United Church of Christ headquarters, Cleveland
lush warmth of Miami, Cleveland was cold and windswept. Like many places
that have seen more prosperous days, the city feels bigger than it is.
The downtown is criss-crossed with broad avenues and wide sidewalks
overshadowed by massive office blocks, many of them monuments to an era
when the steel industry was thriving.
One of the newest
buildings is “The Q” — the Quicken Loans Arena — where Trump was
officially nominated last July. From there, a 10-minute walk down
Ontario Street brings you to one of the oldest buildings in the city,
the Presbyterian Old Stone Church, built in 1834. In 1865, the body of
President Abraham Lincoln lay in state outside the church while
mourners, including some of Lincoln’s family, held a packed funeral
service inside. The ironies of that juxtaposition scarcely bear thinking
about. From Lincoln to Trump, no Republican has ever won the White
House without winning Ohio.
The United Church of Christ
headquarters are in the city centre, not far from The Q. My first
conversation was with John C. Dorhauer, who is in charge of keeping his
extensive and sometimes fractious denomination together. A former
pastor, Dorhauer is used to the challenge of leading congregations where
he was theologically more liberal than his flock. “In a denomination
like ours, where we prize freedom of the pulpit, pastors who function in
churches with that theological and political divide have to constantly
find the balance,” he said. “Now, Trump has changed the game for them.”
I asked him in what way.
“Trump’s bald, audacious,
offensive rhetoric is something we’ve never seen before,” he replied.
“We have female clergy who are traumatized by seeing a man elected who
consistently degraded them on the campaign trail. We have immigrant
communities who are literally now in fear for the families who populate
their churches. We have clergy who have formed deep relationships with
their Muslim partners in their communities, who are actively now on the
front lines defending them in ways they never imagined they would have
to before. And so it’s changed the game.”
He continued, “One of
the ways I frame this is that we’ve always had voices like Donald
Trump’s. The election of Donald Trump is not about Donald Trump. It’s
about a discovery that America wants to be something we didn’t think
America ever wanted to be.”
It had always baffled me that the
Republicans were able to gain such traction among so many Americans of
faith by promising, for instance, to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Wasn’t universal health insurance a very Christian idea?
the question to another signatory of the pastoral letter, Rev. Traci
Blackmon, who, before becoming executive minister in charge of the UCC’s
Justice and Witness Ministries, worked as a registered nurse. Now she
divides her time between Cleveland and Florissant, a suburb of St.
Louis, where she is senior pastor of Christ the King United Church of
Christ, a largely African-American congregation.
“This is not a
Christian nation,” Blackmon replied emphatically. “It’s a religious
nation, you know what I’m saying? People have taken pieces that suit
their personal needs from sacred texts and created for themselves this
image of what God is and what God means. What we’re talking about here
is a theology of chosenness.”
If people see God as being on their
side, she explained, then it’s easy to see the struggles of others as
being their own fault. “I think that’s what slavery is all about.
There’s no way that, as a Christian person, you can have slaves, unless
you found some way to justify, through sacred texts, that it is God’s
will that you be superior. So if you can do that in your mind, and
decide that the things you’ve achieved in life, the benefits that you’ve
gotten in life, . . . the fact that you have insurance, the fact that
you have a home — if you can connect those things to your favour in
God’s sight, you can also justify why other people don’t have that.”
felt I was hearing a very old idea in a radically new context. It was
all a matter of shifting one’s perspective. The Bible, in Blackmon’s
view, is the story of a people on a journey to find God. It’s a story
that can apply to all people. It’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s Everyman.
But if you flip it, you get a story about a God seeking out and
choosing a particular people. In that version, you get winners and
losers, people who have God on their side and people who don’t. Trump is
an avatar of the theology of chosenness, a poster boy for the gospel of
prosperity. “We have to commit to deconstruct the theology of
chosenness, the theology of capitalism as being Godly,” Blackmon said,
“and it’s going to be a long road.”
Did she think Trump’s victory could galvanize the churches to stand up to him?
believe that’s true, but it doesn’t make the pain of this moment any
less, right?” she said. “I’m a witness that God works in mysterious
ways, and I know fully well that God has abandoned neither myself nor
Mr. Trump. So I think that something will emerge here and that we will
be stronger for it, because we have to be. It’s not just about lamenting
and moaning, but it’s also about how we’re going to strategize to build
our coffers in such a way that when people come to us, we can help.”
Rev. John C. Dorhauer, General Minister and President, United Church of Christ, Cleveland. Photo courtesy of the United Church of Christ
Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago
final stop was Chicago, where I planned to revisit Obama’s old church,
Trinity United Church of Christ. I’d written a story about it for this
magazine in 2008, and I wanted to see what the mood was like eight years
on, with Obama’s nemesis poised to take over the White House.
first, I sought out Linda Thomas, whom I had interviewed for that
story. Thomas is a professor of anthropology and theology at the
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. In the early spring of 2008,
during the presidential primaries, Obama had withdrawn from Trinity and
broken with his mentor — Trinity United’s senior pastor emeritus, Rev.
Jeremiah Wright Jr. — because some of Wright’s statements, taken out of
context, seemed stridently rabble-rousing and could have hurt Obama’s
run for the Democratic nomination. In the media frenzy that followed,
the church’s new senior pastor, Rev. Otis Moss III, asked Thomas to be a
spokesperson for the church.
When Thomas and I met this time,
at a Middle Eastern restaurant not far from her school, I was still
mulling over my experiences and conversations in Miami and Cleveland.
Was I right in thinking that there was a unique complexity and toughness
in the black response to Trump, one that had deep historical roots, one
we needed to understand if we were to appreciate the full impact of
Yes, Muslims, immigrants, women, those in the
LGBTQ community and environmentalists all have specific reasons to
worry. To the extent that Trump threatens to gut democratic
institutions, undermine the media’s credibility and upend foreign policy
norms, we all do. But the journey of black Americans has been
particularly long and hard, and although Trump may represent a terrible
setback, to black congregations he is not a surprise. As Imam Taymullah
Abdur-Rahman, a Muslim chaplain at Harvard University, said on that Basic Black
episode last November, “You hear a lot of white people saying, ‘This is
a wake-up call,’ but the black and brown people are looking around and
saying, ‘Good morning! We been awake!’”
Thomas never responded to
my question directly, though I realized afterwards that our whole
wide-ranging conversation was her answer. She talked of her visceral
response to Trump and how he had “triggered this demon” in people. At
the same time, she recognized that many of his followers had genuinely
suffered during the last eight years. She had predicted that Trump was
going to win, but when he did, she broke out in shingles, as though she
were rejecting the man with her whole body. She sought solace in
something Moss had said in a sermon: “God will not be trumped.”
reminded her of what she’d told me in 2008: “I believe that God is
working the healing of the nation through Trinity United Church of
Christ. This church has put forth a presidential candidate. And we
believe he will win.” She turned out to have been right then too, at
least about Obama’s victory. Healing the nation from the plague of
racism has proven to be a much taller order.
On my final day, I
went to the 11 a.m. worship service at Trinity UCC in Chicago’s South
Side. A bitter wind was filling the sidewalks and roadways with snow,
and the large sanctuary was less than half full. Compared to the lush,
celebratory feeling of the service I attended in 2008, this one felt
spare, pared down, more intense and much more political. The modern
dance number (a regular feature of worship at Trinity) had a hard,
unsettling edge. Four male dancers in white masks crouched in the
background, then prowled like predators among the female performers, who
appeared to be trying desperately to break free from invisible
The sermon delivered by Rev. Stacey Edwards-Dunn, the
church’s executive minister of community engagement and transformation,
was a virtuoso performance, filled with colourful political commentary
laced with explicit references to Trump. “You and we, we’ve been here
before,” she said in her peroration. “This is not the first time that
you’ve been between a rock and a hard place. And if God walked you
through before, if God walked us through slavery, if God brought us
through racist presidents before, if God brought us through Jim Crow and
other situations that oppressed us, I am crazy enough to believe that
God can, and that God will, do it again. We will just have to wait upon
For UCC members, “waiting” has never meant “doing
nothing,” and in the surge of opposition after Trump’s inauguration, the
church made no secret of how it felt about some of the executive orders
spewing out of the White House. Senior church officials, including
Dorhauer, joined 2,000 other U.S. faith leaders in condemning the
late-January ban Trump imposed on travellers from seven Muslim countries
and anyone seeking sanctuary in the United States as a refugee. In a
letter to the president and members of Congress, they declared that
Trump’s orders “fly in the face of the very principles the nation was
built upon, contradict the legacy of leadership our country has
historically demonstrated, and dishonor our shared humanity.” The
equanimity of the UCC’s post-election pastoral note has given way to a
defiance that is sure to grow.
The UCC joined the rest of the
world in working to ensure that this “disastrous opportunity” would not
become a disaster, plain and simple.
Paul Wilson lives in the Town of the Blue Mountains, Ont.
Sign up for our free e-newsletter now!
Get The Observer’s latest stories on justice, faith and ethics by signing up for our e-newsletter. It only takes a few seconds to join and we’ll deliver award-winning content to your in-box.
SIGN UP TODAY