What happened in UUism in the wilderness?
The sense that we were outposts of an embattled cultural liberalism took over our thinking. We were enclaves, protected territory where "like-minded' people could gather safely. We were accused of not being a real religion, having no dogmatic beliefs, nor a defined path to salvation. Liberal politics and culture were described as excessively permissive, self-indulgent, faddish and repressive ("politically correct"). Whether we called ourselves Christian no longer mattered; "Real" Christians were insistent that we were definitely not. Our children told us that they felt unsafe and insecure on the playgrounds. Conservatives were building megachurches which seemed to exercise political power, while our congregations struggled to survive. A very small minority of very conservative UU's (often Libertarian or Objectivists) in congregations insisted on a very bright line between politics and religion, insisting that liberal religion had no necessary political implications.
Unitarian Universalism shaped itself in response. The political activists among us doubled down on their politics, becoming more radical. Political movements in retreat face the temptation to become more pure in their political expressions. But the vast majority of UU's are not political activists, and certainly not the majority of parish ministers. The overall result was a political paralysis in general, with pockets of extreme frustation.
Unitarian Universalism became very sectarian in the wilderness. While in the wilderness, the chalice became our universal symbol. Growing a UU identity became a goal of faith development. The seven principles became creedal and scriptural. Unitarian Universalism began to understand itself as a new world religion, a theme that had been first suggested pre-merger, but became dominant in the wilderness. All of this in a collection of congregations and individuals who thought themselves extremely diverse in theology.
"Religious community" or "the congregation" became the highest value in the wilderness period. The most important thing about us is that we are committed to each other. Joys and Concerns, understood as a liturgical expression of our concern for each other, was included in most congregations Sunday morning service. Against the criticism from outside that we had no real doctrine, we put forward our covenants. We had no creeds; we had covenants.
But congregations, especially congregations that can support full time ministry, are very difficult institutions to sustain, and almost impossible to start. They are the large mammals of the religious ecology. We never found a viable and sustainable growth strategy during the wilderness period.
So during the wilderness period, Unitarian Universalism became inwardly-focused, very anxious, politically isolated and neutralized and very sectarian. Our good news to the world was that we existed, and if people could find their way to us and learn our ways, they could be a part of our religious community, which would change their lives forever.
We survived the wilderness. We didn't tank like much of the mainline Protestants. Our forthright stand on LGBTQ concerns (which was facilitated by our inward-focused-self-perfectionism) brought a huge amount of new energy and talent into Unitarian Universalism, manna from heaven.
Now, we stand on the banks of the River Jordan.
I say the country entered into a new period in 2008. And I think that the Obama campaign embodies the change. Yes, he was seen as a more explicit form of political liberalism than previous Democrats, but the difference was the tremendous numbers of volunteers and donors that Obama 2008 mobilized. There is now a sense that the country as a whole is moving in our direction. We see hope in the younger generations (71% of college freshmen favor gay marriage) and in the changing demographics of the nation. While we live in a period of intense political struggle, with a back and forth movement of energy and initiative (Tea Party in 2009-2010, Wisconsin and Occupy in 2011), the ground is shifting.
And Unitarian Universalists are getting energized and in motion. People are going to Arizona; we are thinking about those beyond our congregations; missional communities are forming. This could be an exciting time for us.