What's Tony Thinking

Political Correctness and A Message for the UCC


Last week the group “More in Common” put out a study of our divided society, “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape,”  It is worth paying attention to.

Instead of falling into two camps of left and right, 2/3’s of Americans constitute “an exhausted majority,” who “share a sense of fatigue with our polarized national conversation, a willingness to be flexible in their political viewpoints, and a lack of voice in the national conversation” (which is dominated by the extremes).

Another of their conclusions was that a lot of Americans are disturbed by political correctness. “Among the general population, a full 80 percent believe that ‘political correctness’ is a problem.”

The author of the Atlantic article about the study, Yascha Mounk, who teaches government at Harvard, acknowledged that “certain elements on the right mock instances in which political correctness goes awry in order to win license to spew outright racial hatred.”

But the fact remains that a large majority of Americans “feel deeply alienated by woke culture,” and “80 percent believe that political correctness has become a problem in the country.”

This does not mean everyone is with Trump on this. It turns out, according to “Hidden Tribes,” a large majority of Americans are also concerned about “hate speech” and “abhor racism.” In other words, you can be concerned about political correctness and not be a bigot.

It is when Mounk deliberates on some of the lessons here for his own cohort — “left-leaning, politically engaged, highly educated” — that lessons emerge for a church/ denomination like my own, the United Church of Christ.

The essential one is that people in this cohort are out of touch with the wider culture — even as they vastly overestimate the prevalence of their own views and influence.

“The study should also make progressives more self-critical about the way in which speech norms serve as a marker of social distinction. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the affluent and highly-educated people who call others out if they use ‘problematic’ terms or perpetrate an act of ‘cultural appropriation.’ But what the vast majority of Americans seem to see — at least according to the research for ‘Hidden Tribes’ — is not so much genuine concern for social justice as the preening display of cultural superiority.”

Mounk continues to distill lessons for progressives from the study:

“The gap between the progressive perception and the reality of public views on this issue could do damage to the institutions that the woke elite collectively run.

“A publication whose editors think they represent the views of a majority of Americans when they actually speak to a small minority of the country may eventually see its influence wane and its readership decline. And a political candidate who believes she is speaking for half of the population when she is actually voicing the opinions of one-fifth is likely to lose the next election.” (italics added, substitute “church” for “publication.”)

To be clear, Mounk does not mention my denomination, The United Church of Christ, or churches at all for that matter.

But his characterization of the way progressives tend to be so sure of their own rightness (and righteousness) and the way they believe they are speaking for all decent people everywhere (when they are only speaking for and to a small minority) sounds a lot like where the UCC is these days, particularly in its national offices and their organs.

UCC President, John Dorhauer, is fond of describing the UCC as the world’s “best kept secret.” The implication is that if only people knew about us they would be beating down the doors.

I understand that part of the role of someone in his position is to be a cheerleader for the team. But it takes a certain amount of willful self-deception to think our only challenge is marketing.

These days the UCC is down to under 5,000 congregations and roughly 850,000 members. That from from 2.4 million 60 years ago — a period when the U.S. population has grown from 174 to 327 million.

According to a recent denominational fact sheet, “From 2006 to 2016 alone, the UCC encountered a net loss of 518 congregations and 316,091 members.”

From 2005 through 2007 the UCC experienced a loss of nearly three congregations a week. That has slowed. We now lose one congregation every 1 and 1/4 weeks.

All of these statistics have been poured over and lamented in many quarters. I’m not interested in rehearsing all of that. And yes, many factors bear on these trends.

But Mounk’s observations about the significant gap between progressive’s perception of reality and the views of the broader public strikes me as an accurate description of a church I love enough to quarrel with. (I also had a similar perception when I worked for the Clinton campaign in Ohio two years ago. “All we have to do is get our people out and we’ll win” was the line and strategy.)

We — meaning the United Church of Christ — also need, as Mounk suggests for progressives generally, to be more “self-critical.” Not in a downer or woe-is-me way. But in a way that evidences both greater humility and greater curiosity. We need, you might say, a dose of the open-mindedness upon which we all too often congratulate ourselves.


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