I think that the number one thing that we have to remember is that the whole nation is emerging from a 40 year period in which all forms of liberalism were on the defensive and all forms of conservatism were ascendent, almost hegemonic. I date this period by the highly visible markers of Presidential elections, but they only reflect what was going on below the surface in the culture as a whole. So I start liberalism's 40 years in the desert as beginning in 1968 and ending in 2008. So for 40 out of the 50 years there has been a UUA, it has been swimming against the tide, or even wandering in the wilderness.
To me, the era was symbolized by one story I have heard repeated so often: UU parents remarking that their children were being disturbed and unsettled by the comments of their schoolmates that they were going to Hell. Our children did not feel safe on the playgrounds of their school.
As fish knows not of water, UU's are barely conscious of how much the atmosphere of general hostility to liberalism has affected us. We should talk about that for hours, connecting the dots.
If UUism was a privatized religion, consisting mostly of personal spiritual practice and withdrawal from the material world, the conservative turn in the general culture would have not been difficult for us. But UUism is a socially engaged religion. So it was at the point of intersection between our religion and the political/social reality that surrounded us that become the most contested point in UUism.
I would argue that almost all of the internal developments within UUism, both in local congregations and as a larger institution are the expression of differing strategies for surviving the political and cultural wilderness.
Strategic responses to the wilderness moved along a polarity between accommodation and defiance.
On the one hand, we continued to uphold the main thrusts of cultural and political liberalism throughout this period, most notably making a strong commitment to GLBT equality, feminism, anti-racism, environmental activism, interfaith solidarity etc. There are many committed UU's whose overall critique is that UU's have not been radical enough, or consistent enough and who damn us for our faint-heartedness.
On the other hand, there are the strategies of accommodation: all those impulses to respectability and inoffensiveness. I think that our commitment to "political diversity" was a strategy of accommodation to the aggressive conservatism of the general culture.
The cost of the commitment to political diversity as a defining feature of our congregations has been to define religion, politics and culture as separate spheres of life and thought. It has been a necessary article of faith that one can be liberal in religion, conservative in politics, elitist in culture etc. Mix and match to your heart's content.
We, who believe that as a matter of faith, that all things are interconnected, also believe that politics and religion as so loosely connected that any combination can work.
At this point, I will not push the argument further except to ask: how has that been working for us?
Right now, it seems that UUism is both castigated for "talking the talk, but not walking the walk." In other words, we are inconsistent, and dilettantish in the public expression of our faith. On the other hand, others are incensed that we seem to be "chaplains to the Democratic Party" and "tolerant of everyone but Republicans."
I am writing this on the day of Barack Obama's second Inauguration. His election confirms my suspicion that 2008 marked the end of the cultural hegemony of conservatism in the politics and culture of the US. Our wilderness days may be coming to an end.
It is time to consider new possibilities.