees and endorses its actions, but because the General Synod on its own has been able to draw upon scripture, tradition, reason and human experience to take risks.”

“Delegates are led by the Holy Spirit under the Lordship of Christ to do new things,” Zikmund says. “Delegates are educated about things they never knew anything about. Delegates meet people who are different and they discover that they can all love Jesus together.

“The UCC is not really a liberal denomination, but the General Synod of the UCC has repeatedly taken radical, new, unusual, progressive, liberal positions,” she says. “They sometimes surprise themselves. They regularly surprise the people back home. They surprise other denominations. They surprise the world.”

Likewise, Nordbeck says the UCC”s emphasis on both autonomy and covenant—in all settings of the church—is a liberal concept in itself, because the UCC inherently trusts individual bodies to wrestle with difficult issues and arrive at faithful decisions.

“I am really convinced that congregationalism, as a church structure, is uniquely open to change in ways that more structured churches are not,” Nordbeck says. “In a congregational system, if a prophet arises, there aren”t indomitable structures that have to be changed for churches to be changed.”

Sherry agrees. “The polity allows for a divergence of understandings,” he says. “By allowing deliberation and having discussion, we begin to see issues in ways that open us to new movement.”


Even at the national level, the church is shaped by personal relationships, Sherry says, and the UCC and its predecessor bodies have known exceptionally strong, courageous leaders who have been passionate about forging a progressive direction for the UCC.

“Personalities are often very key to shaping understandings,” Sherry says.

Says Nordbeck, “The passion of leaders has an enormous impact, and it”s clear that the people who promulgated the merger were passionate, prophetic pioneers.”

In fact, Nordbeck points out that the UCC materialized, in part, because of personal friendships at the national settings of the two would-be partnering denominations. In ways comparable to the “all politics is local” axiom, Nordbeck says, church relationships—even on national and ecumenical levels—are conceived by real people and cemented by personal friendships.

Because of this reality, Cribbs insists that it is relationships—not labels—that matter most in the church.

“In relationships, even when we put a label on somebody, that label is secondary to who that person is. I don”t think you can overstate that fact. It”s how we come together as family,” Cribbs says. “There is something deep inside of me, as an African-American man, that says that this is a safe place for me. As an adopted person into the UCC, [whenever] I pass a place that says “UCC” on its marquee, I feel connected. I feel it”s safe to go inside. That”s all relationship, and it”s understood that we do not have to agree to be family.”

“I hope we never, never lose the importance of relationship,” Cribbs says. “If we ever do that, the prayer of Jesus—”That they may all be one”—will never be understood or affirmed, it will just be a slogan.”

Mixed messages

In broad terms, UCC members are more likely to identify as conservative—both politically and theologically. But when asked about positions on specific issues, they sound a lot more liberal.

How would you describe your basic political outlook?

Very or somewhat conservative 35%
Moderate 40%
Very or somewhat liberal 25%

How would you describe your basic theological outlook?

Very or somewhat conservative 40%
Moderate 36%
Very or somewhat liberal 24%

I think homosexuals should have the right to marry one another.

Strongly or somewhat agree 56%
Neutral/unsure 27%
Strongly or somewhat disagree 17%

The bible cannot be understood adequately apart from the cultural and historical context in which it was written.

Strongly or somewhat agree 58%
Neutral/unsure 28%
Strongly or somewhat disagree 14%

All different religions are equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth.

Strongly or somewhat agree 67%
Neutral/unsure 18%
Strongly or somewhat disagree 14%

“It reminds me of the 1970s and 80s, when it was an almost-laughable truism that most women would say, “I”m not a feminist, but I believe in the full equality of women,”” explains the Rev. Elizabeth Nordbeck, professor of ecclesiastical history at UCC-related Andover Newton Theological Seminary. “People don”t want to identify themselves with a word [liberal] that has negative baggage associated with it, even though they may believe those things.”

Source: UCC-specific results from the 2001 International Congregational Life Survey. Almost 21,000 UCC members from more than 800 congregations participated in the Lilly Endowment-funded research.

Defining “liberal”

Lib-er-al—adj. 1. Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views or dogmas; free from bigotry. 2. Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded. 3. Tending to give freely; generous. 4. Not strict or literal; loose or approximate.

Theological/philosophical liberalism—a school of thought committed to intellectual inquiry that finds it acceptable to critique conventional wisdom and long-held beliefs. This type of liberalism might best be exemplified—historically—by the Protestant Reformation, a time when people were freed from the constraints of church authorities to read and study the bible for themselves and to adopt new approaches to church governance.

“In this regard, both the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christians [the UCC”s predecessor bodies] were historically liberal,” says David Greenhaw, a church historian, who is president of UCC-related Eden Seminary in St. Louis.

Social liberalism speaks to acceptable norms and behaviors, such as those time-honored Christian arguments about the appropriateness of smoking, drinking or dancing. Today”s social liberals, for example, may not find fault with those who wear blue jeans to worship, have a beer with their pizza or engage in friendly bets on a college basketball game.

“In the UCC,” Greenhaw says, “our approach to Christianity is less prohibitive.”

Political liberalism—perhaps the most controversial application of the “L” word—applies to one”s stand on the public policy debates of the day. Historically speaking, both the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church staked out more liberal positions on political issues, such as the abolition of slavery, women”s suffrage and civil rights.

Today, however, “the average [UCC] person in the pew is not strongly liberal politically,” Greenhaw says.

Economic liberalism, in its classical definition, is committed to a radically free market, one free from government restraint. More than a tad confusing, classic economic liberals might be more comfortable calling themselves “fiscal conservatives” today.

The UCC”s clergy employment system—commonly called “search and call”—is based on the free market, a classically liberal approach that seeks to free the pastor-hiring process from constraints of institutional bishops.

Categories: United Church of Christ News

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