What Time Is It?
My Thursday talk from the South West UU Summer Institute: Bread, Not Stones
Bread Not Stones
I want to start this morning by talking about Unitarian Universalist history.
Not Unitarian history Not Universalist History, but Unitarian Universalist history. Our history in the period leading up and through the 1961 merger to the present day.
This analysis was inspired by the work of James Luther Adams, the Unitarian historian and theologian, whose career started in the 1930's and ended more recently.
The most important thing I think that you can say about Adams was that he urged all of us to maintain a lively sense of history.
There are three eras of Unitarian Universalist history present here. One is the era of James Luther Adams, a man who was a young man in the 1930’s and at the heights of his analytical and theological powers in the 50’s and 60’s. Much of this era was before merger and some of it immediately after merger. It was an era in which Unitarianism went from being a religion whose political views, on the whole at the level of the rank and file and most congregations was good-government Moderate Republicanism. For most of the twentieth century, especially before merger, Unitarianism was a New England centered religion and quite moderate Republican in its politics. There were pro-labor, pacifist and radical ministers around the country, but they were the minority. However, in the 1950's Unitarian ministers started making a commitment to the burgeoning Civil Rights movement -- but remember that Yankee New England Republicans had had a long standing sort of alliance with African Americans in the South since before the Civil War.
Merger came in 1961. There was a great deal of optimism in the newly formed Association. We were going to be new world religion. But more importantly, we were a part of an ascendent progressive movement that was emerging out of the Cold War period.
During that period of time, especially during the early 60’s, political and cultural liberalism was growing and held the moral high ground in the culture. The election of John Kennedy marked a generational shift. And while Kennedy was assassinated, he was succeeded by Lyndon Johnson, who proceeded to enact a series of stunningly progressive pieces of legislation demanded by popular movements. The Civil Rights Bill, Medicare, the Voting Rights Bill, etc.
Unitarian Universalist churches were part of the general movement toward the integregation of society. More African American people belonged to UU churches than ever before or since. There was a sense of optimism and hope that liberalism would triumph, along with folk music and folk dancing. We assumed that conservative religion would be fading away soon -- superstition would be overcome by science and secularism. The right boundary of the religious landscape was Billy Graham's crusades.
And during the period of the 1960's, liberalism became more and more aggressive and radical -- on every front, musically, culturally, politically, socially, religiously. The old left gave way to the new left. The beats gave way to the hippies. The civil rights movement turned to black power -- antiwar movement split both the Democratic and the Republican party.
But 1968 and 1969 were a turning point. Richard Nixon won by naming and mobilizing a broad cultural resentment against progressivism and liberalism. It was everything about people like us and what we stood for that identified as the people’s enemy: our permissiveness, our skepticism; our internationalism; our nascent break with patriarchy; our sexual liberalism; our flirtations with mind-altering drugs; our cultural radicalism. Was Unitarian Universalism part of everything that was wrong with American culture, over the line? One could argue that it was, although there were many UU churches that struggled mightily to maintain themselves as respectable, moderate institutions.
After Nixon won in 1968, there followed 12 years of intense political, cultural and religious struggle between a defensive liberalism and an aggressive conservatism. In 1980, the election of Reagan confirmed what was already clear everywhere; liberalism in all of its forms had been culturally defeated.
Understand this please: in 1961, the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalist took place in an atmosphere in which great hopes were attached to a new religion for a new time. But there was only 7 or 8 years in which the cultural zeitgeist matched our mood and ambitions. Just seven or eight years.
Then came 1968, and for the 40 years since, religious liberalism and liberal religion have been wandering in the desert. We have been operating in a culture in which cultural, political and religious conservatism have been aggressive and dominant.
Liberalism became culturally toxic and ridiculous.
Liberals were jokes.
We were latte-sipping, chardonney drinking, cheese-eating, volvo-driving, politically correct, humorless, faddish, overly-privileged, romantic, radical chic, tree-hugging, dirt-worshipping, birkenstock-footed, unattractive, bra-burning, hairy-legged lesbian and limp-wristed faggy, tax and spending, draft-dodging, dope-smoking, LIBERALS. And UU churches were full of them.
Can I say that to some extent or another, every Unitarian Universalist I know has absorbed this toxic message and internalized it. We have allowed a self-hatred to grow up in our hearts. Please notice how much contempt we shower upon our UU churches and on other UU's.
Notice how easily we accuse each other of the grossest hypocrisy, how we don't walk the walk, although we talk the talk. How we just engage in checkbook activism.
Yesterday, we have a conflict in this room over what was an easier cop-out -- putting up a pro-peace message in a public place or feeding the poor. Listen to yourselves. Like I said, we think everybody should be a UU, except the ones who are.
I want you to understand that the reason we talk like this, and act like that, is not because we are morally deficient people. It is because for our entire lives, we have been part of a cultural population which has been ridiculed, vilified, demonized, but mostly ridiculed, mocked, minimized, and made a joke of.
And so we know we alternate between an insane grandiosity: we are the greatest people in the world and our institutions are getting close to being heaven on earth, a foretest of the beloved community, except for that fact that we are pathetic, ridiculous, hypocritical fools, pimples on the ass of American protestantism.
For most of us in this room, this has been our experience –to be religious leaders in a religious movement that feels like it is in exile, that feels like a saving remnant rather than a vanguard, where our churches feel like refuges rather than like launching pads.
For my entire adult life, Unitarian Universalism has been struggling with itself to maintain hope, to understand its mission, to generate real fervor, and to not get stuck in endless circular debates about what we are doing wrong.
For my entire adult life, Unitarian Universalists have been obsessed with the question: “What’s wrong with us? There must be something wrong with us that we are not as successful as our rivals. What’s wrong with us?”
We have survived; but we changed and been changed.
What do movements do when they are being defeated?
A movement in defeat goes through a stage where it gets more extreme, and engages in internal conflict. Look at 1968 and 1969. On the one hand, Richard Nixon is putting together a political coalition that will ultimately bring the African American liberation movement in the United States to a dead stop, while in the UUA, integrationists and black separatists are engaged in a life and death struggle over money we did not have that did embitter us for generations.
As liberalism's political power was slipping away, culturally, it became more and more extreme. Free love, open marriage, wife-swapping and ministerial sexual misconduct become rampant in our churches. Our Youth program becomes a boundaryless negative influence on our kids and is finally shut down.
And defeated and ridiculed people hunker down. Before this period of cultural conservatism, Unitarian Universalist churches did not describe themselves a being primarily religious communities where like-minded people could gather and be with each other. I think that in the 50's and 60's, liberal churches saw themselves as "beacons of liberal religions", not "havens of liberal religion." The fortress mentality
Unitarian Universalism became brittle and sectarian. Our kids came home from school and told us that they did not feel safe anymore, faced with the pressure from their more conservative playmates -- we became obsessed with building up our UU identity -- the chalice, the seven principles, the coffee cups with the famous UU's on them, the tee-shirts and the jewelry. We do have the highest ratio of tchokes to members of any cult in the world.
We developed high anxiety about our survival, which shows up as theological anxiety in our churches -- an older generation that is afraid that certain practices and styles will be lost -- and behind that fear is the fear that if my UU church changes, there will be no place where I can go -- for the world outside these walls has no place for me.
And I think that one of the changes that occured for UU's in this period of conservative ascendency has been the the retreat of larger UU churches from the political arena. Now this is a controversial statement that I am unsure of.
My sense is that as liberalism in all forms has become more ridiculed in the larger culture, UU churches which sought to preserve their respectability in the community, began to avoid political controversy. And my experience is that while the overall numbers of Republicans in our churches declined (I will show some survey numbers in a few minutes that suggest that the number of self-identified Republicans among UU's fell from 18% to 6% during the Clinton and Bush administrations) -- while the overall number of Republicans among the UU's fell, they became more insistent that the UUism avoid overt statements of political liberalism, as being partisan. The conservative theme has always been that they are the victims of an overweening liberalism -- and what better place to perform that dance than in a Unitarian Church.
Additionally, as more and more issues become polarized along partisan lines, more and more issues can become seen as partisan. For example, is a statement calling for concerted action to try to limit global climate change a partisan statement? Some think it so. Not only partisan, but evidence of the fact that the church is composed of 'tree-hugging, latte-sipping, volvo-driving, birkenstock wearing, meddlesome LIBERALS' in all their ridiculousness.
Would it be a partisan statement to condemn all the new restrictions on voting?
Would it be a partisan statement to discuss the ways that race has affected the perception of the first black President?
It would be a great historical project to catalogue the changes in Unitarian Universalism from 1968 to 2008: how did Liberal Religion adapt and development during a long period of cultural conservatism and hostility to liberalism?
A recent study of out of Trinity College based on American Religious Identification Surveys shows some of the changes that occured for Unitarian Universalism in the period of 1990 to 2008 -- the last 18 years of this period of conservative hegemony in the American culture.
Now, this study looked at people who identified themselves as Unitarian Universalist, whether or not they belonged to a congregation.
First of all, the numbers of self-identified UU's had grown, pretty much at pace with the US population. Now, we know that our congregational growth is almost non-existent in that period of time. Less than half of self-identified UU's belong to a congregation.
75% of self-identified UU's are non-hispanic whites in 2008, down from 90% in 1990. Again, this does not appear true among UU's in congregations.
UU's in and out of congregations got older between 1990 and 2008. The median age went up, from 44 in 1990 to 52 in 2008, which is also 8 years old than the median age of the US adult population.
72% of self-identified UU's agree with the statement that "God Exists." -- a statement that could not be said without equivocation from what I suspect is a majority of our pulpits by the settled minister.
And between 1990 and 2008, the number of self-identified UU Republicans fell from 18% to 6%, the number of Democrats rose from 42% to 64% and the number of independents fell from 37 to 30%.
Looking at these numbers of all self-identified UU's and comparing them to what I suspect about the UU's in our congregations, I have to come to the conclusion that the UU's who are not participating in our congregations are less white and more theistic than the people in our congregations. I also have to conclude that fewer young people are identifying as UU's.
These numbers reinforce to me that despite the cultural hegemony of conservativism we are still holding our own, but probably not through our congregations, except as temporary places.
I wonder if the growing number of self-identified UU's are people who had some experience in one of our congregations, but has moved on -- still considering themselves UU but not interested in belonging to that particular congregation. And I wonder if the persistent sense of anxiety, struggle for survival, and even failure that pervades many of our congregations is not very attractive to people. (war, movement, store)
So I have been describing t the second period of our modern UU history and almost all of us are of that era: we are the Desert people: UU’s of the exile.
The tide started turning in 2008, as marked by the election of President Obama. (Of course, I don’t believe that Presidents have the actual power to set the cultural tone, but their campaign themes and election show what is going on below the surface.) Beneath the surface, the rise of a new generations into adulthood, the changing demographics of the country, the collapsing economy which has hit younger people especially hard, brought forward a new electorate which made Obama's election possible. These are changes that are not just transformations of the voting population, but much broader cultural changes. But this man, who went to two different UU Sunday schools in his childhood, was elected as the result of a tremendous surge of rank and file activity and financial commitment.
And we are now in another period of intense political struggle, like 1968 to 1980, but now the forces of liberalism are resurgent and the conservatism is on the defensive. Now it is conservative forces in the culture who are in the period in which they struggle and contend over purity and extremism like liberals did in the first years of our decline.
And this year, The Occupy movement has put issues of economic class on the agenda for the first time since before World War 2. And even more importantly, the Occupy movement has lifted up the banner of the 99%. We are used to thinking of ourselves as being a tiny, tiny sliver of the American population, a speck. True, but almost all of us are part of the 99% who share a common interest in this highly unequal world. We are not alone, but a part of a vast population struggling for economic security, safety, survival.
We are in a third period of UU history now, and no one is of this period. No adult has ever grown up in a period in which we could assume that very large numbers of our fellow citizens share our basic worldview.
We face a different world and a different cultural environment than we have ever seen before.
Now is the time to set aside our brittle sectarianism -- our preoccupation with our own institutions and our own circles -- and be ready to join a much broader social, religious, cultural and yes, political, movement. There are millions upon millions of people who share our values of self-determination, honesty, humility, gratitude, reverence, openness and compassionate justice-making love. They are of all religions and of no religion. We do not need to convert them to offer them a yellow teeshirt and invited them to stand on the side of love.
And there are millions upon millions of people who simply need allies to secure the necessities of life for themselves and their children.
And I believe that there are millions upon millions of people who would find it of great benefit to join us in our spiritual practice of congregational worship, Millions who would want to join with others for a time of peace and prayer and song and stirring words. We should never set aside, or diminish, or downplay, or apologize, our spiritual practice; it is a life-giving, empowering, transforming, inspiring, living gift that we offer to all who can make use of it. It is a sign of the oppression that has laid upon us, and the self-hatred we have developed in response, that we think it dumb, or boring, or unimportant. For us to be embarrassed by our worship services, is like a zen master apologizing for sitting still, or a muslim ashamed of the prayer rug.
I want to thank you all for the very kind reception you have given me this week. I hope that what I have offered you has been helpful to you in your spiritual life, and in your work in the communities where you live and in the congregations where you worship with your closest community. I hope that I have brought bread for you, and not stones. I know that I have been fed good bread, good nutritious bread by your company and collaboration this week.
I make up my benediction every week; it is a chance to finally, in the midst of the dust and heat of my preaching, say what I had been trying to say for 20 minutes and often I come to these words, some of which are mine and some of which I have taken from my mentors and models: Frank Schulman, Ruppert Lovely, Carl Scovel, Kim Beach and James Luther Adams. And often I end up saying something like this:
“There is a power at work in the Universe, a great good intention at the heart of Creation, a creative, sustaining and transforming power, that will carry you in every action you take for justice, for community, and for love. You have a right to be here, for you are a creature of that power. You can depend on that power; you can rely on that power; you can trust that power with your heart and hopes, for all your life and with all your love. Be not afraid; and Go now in peace.”