Monday, August 14, 2006

Unitarian Universalism in Context

My "zeitgeist" windsock has been extended out in a new direction, which means that the weathervanes at the top of our old New England churches should start turning. I know that I tend to see the world turning more rapidly than it actually does, but it makes me alert to changes in the climate. I am the hypochrondriac canary in the coal mine -- "say guys, don't you think it smells a little funny right now?"

I want to consider the following possibility: that the long flow of the conservative reaction to the liberatory movements of the 60's has crested and is, now, ebbing. There is a lot of evidence for it, and, of course, the future has not happened yet, so I may be premature. But whether it is true now in 2006, it will be true someday, soon.

That rightward reaction, I think began in 1968, when Nixon was elected, co-opting the ideologically conservative, anti-New Deal movement of Goldwater as the ideologues of a much nastier mass movement against radicalism. GW Bush was politically formed in the heat of those late 60's struggles -- the privileged frat boy who detested the radicals of the day, and who has spent a lifetime trying to prove them wrong.

We can argue the historical analysis, but this is my question.

Unitarian Universalism was institutionally created in 1962. It's infancy was a period of great leftward movement culturally, politically and religiously. But most of our institutional history has been spent in a period of cultural, political and religious Reaction, a Thermidor, a period that my personal zeitgeist windsock says is coming to an end. What has been the dialectical relationship between Unitarian Universalism and this broader rightward flow?

I can see three modes that we have related to the broader conservative flow around us: retreat, accomodation and resistance. Much of our internal debates have been over the whens, the wheres and the hows of each of these modes of response.

For example, much of our theologizing has been in retreat from a resurgent conservative trend in evangelical protestantism. With the exception of some of the UU Christians, UU's no longer even wish to inhabit the same theological universe as other Protestants in the USA. We don't try to answer the same questions.

In terms of public ministry, you can see all three trends at work. Much of our internal talk has been in a retreat mode. For example, I think that our discussions of anti-racism have been primarily arguments between liberals and radicals, and everywhere I think that when the discussion is between those two poles, we are in a retreat mode, talking amongst ourselves and not engaging the outside environment.

One of the few places that we genuinely resist the rightward flow has been on GLBTQ issues.

But internally to many churches, I have seen case after case where the internal discussion of current events have accommodated the larger political trends. Political conservatives within Unitarian Universalism have claimed victim status against the liberal hegemony, and have been able to freeze the discussion.

Now, this puts me into an uncomfortable position. I have long been a "free churcher" in my approach to politics and the church. I don't like the resolutions that we pass at GA and it appalls me whenever I hear of a church adopting "a statement of conscience" for or against this or that. (Churches don't have consciences; individuals do. Organizations have platforms, statements of unity and creeds.) Like most neo-traditionalists in the UUA (you know who you are, so don't act shocked), I have worried that the UUA was turning into a secular political organization. I have written on this subject before there were email lists, back when you had to kill a few trees to make your point.

But these days, when the windsock is stretched out another way, I wonder whether was a cheap accommodation to bullying wrapped in a whine. Was it part of a larger pattern in which social gospel was silenced between 1968 and now? In 1968, the politically active church was present, and vocal, and people knew that it stood against racism, poverty, oppression and war. Now, the politically active church are conservative theocrats, the ground machine of the Republican party. Not every denomination was converted from left to right; Unitarian Universalism would never be, but was it neutralized?

So the picture might be this: one trend is a retreat into a progressively more radical issue stances at the national level, while in individual churches, a relative small number of conservatives complain about their marginalization, while the center steers the church into the safety of hands-on charity, and fundraising. Meanwhile, the prophetic role of the liberal church atrophied.

These are big issues, involving almost all of our history, and for many, much of our lives. But the times call for taking a long view and seeing the biggest picture possible.

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