Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Great Awakening of the Liberal Spirit

So how do people grow in the liberal faith?

Rev. James Forbes talked about another Great Awakening to come (at his sermon at the UUMA Center Institute last month).  He even said that UU's might have been anointed to play a special leadership role in it. Is that too woo-woo for us to hear?

I do believe that the nation is on the eve of a Great Awakening of the Liberal Spirit.  It would be a movement of the Spirit: a widespread, self-replicating spontaneous spiritual development.

We know that a new progressive majority has been forming in the political world.  We know that the young are creating a culture more comfortable with diversity and more liberal culturally than ever before.

A great awakening of the liberal spirit will come when liberals are hopeful, and confident that we can build a better world.  It would be clear that the great work we have to do, reversing climate change, sharing the earth's wealth fairly, unleashing the potential in every person is work that we could do.  We would hear a great Spirit calling us to institutionalize love as the foundation of social life.  And so many people would be willing to make that call be the mainspring of their life's unwinding.

Are there words yet to describe what is possible if the Spirit moved us to live according to our hopes, and not our despairs? 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Mission (further explanation)

B. A. Gerrish, writing in the The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought summarizes John Calvin as believing that "The vocation of humanity -- their unique role in the created order -- is to render continual thanks to the Father and the fountain of Good."  Or, as Calvin is often paraphrased -- the purpose of Man is to Glorify God. Even though he was a Reformer, Calvin had not strayed far from Medieval thought that God was the center of everything.  Think of Dante's view of Paradise, the most boring of the three books, because it describes banks and banks of angelic choirs all singing in the Glory of God.  Humanity, at least while it lives, is the back row of the choir, inattentive and goofing around.

Liberal Religion is the "religion with no name" that replaced that Medieval conception, by making an unstated shift in the premise.  The purpose of humanity is human well-being.  For almost all human beings since the dawn of time, with the exception of professional theologians, this has been pretty obvious.   Liberal Religion was created in the Western tradition by this shift from theo-centric worldview to a human-centric worldview.  And that shift was connected with a turn toward empiricism and science as the primary way of knowing and understanding the world.

My assertion in the previous post "The Mission of Liberal Religion Is.." liberal religion was human-centered was speaking to this distinction.  One of my oldest friends in the world chided me for being 'species-ist' by this statement in a comment on Facebook.  I think that our enlightenment forebears were species-centric, but we don't have to be.  My colleague, Clyde Grubbs, similarly points out the narrowness of the enlightenment world view which pulled the isolated intellect out the world to observe it from afar.  True, but we don't have to go backwards to pre-modern theological scholaticism to escape that blind alley.  

Human-centered worldview could be and has been summarized by the word "humanism".  Unfortunately, the word "humanism" has become the trademark of atheism, especially in UU circles, so  it has been narrowed.  In this context, I am using it to mean a human (and all life-centered) worldview as opposed to what was dominant before.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The mission of liberal religion is .....

to save the world from disaster by making more people liberal.

It's that simple.

Some definitions are in order:  What I call liberal religion could also be called human-centered spirituality, or religious humanism or humanistic theism.

It is one of the world's great religions, although it shies away from calling itself a religion.  (In that way, it is like Buddhism.)  It is a way of conceptualizing how human beings are in the world, and draws moral and ethical implications from that to daily life.  It is a way of reverence.

It accepts science as its metaphysics.  It understands the purpose of life to be human well-being.  It is universalistic in that understands the entire human race as the scope of its mission.

It has been subverting other religions from within and without for centuries now.

It's virtues are reverence, self-possession, the gemini of gratitude and generosity, honesty, humility, fairness, openness.

what happened in the 70's?

You remember that I have suggested that there are three periods of modern UU history:  1961-69 (Liberalism Ascendent), 1969-2008 (also known as the Wilderness Years) and 2009-Present (Now).

I have been reading some about the period of 1969 to 1980.  In US history, it is the period of Nixon, Ford and Carter.  In UU history, it is the Presidencies of Robert West, Paul Carnes, who died in office and Gene Pickett, who filled out his term and was then re-elected in 1981.  

As I read about the Robert West period (in Warren Ross's The Promise and the Premise) and in Tom Owen-Towle's biography of Eugene Pickett (Borne on a Wintry Wind), there is a palpable sense of horror and shame.  It seems that the aftermath of the Black Empowerment Controversy had released into our collective body a toxic brew of poisons.  We went into a financial crisis; the free spending days of Dana Greeley and Liberalism Ascendent) caught up with us.  Relationships between UUA entities like the Board and the Staff and the Ministers soured and became confrontative.  There was a lot of bad behavior in a lot of places.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Box

OK, Count me as a slow learner.  Maybe everyone else already figured this one out.

There is an almost unresolvable contradiction in our congregation between being inclusive, welcoming and democratic on the one hand, and having a transformative mission on the other. It is almost inevitable that the direction setting power in the congregation will rest with the people who are satisfied and content with the way the congregation is right now.  

How does this change?

Where Did the Power Go?

Shannon (@ladyskysong) tweeted in response to my post on abolishing "membership" in UU Churches.

@tominma Then your churches become run only by those with time for 2-3 committee meetings (likely at noon). Who's voices get heard? Retirees

A very perceptive question, and one that I had not thought about explicitly since yesterday.   "How would eliminating the general membership category change the power dynamics in a UU church?"  Like I said, my brain is catching up with my mouth on this.

My first premise is that churches and congregations ought to be mission - driven institutions. as opposed to merely democratic institutions.  Power should be in the hands of those who are most committed to and active in fulfilling its mission.   Right now, this is not true in most congregations.  Right now, there is a lot of power in the hands of those who like the church as it is, or as it was, and that power is used to keep things as they are.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

End "Membership" in UU Churches

A discussion today at the SE Michigan UUMA cluster meeting brought up the question of membership.

It doesn't violate our covenant of confidentiality to report that I made several sweeping pronouncements which, to the someone who didn't know me, would give the impression that I knew what I was talking about, and had thought and studied on the matter in some depth.

So I have spent the rest of the day trying to get my brain to catch up with my mouth.

So why don't we get rid of this concept of UU church membership?

It seems to me that there are several overlapping and concurrent circles of people involved in a typical UU Church.  But, we have only two categories of people we describe:  Members and Friends.  And then, there are all the others.

Members are someone who has joined the church, signed the book and met whatever other requirements the church may require.  They get to vote in the congregational meetings, and some of them actually do.

Friends haven't signed the book, but are active in some way and are financial supporters of the congregation.

But in reality, there are multiple relationships:

1. There is the Worshipping Congregation:  people who attend the church on a regular basis for worship.
2.  There are people who active in various congregational programs -- teach in RE, sing in the choir, come to forums and programs.  Call them the UU Activists.
3.  There are people who financially support the congregation. Call them Supporters.
4.  There are people who take an active interest in the governance of the institution -- they do come to the Annual Meeting, listen carefully, vote thoughtfully and stay to the end.  They serve on administrative committees and task forces.  Call them the Institutionalists.
5. There are people, we hope. who are allies of the church in the community.  They could be mobilized by the church for a cause, a program, a concert.  Just say they are in our Network.
6. There are people in the community  who identify as Unitarian Universalists but who choose, for one reason or another, not to be active in this particular church.  I don't know what you call them: the Beyond Congregationalists, the Lost Sheep, or Free Range UU's.
7.  There are elders who used to be very active in the congregation but who are no longer because of age and infirmity.  Call them our Alumni.

Re-imagining Our Growth Model

UU's presently work with the following model of church growth:

1.  Get a nice building with good parking and good minister.
2.  Put on the very bestest worship service you can.
3. Be really really nice to the people who show up.
4.  Get them active in the church community so they will join the church.
5.  Use your growing membership to create more programs and increase the staff.
6.  Take it up a notch: better building, better staff, better worship service and repeat.

Gross over-simplification, I admit.

It is the "attraction model."

The pathway to membership, though, tends to pass through the narrow gate of the worship service.  You have to like, or at least, tolerate the worship service to be willing to make the commitment to the church.  Which is odd, because once you are a member, attendance in worship is really even more optional than in other traditions.  People can be members of the church without going to worship, but by being active in the programs of the church.

The programs of the church work by and, often, for the members of the church.  Hence our public ministry projects tend to be done by smaller groups than the whole church, but done in the name of the church.  For example: the social justice committee of the First Parish of East Cupcake have taken a firm stand against the Keystone Pipeline.

Back when everybody went to church on Sunday morning, the Unitarian Church was for many people, the bestest worship service they could imagine.  Lively, non-dogmatic, non-demanding: if you had to go somewhere, it was a good choice.  It was wider gate to pass through than most of the other denominations and traditions.

But when you don't have to go somewhere on Sunday morning, it's a different story.

Anywhere from a third to a half of the people in the United States, maybe even more, agree with the basic propositions of liberal religion.  Many of them also aspire to live lives shaped by the values and virtues of liberal religion: reverence, self-possession, honesty, humility, openness, fairness, gratitude and generosity.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Grace Lee Boggs

I have been reading the most recent book by Grace Lee Boggs, the 95 year old veteran radical now centered in Detroit.  Much there to consider about the state of our world.

But what I have been most heartened by is her explication of dialectical thinking, which she summarizes as follows:

Constantly striving to overcome the contradictions or negatives that inevitably arise in the course of struggle, constantly challenged to break free from views that were at one time liberating, but had become fetters because reality had changed, we are required to create new ideas that make more concrete and more universal our concept of what it means to be free.  (page 58 of the Nest American Revolution.)
Tell me more about this "dialectical thinking" and how Unitarian Universalism can get itself some.

Dialectical is close to the word: "dialogue."  And I notice two dialogues being described.

One is the dialogue we have with the realities of the present, this moment in time.  Her catch phrase was what "What time is it on the clock of the world?"

The other is the dialogue we have with our already settled opinions, which seem to be inevitably slide from being liberating to being restricting.  It is in the very nature of human beings to not keep up with changing reality.

But the goal is create new conception of freedom.

This is our work now.

Anointment for a New Appointment (more)

The Rev. James Forbes of the Riverside Church in New York City urged the assembled UU ministers in Florida to consider the possibility that God might have prepared us for a new task in this new era now emerging.  He suggested that it might be that we have practicing the kind of multi-inter-no-faith (my phrase, not his) speech that will be needed in the days to come.

He is right, I believe, especially in that we have forced ourselves to assemble a language of reverence out of ordinary, non-religious words and signs.

I have a shelf of UUA meditation manuals near my desk.  I can pick one at random -- here is one -- it's Kaki McTigue's Shine and Shadow.  Just leafing through a few pages at random, I come to this stanza:

Instead, consider your life --
who you love, and why,
how blessed you are to be here, resting
under a shower of birdsong,
and what strange bright luck it is to be the owner 
for a few years, of this beating heart,
these wondering eyes, the ears
into which the kingfisher spills her small chuckle 
as she dips across the water.

Downton Abbey

First of all, you should watch Downton Abbey with a copy of P. G. Wodehouse's collected Jeeves and Bertie Wooster stories in hand.  They are set in roughly the same period, and depicts all the same characters as twits.

Secondly, you should remember that the Great Houses of the English Countryside are now museums and tourist attractions.  The feudal mode of production depicted in the story was not economically viable.  Whether Matthew Crawley and/or Tom Branson "modernize" or not, the Crawley's are not going to be able generate enough surplus out of the small scale farm production of essentially tenant farmers to sustain even a fraction of their life style.

And every time you turn around, the younger people "in service" are headed off to get real jobs.  The housemaid who became a secretary, for example.  I predict that Daisy will be gone soon, to manage a farm, instead of being an 'assistant cook'.

That social system is creaking and wheezing and running down.  It runs on a shared circle of false consciousness.  The Crawley's are convinced that they are exercising power responsibly; Robert is conscientious to a fault.  They are surrounded by servants who feed that illusion by their rituals of sycophancy.  In reality, they are in a bubble, kept afloat by the infusions of cash from other inheritances.  Their only real economic work is plotting bloodlines, wills and entails.    

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Anointment for a New Appointment

In the closing sermon of the UUMA Institute, the Rev. James Forbes spoke of UU's having a new "anointment for a new appointment."  The Holy Spirit had work for us to do.  He spoke of another "Great Awakening" coming in this multi-inter-no-faith nation, and that we had been prepared, in particular, to preach it into being, by our work, among ourselves, over the last decades.  "A new anointment for a new appointment."

I have been fixed on UU history, especially the long period I call the wilderness years (1968 to 2008) when UU's were the most liberal denomination in a culture that was aggressively anti-liberal.

The reason I have been so fixed on this period is because I think that the danger we face is this: the mental habits we acquired in those years will cripple us in the future.  Indeed we are limiting our vision now.

I was inspired on Saturday by the "Unstuck" conference held here in Ann Arbor.  It was co-sponsored by a wide range of faith and movement groups, including the First UU Congregation of Ann Arbor.  But it was put together by the an Episcopal Church, the Church of the Incarnation.  The conference featured two major speechs -- Rev. Forbes, again and Cornel West.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Blog News and Intentions

I'm here.

I have blogged in the past, but never with an consistency, either in frequency or subject matter.

Now, I have a different intention.

I plan to blog regularly about modern UU history and our public theologies.  I believe that we in a changing social and political situation and that our thinking about the world around us is dangerously outdated.  I believe that UU's are internally focused, anxious, and timid.

I want to build up a collaborative conversation about these issues.  I welcome your comments, and will respond to them as they pique my interest.  Sometime, I just let your comment speak for itself.  I do delete whining, ax-grinding taunts and insults. I  don't feed the trolls, and you shouldn't either.

I urge you to join the blog if you wish.  You can keep up with latest posts by following me (@tominma) on Twitter, or Tom Schade on Facebook.

Years in the Wilderness -- the Old School and the LGBTQ tide.

I believe that the "Old School UU's" represented an accommodation to the prevailing conservative culture in  the following ways

  • They no longer defined our liberal Christian theologies as essential to Unitarian Universalism; they shifted our core to being eccelesiological: our congregationalism, the "Free Church" tradition. (which they drew from the Puritan Unitarian tradition; not the Universalists).  Whatever its origins, the effect was to minimize differences between UU churches and the surrounding culture.  We could sidestep the burning questions that preoccupied the evangelicals: Are you saved by Jesus from Hell?  What defined us was our polity, and frankly, our congregational polity looked like that of the Baptists.  

  • And as I said before, the "Free Church" tradition effectively closed off any location from which social activism could be mounted.  To the Old Schoolers, it was not legitimate for the General Assembly to pass resolutions and for the Washington Office to lobby for them, since they did not truly represent congregations, just self-selected GA junkies.  To the Old Schoolers, the basis of the local congregation was a covenant to protect each other's freedom of conscience, so it was not really legitimate to move beyond consensus in social activism.  The only legitimate location for social activism in the local church was the isolated Social Justice committee.  Old Schoolers also resented the multitude of Independent Affiliates which sprang up to promote social activism for particular causes.  Who did they represent? 

  • And of course, electoral politics, which is the most common form of citizen activism, was completely off-limits.   

As the liberal movement in the national body politic was being defeated and demonized, the Old School model of Unitarian Universalism, in practice, minimized the difference between UUism and the prevailing political culture.

Understand that I am not judging or condemning.  I am not here to defend or denounce the Old Schoolers.

The Old Schoolers influence was limited, of course.  There was an opposite tendency at work: congregations and individual UU's who were social and political activists and who prodded UU's to become activated.

I believe that the Old School's political theology was effectively demolished by the rise of LGBTQ politics in the UUA.

Almost all heterosexual people, at least of a certain age, can remember a time when they did not "get" it about LGBTQ people. Hetero people "got it" at different rates and at different points in the life.  I am not saying that the Old Schoolers were slower than most, or that they harbored more homophobia than others.

I am saying the rise of GLBTQ politics in the UUA seemed all wrong for the Old Schoolers.  I am saying LGBTQ politics because I am distinguishing it from the earliest issues of whether UU's should grant fellowship, settle and ordain individual ministers who were gay or lesbian.  That kind of issue was an equal opportunity in employment kind of issue, and not as big a deal.  After all, the ultimate power still lay in the hands of the congregation.

What was so disruptive to the Old School theory was this question of a national denomination wide push for congregations to present a welcoming face to the community at large.  How could 25 Beacon legitimately pressure a congregation to change how it presented itself in the larger community?  How could it legitimately organize laypeople to promote this change, even if it meant working around the minister?  How could 25 Beacon make a list of congregations that met some standard that they set?

No matter how individual Old Schoolers stood on LGBTQ issues, the Welcoming Congregation effort was a fairly complete demolition of the Old School theories about how relationships should work in this association of congregations.

But it worked.  I personally believe, without any actual data to cite, that the influx of LGBTQ ministers and lay people into UUism during the wilderness period, saved UUism.  New blood, new energy, new younger ministers, new spirituality and new depth flowed in where other Protestant denominations thrashed around in endless soul-killing debates on these questions.

Not only did it work, but it became an even more profound challenge to the accommodationist impulse.

The rise of the issue of marriage equality put UU's, as UU's, out into the streets and into electoral politics.  LGBTQ political issues became the big exception to all the Old School theories about social activism.  We don't do controversial social activism, or engage in electoral politics, or override minority opinion in the congregation, or try to say that our theological beliefs necessarily result in particular social policies, or hang cause oriented signs on our building EXCEPT for gay rights and marriage equality.

The Exception has become the rule.

But I am getting ahead of the story here.  Our pro-marriage equality activism is really more of a story about UU participation in the liberalization of our culture in this new era.  The full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the liberal coalition is one of reasons why political, social and cultural liberalism is on the rise.  And UU's are a part of that story, but we should be aware that it marks a historic shift in our political theology and ecclesiology.

40 Years in the Wilderness

When I say that the 40 years in the wilderness (being the most liberal religious movement in an aggressively conservative and anti-liberal culture) has shaped Unitarian Universalism, this is what I mean:

Unitarian Universalism became internally focused on what we do wrong.  It got anxious.  Name a single thing we all, or just some of us, do well, and immediately a critique comes to mind.  We are fixated on how we do not live up to our own standards, or to the task that is required of us.

I think that stems not from the loftiness of our ambitions, but from our sense of failure, as evidenced by our lack of growth, our demographic isolation, our membership churn, our inability to retain our youth, our cheapness, our clubbiness etc. etc. etc.

We are one-note reformationists.  How many sermons have you heard on the subject of how Unitarian Universalists institutions and individuals should change?  How many sermons have you heard (and preached) on what our mission should be?  How many workshops on what we must do to change, from how we treat visitors, to how we worship, how we sing, how we handle our money?

The great mission of Unitarian Universalism seems to have become to fix Unitarian Universalism.

Round and round, we race through a maze, and never find a way out.   I am doing it now.

Reformation churches are contrasted to Revelation Churches.

A Revelation church has a piece of wisdom that it has learned and it teaches that wisdom to whomever will listen.  They teach what they know, or what they think they know.

Unitarian Universalists know some important wisdom.  At the simplest level, we know that if one leads a life shaped by values and virtues of liberal religion, chances are good that you will be happier, more connected to others, and be healthier.  You will probably have a good effect on the community in which you live.

Forty years in the wilderness has made us nervous and jumpy, such that we are always second-guessing ourselves.  And when we do assert ourselves, it comes out self-focused and brittle.  Yay UUism!

It's OK.  It's too be expected.  Forty years in the wilderness is a long time.  We need to name what happened, touch it emotionally, and then let it go.  Why?  So we can live in the moment that is now, and coming, and needs us. '

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Periods of Modern UU History

The lens that I am looking through in thinking about modern UU history is our relationship to the social-political-cultural history of the USA.

There are three periods:  (The dating is somewhat arbitrary and schematic; using Presidential elections as mile markers.)

1961-1968:  Merger creates a new liberal denomination at a time when liberalism was ascendent in the culture.  The Civil Rights movement, especially, creates a cultural space in which liberals feel that they are making progress.  Lyndon Johnson turns the awful tragedy of the Kennedy assassination into a progressive triumph, winning a landslide election and in the 1965-66 period passing a series of foundational progressive laws, including Medicare and Medicaid.  A War on Poverty is actually considered.

Throughout most of the country, UU churches are united in support of racial integration.  Anecdotally, I hear stories of churches with partner relationships with AME churches, including socializing together at dinners in private homes.  I have been told that more African Americans belonged to UU churches than anytime before or since.  Our ministers went to Selma, and UU's died in the struggle.  I was in high school at this time, and I remember our optimism that the world was coming our way.

1968-2008:  The Wilderness years.  There are two sub-periods of the Wilderness years:
1968-1980. In 1968, Richard Nixon was elected by exploiting resentments of the liberal culture, which was portrayed as elitist.  The country enters into a period of polarization between its liberal and conservative cultures.  The liberals start to divide between liberals and radicals.  The Black Empowerment controversy within the UUA is an example.  Radicals start turning to Marxism as a overall theory.  A radical culture of defiance develops among younger liberals: no longer looking toward winning the majority, but more interested in exploring the revolutionary dimensions of what had been previously seen as reforms: black power, radical feminism, gay liberation, open marriage, psychedelia, hyper-democracy. All these currents washed through UU churches, and in some places, enabled a lot of personal excess. More importantly, the radical break with traditional sexual morality allowed previously existing tradition of ministerial sexual misconduct to surface and even claim legitimacy.  I left the UU movement as a college student in 1969, and so I have no first hand memory of  UUism during this period, though I hear stories.  Who has memories of these days?
Meanwhile, conservatives pointed to every excess among the liberals, using them to feed cultural fears and resentments.  The emergence of the anti-abortion movement and the defeat of the ERA were early successes.
This is a deeply unsettling time in American history.  Nixon is re-elected and then is impeached and resigns.  Carter is elected, but country is moving rightward, isolating and neutralizing him.  Liberal culture is being shredded by external pressure and internal contradiction.
1980-2008: The battle is over and the conservatives won, punctuated by the election of Ronald Reagan on an explicitly anti-liberal campaign.  Conservatives portrayed themselves as resisting an over-reaching and oppressive elitist liberal hegemony.  Liberalism began to be demonized; it was an accusation.  Self-identification as "liberal" plummeted.  The Great Society was declared to be a failure.  The War on Poverty was a mistake, while the War in Vietnam was noble.  Ostentatious displays of wealth were back in style.
Religiously, evangelical Protestantism grew rapidly and mega-churches were the new face of religion.  People started joining UU churches because they wanted their kids to have a religion to point to when they were pressured by their classmates.  UU's reported that their kids did not feel safe at school because they were "not Christian" and therefore, going to Hell.   UU's looked at the mega-churches as both models and rivals.  We asked ourselves, "How could we be successful like that, but with liberal theology?"  In 1961, we thought we were going to be the next big thing in religion, and now we are insignificant, both statistically and in influence. 

2008-Present.  The 3rd period of modern UU history is the present time, in which liberalism in all its forms is becoming ascendent and conservatism is in decline.  The 2008 Obama election revealed that the demographics of the country were shifting and that the political and cultural landscape was shifting. A whole crop of younger people were reaching young adulthood and they were not as stuck as the older generations.  Issues of sexuality and multi-culturalism that had been difficult for the baby boomers were old hat to them.  These young people were liberal, activated, and connected through social media in ways their elders could only dimly grasp.

Religiously, the landscape had shifted.  During the Wilderness years, the talk was of the megachurches and the Religious Right and Christian Dominionism.  In this new emerging era, we talk about "the Nones" and the collapse of the Roman Catholic Church in the US.

My hypothesis is that the 40 years in the wilderness was traumatic and formative for contemporary Unitarian Universalism.

I believe we can start to see our modern history critically if we see it as shaped in a time that we are in no longer.  It is crucial for us to get out of our internal focus which sees UU development only in terms of our internal struggles between ourselves and between our present selves and our ideal selves.  We need to see ourselves as religious people trying to minister in an external world.

I don't think that we should be harsh in our self-judgments.  The question is just "what did we do and not do in response to the condition to being the most liberal religion in an aggressively conservative culture?"

And the next question is "How do the habits of response that we made to the Wilderness period shape our ministry in this new era?"

I see two patterns of response: accommodation and defiance.  More on them later.

I am anxious to hear responses, questions, elaborations and commentary.  I would like to gather a group who will make a long term commitment to a continuing conversation about the history of the UUA.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Brief History of the "Old School" UU 's

"Old School UU" is my term for a movement among UU ministers during the last half century and more.  It's a shared state of mind, more than any organized faction.

This is an off-the-top-of-my-head sketch of this history.  I invite elaboration, clarification, argumentation about it.  It is part of my critical curiosity about recent UU history.  My general thesis is that contemporary UUism has been shaped in a 40 year period of a political culture that was antagonistic to all forms of liberalism (1968-2008).  I think that "old school UUism" is one of the many currents of defiance and accommodation that marked UU history during that period, and still do now that it has passed.

Old School UUism had its modern roots in the theist and Christian minority who were the losers in the great Humanist ascendency within Unitarianism and Universalism.  As such, it was centered in some of the larger churches which had more established theist liturgies, and, of course, in New England and the East.

When merger/consolidation (the language matters to Old Schoolers) came about, the Old School tended to be more skeptical.  The experience seemed to be embittering.  There was a lot of wordsmithing of documents to find that language that would allow Christians and Theists some threadbare acknowledgement of their religious beliefs in the overall humanist vision of a new world religion.

What has come down to me is that Wallace Robbins opposed merger, saying that since Humanism was dominant at the time, the new denomination would be necessarily humanist and that Christianity and theism would not re-emerge in liberal religion until the 21st century.

The Old School, of course, continued in the UUA, but settled into a role of being the internal opposition.  I think that a general attitude existed among many that since the UUA was not right with God, nothing it would ever do would be right.  I never heard that said out loud, but it seemed to me to be the undercurrent of much I heard.

If one looks back through the records of the UU Christian Fellowship, which I have done, one would be surprised as the names of the ministers who were involved, many who did not continue to claim that public role later on.  I got the impression that the UUCF was the organizational center of the Old School during the early days of the UUA.

But Christianity became a defeated theological tendency in the UUA, confined to a small handful of churches.  It was definitely not a useful identification for most ministers to have on the ministerial record.

The Old School evolved.  Instead of seeing themselves a the carriers of theism and liberal Christianity in the UUA, they moved to seeing themselves as preserving the traditions of congregational polity.  Congregational polity became the authoritative tradition that we were backsliding on.  Instead of humanists being seen as the problem; 25 Beacon Street was.  The independence of each congregation was imperiled by tendencies toward centralization and 'denominationalism'.

John Buehrens was the last UUA President elected with the support of the Old School.  He turned out to be a disappointment to them, which is no surprise.  After all, he had been elected to be a denominational leader.

The Old School settled into a cluster of inter-related attitudes.  This is a paper I wrote in 1998/99 which summarized the Old School attitudes, as I thought they stood at that time.

At that time, the Old School was attempting to organize itself as the Free Church conference.  Three conferences were held.  That effort failed; the organizational basis of the Free Church conference was, in theory, congregations, but in fact, was ministers.  So when key ministers in the conference left their congregations, the conference fell apart.

Old School UUism continues on, as a perspective rather than an organized tendency.  It lives on in as distrust of headquarters on behalf of congregations.  (There is a mirror distrust on the "left" side of UUism which sees the headquarters as excessively conservative, elitist and New England.)  It lives on in the complaint that "we don't know our history."  It lives on in a suspicion of UUA generated social justice projects.  Probably everyone who thought that going to Phoenix last summer was going to be "a hot mess in the desert" was reflecting Old School UU thinking.  Old Schoolers wonder who community ministers are going to accountable to, and can't understand what's really "beyond congregations" and why an association of congregations would want to find out.  Old Schoolers think being ordained by your intern congregation is a mistake.

Lots of important traditions to maintain; lots of new ideas and ways of doing things to embrace.  Nobody is right all the time.

I want to suggest, however, that Old School UUism was an accommodation to the conservative culture in which we have lived for most of our UUA history.  Many of larger churches needed to protect themselves, and they did so by minimizing the difference between themselves and the culture.  Respectability was important, and maintaining their 'churchiness' was a part of that.  Old School UUism avoided social and political controversy, by moving political concerns down to the individual member.  The UUA itself, with its GA resolutions and Washington Office, shouldn't speak for congregations.  Inside congregations, political diversity would be honored above all.  What was left was congregationally-based charity and individual action.  A small and isolated social justice committee was left to be a pain in the coffee hour.

The Old School UU's and the larger churches were more on the accommodation pole; the UUA itself and the smaller congregations were often on the other pole -- the defiance pole.  Planting a flag in opposition to the conservative culture was seen as a path to growth and vitality.  Being on the cutting edge of the ideological opposition to the status quo was seen as crucial.  Not only political activity, but feminism, anti-racism and GLBT equality, were what made us us.

Accommodation and Defiance: two ways of responding to an aggressively conservative culture.  A lot of theorizing and theologizing and thinking went into understanding what we were doing, what we felt we could and what we thought was impossible for us to do in that culture.  In 1968, we were a young denomination, and the ground was shifting under our feet.  We were engaged in the process of self-definition and gradually we perceived that the leading elements of the culture were hostile to us.

We are just barely now beginning to understand what happened.  We are just barely now learning to live in culture where we might not only survive, but lead.

I know that this posting is ramshackle -- written in a heat over six hours, careless with the details and sweeping in its rhetoric.  I hope that it is a start of a larger discussion.

Misreading Obama, still.

O Good Lord, I do love Charles P. Pierce, the politics blogger now appearing amidst the shoe porn and the very respectful photo spreads of attractive young female actresses and models of Esquire Magazine. CPP can hurrumph with the best of them.  He calls the GOP House caucus "feral children" and Paul Ryan, a "zombie-eyed granny starver." I like that sort of stuff.

But he doesn't get Barack Obama.  

He thinks that Barack Obama is failing to be another Lyndon Johnson: a President who squeezed Congress so inappropriately that they coughed up great gobs of progressive legislation.  More brow-beating, please.  More contempt and ridicule, please, Mr. President.

He is upset that President Obama appointed a Republican lawyer, whose resume ought to be his criminal record, if there were any voting justice, to co-chair a commission on voting reform.  Who did he think Obama would appoint?  Bernie Sanders and Jesse Jackson?  They would win the day, but only on Rachel Maddow's show.

Barack Obama is not Lyndon Johnson.  Barack Obama is not Bill Clinton.  Barack Obama is not Cornel West.

Barack Obama is the political equivalent of Jackie Robinson, if any comparison is to be made.  He is not defeating his opposition; he is not humiliating them; he is rising above them.  Just as Jackie Robinson prevailed by being the best damn baseball player anyone could imagine, and never being distracted by the taunts from the bleachers, or the other teams dugout, or even his own.

It is a fact of American life that for an African American to succeed, they have to work twice as hard, and be twice as good to get half the result.  It must be maddening to every ambitious and talented African American. And it must be even more maddening that many people don't recognize it for what it is when it happening right before their eyes, that they think it weakness, instead of enormous strength.

There are lots of people who don't think that Barack Obama is a very skilled politician. Seriously?

Barack Obama is doing what a textbook President would do, what a President is supposed to do:  proposing policies and expecting Congress to act upon them, asking for a vote on his proposals, doing his best to always be responsible.
We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity and uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.
He looks bigger everyday, while his opposition looks smaller.

He has won over a significant majority of the people, who support his proposals.  The only thing that stands in the way of another of those brief periods when this country lurches forward are legislative machinations to keep the people from enacting our will. The only things between us and climate change legislation, gun safety legislation, public works programs, universal pre-school, immigration reform and everything that we need to do are the Senate Filibuster and the Hastert Rule.

We all deserve a vote on what matters, now.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Old School UUism, Tradition and Authenticity

My colleague, Robin Bartlett Barraza, pointed us all to the following article, "10 reasons why our kids are leave church'   The blogpost was written by an fundamentalist (my opinion) and blames the loss of young people from conservative churches on the efforts of evangelicals to be relevant and hip, and for offering a subjective, internal, feeling understanding of salvation.  Instead, he urges Christians to return to offering something much more counter-cultural -- the timeless, external and objective truths carried by the Christian tradition.

RBB saw some parallels to us in the UU movement, particularly, (quoting her, "I think the feel good messaging not ringing true, the lack of tradition (or bowdlerizing the tradition) and substance (or lack) being found in the secular world is right on."

There is a whole branch of the UU family that is attracted to this form of argument: "Our problems arise from the failure of others to uphold our traditions.  People can see our wavering sense of self."

Sometimes I call this "neotraditionalist Unitarian Universalism" or just "Old School UUism."

Understand, this is my tribe. I was raised and trained in it.  Frank Schulman was my minister growing up.  When I came back to the church in 1989, it was to Ruppert Lovely's church in Palatine, Illinois, because it was recommended to me by Roy Phillips.  In seminary, I went to First Dallas, where Laurel Hallman led us, as a part of a tradition that included John Buehrens and Robert Raible.  My one and only ministry was at First Unitarian Worcester, with Barbara Merritt and the abiding spirit of Wallace Robbins.  I joined the UU Christian Fellowship when I was in seminary and attended all three of the Free Church Conferences.  To be any more Old School, I would have to start using my middle name, once I changed it from prosaic "Robert" to something with a whiff of old New England, something like  "Downton".  That's it: the Rev. Thomas Downton Schade, and his cat named "Abigal"

So, I am Old School UU, but I am beginning to doubt its presumptions and conclusions.  One of these days, I will put up a blog post on the history of the Old School UU movement, its origins and perspectives.  But that is for another day.

First of all, it is a counter-factual argument:  If we had not tried to be contemporary and relevant, then we would have been successful because we would have been traditionalist.  It seems to more fit the history of what actually happened to say that the reason why UU's sought to be contemporary and relevant was because being traditional wasn't working in the first place.

To put in terms of the Marc5Solas blogpost: it is undeniable that contemporary evangelicalism, with its adaption of modern culture to worship, arose because fundamentalism was not succeeding.

When pressed, traditionalists of all types (fundamentalist Christians or old School UU's) fall back on the  position that it is better to be small and true than to be large and wrong.  In which case, one could say that they are getting their wish, so why the complaining?

The basic thrust of the Old School is that there is something missing in what we are doing, something that we used to have and have no longer, something that made us authentic. And, in that respect, they are right.  Authenticity, self-possession, self-differentiation are essential.  Emerson has a line somewhere to the effect that when people try too hard to make others like them, they become unlikeable.

So we have to be authentic, which includes being visibly a continuation of our past.  But traditionalism is a poor substitute for authenticity.  It may be essential for conservative theologians, who are dealing with timeless, external and objective truths, but not for religious liberals.  What is essential about us is that we are a people who were and are authentically alive to their moment in history, always applying a deep and profound humanism (in its classic sense, not as a euphemism for atheism) to their times.

So, what I think we need now is a deeper analysis of the times and circumstances, a deeper reflection on ourselves: what we are able to do, what we feel about ourselves and others, what we value and what we love,  and a deeper compassion for others.  We must touch what is essential about how we understand the call that has been made to us.  Our authenticity lies only in part in the past, but more within and in the future.

Louisa Henrietta Wedel Schade

OK, it is the last hour of my mother's birthday, so let me take a few moments away from my ongoing effort to portray Ed Schultz as a UU minister, and talk about her a little.

She loved me very much; her love and support for me was the unshakeable foundation on which my life was built.  And because she loved me very much, she saw me quite honestly, and she feared for me. She saw my grandiosity, and my compulsive need to be liked, and that touch of ruthlessness that I try to hide.  As much as she encouraged me, she warned me.

She was the last child of her parent, a successful German American Baptist preacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  She was the caboose child and was raised, it seems, by her older sisters.  Her oldest sister, Esther, I think, was the one person she was afraid of.

She was tall, very tall, six feet tall, skinny as a rail.  Her nickname was "Heinie", a word that was not allowed to be said in our house growing up.  She got a scholarship to go the University of Wisconsin, but didn't go, because girls didn't an education, and it was the Depression.

She met my father when she was still in high school.  They met at a Baptist Youth Organization national conference.  My father was also the child of a German Baptist minister.  Henrietta and Bob were engaged for seven years -- waiting until he had graduated from seminary before they wed. Both of their parents were part of the liberal wing of the American Baptist convention; they believed in historical criticism of the Bible, and in the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch.

He served some churches as a Baptist and then became a Unitarian minister in 1947.  His career was short; by 1954, he quit the active full-time ministry and took a job in a steel mill in Warren, Ohio.

He told me once that he had not one day of happiness before he met her, and not one day of sadness after.

I don't know where it came from, but my mother was very radical.  My father worked the 3 to 11PM shift most of my growing up, and our dinner table conversations included a lot of political education.  My mother was forthright about a few facts:  that America was just another country, not greater than anyone else, that it was built by slave labor on stolen land, and that we, the three little Schade children, were among the luckiest people in the world, living as we did, in wealth unimaginable to most of the children of the world.

I believed it all; and resented the guilt trip.  I still believe it and still resent it, which accounts, in part, for the high level of angst that I carry about that sort of stuff now.  "Thanks for the guilt trip, but I have already taken that ride to the end of the line."

She read a lot; hardly ever watched television.  She was a community activist when she was finally free of being a minister's daughter and a minister's wife.  She was active in the YWCA and the League of Women Voters.

When a librarian at the public library tried to stop me from checking out Mila 18 by Leon Uris because it was too adult, my mother confronted her and told her that she should remember me, because I was allowed to read anything in the library I wanted to read, no questions asked.

I got the idea from her somehow that true love was noble and sexual desire a deceptive substitute and that the worst sort of man you could be was one who fell in love with a attractive woman because of desire.  That little sweet and sour meatball of wisdom confused me for years.

Most of the time I spent with her, she was plagued by rheumatoid arthritis, which made her mood unpredictable.  She was incredibly brave.

Somehow, for reasons I am still trying to figure out, we were done with each other when I left home to go to college.  I got carried away into a lot of radical politics and didn't spend much time or energy on keeping up my relationship with her.  But the cooling was mutual -- I think that she saw in me the kind of man that she warned me against, a man who looked a lot like her father, big in public, an extrovert, but one who didn't give her the love that she needed.

She died when she was just 64.  I will be 64 in a few months.  I now know how much too soon her death was.

Love between parents and children is a complicated thing.  It can be hard, and there can be seasons in which it seems to lie fallow.  The changes we go through can make it seem like we are visitors from other planets.

Try harder, friends.  Try harder than I did.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Where is God and What of Grace?

My colleagues, Judy and Paul, ask these questions of my recent post on our spiritual mission.

I said that our mission is to help people develop a cluster of virtues (I named self-possession, reverence, honesty, humility, gratitude/generosity, openness and fairness, only as suggestions and not as a code).  I said that I thought these virtues were transformative in individuals and transformative in society as a whole, and that by seizing this mission, our churches and congregations would become transformative, themselves.

Judy and Paul ask questions that ask me to explain the connection between my virtue and character oriented spiritual mission and the traditional questions of Christian soteriology.  What role does God play in our transformation/salvation?  How much of our salvation is the result of our efforts and how much is grace?

Fair questions.

I believe, as a practical and ecclesiological matter, that Unitarian Universalists will construct a wide variety of narratives about how it happens that these virtues grow within themselves.  Some will say it comes about through a strictly secular reflection on social practice; others through meditation, others through divine grace; others through psychological work, or by example, or through reading Mary Oliver poems.  And that Unitarian Universalists will contend with each other about those narratives.

I think that virtue-oriented moral reasoning is appropriate for this multi-faith world in general.  It locates the spiritual mission not in persuading people to believe X, or practice Y, but in developing these virtues as operative in their life.  It is pragmatic, not dogmatic.  "By their fruits, ye shall know them."

I think that Unitarian Universalism has already committed itself to become a multi-faith religious movement.  Like so many other things, it was a commitment that we made with little consideration for the theological substructure that would support it.  We have to understand our spiritual mission for the future will be based on that presumption.

Now, as for my own views:  My opinions of God and Grace vary from day to day.  My moral and ethical responsibilities remain the same -- to respond to the present moment with aliveness and courage -- no matter where my belief-o-meter needle is pointing.  It is not the nature of my unbelief that I ever think that I can be virtuous on my own.   I understand the virtue of reverence to include believing that  "all of this"is God's world, and not my own.  My understanding of humility includes knowing that my virtues will be exercised only occasionally, and that God's grace allows me to continue anyway.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Liberal Religion and Unitarian Universalism

I define "Liberal Religion"as being three premises about religion.

  1. All religions are the product of culture.  They are the cultural productions designed to answer some fundamental and widely shared questions about human existence.  Cultures and civilizations around the world do not share the same understanding of those human questions; as a result, the religions of the world are different and not "the same under the surface."
  2. No one religion contains any special revealed knowledge that is final and authoritative.  No one religion is more true than another.
  3. Religions can be evaluated, to the extent that even need to be compared, by the effect on the life of the adherent.  
Many people share these liberal premises about religion, including many adherents of various religions and many who claim no religious affiliation at all.

Religious Liberalism starts from these propositions about religion in general, but from those premises develops into a particular way of being in the world.  Social, political, cultural liberalism are interrelated ways of being, even though the particulars are always in dispute.

Unitarian Universalism is a particular form of Liberal Religion, with a particular cultural origin and history.  In the US, it started as liberal forms of Protestantism, and while it has opened itself to religous liberals of all persuasions, it retains that liberal Protestant heritage: church on Sunday, hymns and steeples, ministers of ordinary people with special training, etc. 

Unitarian Universalism has, then, two evangelical tasks: 

  1. to persuade people by word and deed to become religious liberals.  The liberal approach to religion describes reality most accurately and makes for a better human community.  It is both true and good.
  2. to persuade religious liberals, by testimony and example, that Unitarian Universalism is a particularly effective way to live a life shaped by liberal religion.  UU's understand the spiritual, social, political, economic, family, romantic implications of liberal religion.  UU institutions, churches and congregation are effective places of transformation on a personal and social level.  UU's create inspirational worship experiences where the slow and steady work of transformation is encouraged and reinforced.  
People want to live a meaningful, value-driven, inspired life.  People want to live a religious life, although for many, the very term 'religious' is a barrier, because it connotes narrowness, exclusion, and a closed system of truth.  Unitarian Universalism is a well-developed and effective ways to live a meaning-laden, value-driven and inspired life.  

A Coherent Spiritual Mission

Christine Robinson writes in a comment to a previous post:

Besides the dysfunctions you mention in your piece that center around our understanding/misunderstanding of political theology, we suffer from having no coherent spiritual mission to offer in most of our congregations. . . .
I think that our spiritual mission is incoherent because it is largely unarticulated.  And it is unarticulated because we have not developed and used the appropriate language to describe it.  We can't talk about our mission as promoting certain beliefs.  We could never agree on them.  And we can't talk about our mission as promoting certain practices for the same reason.

But I think we can define our spiritual mission as the promotion of certain virtues.  We encourage people to exhibit certain character traits in all areas of their lives.  Which ones?  No list is entirely comprehensive or accurate; after all, these are virtues, not beliefs.  Here are seven, though, (because seven is a magic number among us.)

  1. Self-Possession.  Our mission is to empower people to think for themselves, freeing themselves from the tyranny of group-think, of conventional wisdom, of the limitations that society may impose on aspects of their identity, or the family system that they grew up in, etc.  Read Channing's "I call that Mind Free" for a catalog of just some of the ways that people's individual agency is limited by social forces.  
  2. Honesty.  Our mission is to encourage living in the truth, recognizing reality: scientific reality but also the concrete social realities of power, the economic realities of wealth and poverty, the environmental realities of our planetary peril.
  3. Humility.  Our mission is to encourage awareness that each person's perspective and beliefs are necessarily partial and incomplete.  
  4. Reverence.  Our mission is to encourage awe and tenderness in people, for the world, for all the plants and animals, for each other, both known and unknown.  Reverence is a virtue, not a belief.
  5. Gratitude/Generosity.  Our mission is encourage people to hold their material being with a lightness.  Everything we have, including life and health, is temporary, having come to us unearned and unasked for, in order that we might share it freely with others.
  6. Openness:  Our mission is encourage people, and ourselves, to take a delight in all the differences in the world.  We encourage curiosity about each other and about the new and unexpected. 
  7. Fairness:  Our mission is to encourage people to be alert for injustices, and to create mutual and reciprocal relationships everywhere.  

Our mission is character development, by encouraging people to make these virtues the bedrock of their thinking and doing in the world.  It is slow work of self-transformation when we apply it to ourselves.

Our mission as churches and congregations and beyond is to encourage and to exercise such virtues together.  Our worship practice, whatever its form, is a means by which we remind our selves of their importance; it is an opportunity to re-commit ourselves to them for another week.  That's what people mean when they say "it gets me through the week."

Our mission as churches and congregations and beyond is also to practice these virtues, as we are given to see how they apply, in the larger world. (My whole purpose in this blog at this time is to write rants on the subject that we are not doing this part of our work with the honest recognition of the facts of our national life.)

It all fits together -- the personal self-transformation, the life of the church and our social and political practice as religious body.

We recognize each other by these virtues as markers and signs.  And we hope that the world recognizes us as the people who can be counted on to bring these virtues into whatever situation we go.

And it goes without saying, but of course, I am going to say it, that they are broadly held virtues and independent of a particular set of beliefs.  That is why we are able to contain such diversity of belief in our congregations, and why we are linked to so many people at large.  They are the basis of our evangelical strategy.

We say to the world: come and join us as we try to live in a better way together.  It will change you, and it will change the world.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Campfire in the Woods

During the summer of 1970, I traveled throughout the American west in a diaper truck that had been converted into a camper.  My companions were some graduate students from Amherst that I had met along the road somewhere.  I left a group from the school I had just graduated from, the George Washington University in Washington DC, somewhere in Wyoming.

I had graduated "on strike" and under an injunction that a large number of student leaders could not enter any campus buildings.  On May 1st, Richard Nixon invaded Cambodia.  A student strike call came from Seattle.  In Washington DC, we were responding to a student strike call issued from New Haven, where the trial of the New Haven Black Panthers for murder had started.  On May 4th, 4 students were killed in Kent State.  On May 14, two more students were killed at Jackson State in Jackson, Mississippi.

In the summer of 1970, what seemed like tens of thousands of young people hitchhiked, camped and traveled through the American West.  I was part of that.  Everywhere I went, I met other kids who had been involved in the student strike.  Everywhere I went, we talked about Kent State, the War in Vietnam and what the future might hold.

I remember a night when 20 or more of us argued late into the night around a blazing campfire somewhere in a National Forest campground.  I could not tell you where.  There were people there from Massachusetts and Wayne State in Michigan, and the University of Nebraska and other colleges and universities out West.

We argued that night about the future.  Some of us, count me in on that group, looked forward to a fall of continued confrontations with the Nixon administration.  More protests, more national strikes, more militancy.

And others argued for stepping away from all that anger and talk of violence.  Go to the land; withdraw; change ourselves instead.

For the first time, I think, I saw the personal transformation of people and social transformation as two separate and opposing paths.  Before then, it had not seemed so polarized -- that we were creating a new world and ourselves as new people all at the same time, in some sort of revolution of freaks.

I think that dichotomy has been the frame through which I have instinctively viewed the world ever since.  And I have been on both sides of it at different times.

I think that it is still potent in all those who were and are liberal, of any sort, who date back to those days.  In particular, in the Unitarian Universalist faith tradition, when we contrast social justice work with spirituality, we are still operating within that frame of vision.

And now, at this stage of my life, when I am no longer leading a parish, I have been reflecting on that dichotomy and thinking back to that night around a campfire in the summer of 1970.

What I remember now, which I was not conscious of at the time, was how scared we were.  We had not expected that our government would kill us.  You can say that we were naive, and so cushioned by our class privilege that we were shocked when we had no right to be even surprised.  True enough, but still we were shocked, traumatized and terrified, and none of us would say that out loud.  And because none of us could name our fear, we split our thinking into two polar opposites -- that we would make a heroic stand of anger and defiance, or that we would silently withdraw from the conflict, never calling it  a retreat, but just a rising above.

And things only got worse from there.

Can I suggest, ever so gently, that the splitting we turned to in our days of trauma, is not how the world really is?   Spiritual development and social justice are not sequential, separable, or a choice.

The essential spiritual task is to be grounded enough in ultimate values to respond with aliveness, creativity and compassion to the present moment.  To be here now, as is said.  But here is the whole world, and now is the historical moment in the life of nations and peoples, too.  Here and Now in an interconnected world of history and time is a seamless web of reality.  To be alive in it is one life.

The Class Issue for UU's

There is a lot of talk about "class" in UU circles.

Because we are an anxious, internally focused movement, we see the "class" issue as this: are our congregations friendly and welcoming to people who are poor or working class?   We fret about things like "is a requirement for a financial contribution for membership unwelcoming?"  Or "Do we assume too high an educational level to understand our sermons?"  One congregation I was in argued about whether they should use wooden salad bowls or donated shiny metal collection plates to take the collection.

The question is: "are UU congregations friendly and welcoming to poor and working class people?"

Another, more important, question is: "Are UU congregations on the side of poor and working class people in the conflicts and controversies of our day?"

Do we support the efforts of community unionizing, like the Walmart workers or the fast food workers of New York?  Are we on the side of public sector unions when their rights to organize as being restricted in Wisconsin?  Do we oppose the Michigan turn to right-to-work status?  Are we in favor of uninsured workers getting health insurance from someone?  Do we think minimum wage workers should get a raise?

UU's are generally silent on issues of class for many reasons, but mostly because we have never thought them through.

Unitarians and Universalists were involved with 19th century utopian communities (Hopedale, Brook Farm etc.) because they had a revulsion to the rise of industrial capitalism.

What are the traditions and concepts and enduring values that could guide us in these issues?

Dramatically Politicized Class Confict

The Republican party wants major "reforms" to the Social Security system, by which they mean some sort of benefit cuts.  They would also like to see it "privatized" which would allow the social security trust fund to come under the financial management of Wall Street.  Both plans would advance the economic interests of the 1%, who control the dominant finance capital of the world economy.

This article by Duncan Black is about the real problem in our retirement system.  Elder poverty is going to be rising in the future, because there is not enough money in the 401K system for the people now retiring.

There is a class conflict: should our national wealth be used to provide a decent retirement for the working class and middle class?  Our should our national wealth continue to be concentrated in the hands of the absurdly and obscenely wealthy 1%?  One party, the GOP, emphatically favors the latter.  The other party, the Dems, tentatively favors the former.

How does the theological traditions and values of liberal religion apply?

We "stand on the side of love".  The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.  Our present retirement system gave some tax advantages to saving for one's retirement, but is indifferent to the actual results.  The system is indifferent to whether your income and expenses were not sufficient to save much.  It is indifferent to whether your investments happen to tank right before you retired.  It is a system of institutionalized indifference to the economic security of the elderly.  That indifference is the policy of one party, and potentially not the policy of the other.

Where I Stand

At the UUMA Institute, I took a class led by Dr. Dan McKanan on "Religion and the American Radical Tradition." The lively group engaged U/Uism and the political history of the United States.  The group also engaged the "right now."  They challenged many of my enthusiasms, and I hoped I challenged some of their assumptions, in turn.  As usual, among the ministerial colleagues, our differences were part of a much greater web of affection and respect.

That said, the intensity of the discussion has led me to clarify what I have been trying to say in this blog and elsewhere.

A progressive political majority is being formed in the United States.  Evidence: the election of President Obama in 2008 and 2012.  More evidence: in both the Senate and the House, the aggregate vote for Democrats is much greater than the aggregate vote for Republicans. Further evidence: the demographic box that the GOP finds itself, which was summed up by Lindsey Graham as "there are not enough angry white guys for us to win."

The key: Voters of color have been upping their participation, especially Latino/as and African Americans.  Asians have also turned decisively to the Democrats, as they are also repelled by the GOP's racism.  Just as important, women (especially single women) have declared their political independence and vote differently than men -- and much more for Democrats and progressives.  The white intellectuals and organized labor have remained loyal to the Democrats, partly because the political activation of voters of color and women means that Democrats can win.  A broad peoples' movement is forming and moving toward political power through the ballot box.

In opposition to this, the GOP has become more reactionary.  In Washington, DC, it represents the financial elite, the 1%, in all things.  Out in the country, it is a catch all of angry white populism.  The GOP strategy is to thwart democracy, and to stop the progressive coalition of people rising to self-consciousness and power. The GOP is dependent on the Tea Party and extremists: racists, militias, gun nuts, religious cults and other groups who are preparing for insurrection.  Yes, there are people in this country who are preparing for insurrection; they are stockpiling weapons for that purpose, and yes, they are at the intransigent core that controls the GOP from the bottom.  The financial elite, the 1%, depends on the organizational power of insurrectionist extremists to keep the GOP in the game in DC, to advance their elite interests.

That's my analysis of the political situation: progressives are winning through the greater exercise of popular electoral power, and the GOP is becoming increasingly a reactionary political force, by necessity, against democracy.

My analysis of how Unitarian Universalists relate to this political environment is this:  Having spent most of its institutional history (1968 to 2008) in a culture where all forms of liberalism were actively demonized, mocked, and vilified, Unitarian Universalism is paralyzed in a defensive crouch.

Our tradition of social and political engagement has been to use our powers to make an ethical intervention in society.  That tradition comes straight out of our Unitarian establishment past.  That tradition has been carried on through the era of conservative cultural dominance by the small and ineffective social justice committees in many churches.  They are attracted to new causes, they are perpetually indignant, they are frustrated by our inaction.

But the hyperactive indignant UU social justice committees are a sideshow. They have been accommodated in the dominant model of the liberal church: the "free church", politically diverse church, where, in theory, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, libertarians and socialists all worship together in comfort.   The "overbearing social justice committee" makes conservative and Republican members of our congregations uncomfortable and marginalized, which is the real problem, supposedly, because, as is said so often, "We say we welcome everyone, but we don't really welcome Republicans and conservatives." It often seems that the mere presence of liberals being liberal out loud is enough to repel them.

The "overbearing social justice committee" is the designated patient being blamed for a much more serious problem: we have a shallow and superficial understanding of the social, political and economic implications of religious liberalism.  Especially in a period of aggressive conservatism.

The conservative offensive against liberalism, by necessity, included the delegitimization of the legacy of the 1960's.  The movements that won the right to vote for African Americans in the South, ended legal segregation, re-ignited the women's movement and spawned the movement toward liberation of LGBTQ people, and led the first successful antiwar campaign in the homeland of a superpower that had gone to war with a small nation -- those movements were declared in retrospect to be silly, fatuous, and unworthy of continuing.  It is heartbreaking that this critique of the 60's has been adopted by succeeding generations, who came of age in the era of conservative hegemony.

So, UU's survived by conservative onslaught conforming to it: by believing that we were a movement of silly old fools trying to resurrect the golden years of our youth.  The conservative movement got into our heads and it has paralyzed us.

UU thinking about UU's and politics vacillates between two contradictory forms of self-hatred.  On the one hand, we are powerful people, blinded by privilege, self-satisfied and politically inert.  On the other hand, we are a politically hyperactive mob of intolerant aging hippies trying to recreate the glory days of our youth.  There is some element in truth in both critiques; what is not present are reasons for the self-hatred.

We are a people, a tradition, who know some particular truths.  They have been revealed to us by history, by the words of our greatest preachers, the writings of our most respected scholars, by the deeds of our heroic ancestors and by the self-searching of our own souls.  The question before us is how we can uphold those truths in this time and place of yawning inequality, dramatically politicized class conflict, and planetary peril?

I believe that we must be in the fight for democratic self-government and in active solidarity with the progressive popular majority now rising to power.

In the words of Marion Franklin Ham "Prophetic church, the future waits your liberating ministry; go forward in the power of love, proclaim the truth that makes us free." (As Tranquil Streams, #145, Singing the Living Tradition.)

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

"Two Competing Core Values" or "Dramatically Politicized Class Conflict"

In a recent post, I argued that ...
What is going on in the United States politics is a dramatically politicized class conflict. The GOP is the party of the economically powerful and they want to use the government to protect and advance their interests.  Insurgent forces find themselves fighting back in the workplaces, in the streets, in the state legislatures and county boards, and at the ballot box. 

Fausto in response disputes that analysis and argues instead that

There may be an element of class conflict occurring, but what is really going on is much more subtle and complicated. It it might be summarized as a conflict between two American core values -- collectivism and individualism -- against a backdrop of the nation's gradual and inexorable decline as a political and economic world hegemon as foreign peoples rise out of their ignorance and poverty.
The discussion I am trying to start on this blog is (1) what's going on and (2) what is required of us in response, as heirs to the values and traditions of liberal religion.

Fausto says that what is going on is the "subtle and complicated"interplay of "collectivism and individualism."  This makes no sense to me.   It is a common theme among libertarians and objectivists and dates, I think, from the Cold War.  Values and "isms" don't contend, except as they are adopted by people. Ideas don't struggle for power; people do.

The people who control the financial industry in the United States hold vast wealth in their hands.  It is the collective wealth of the nation; the money in our 401K's, IOUs against the taxes collected by the government, our credit card accounts.  They determine how that wealth is to be deployed and they do it for the narrowest of individual self-interest.  We collectively live with the consequences.  And they resist every effort to put any of that wealth or activity under progressive taxation, or regulation for the public safety.  And they have turned to the Republican Party to advance and protect their interests.  Fausto may see the subtle interplay of core values in that situation, but what I see is much more simple: a dramatically politicized class conflict.  

I don't think that our religious heritage asks of us to be the pundits of the 21st century, teasing out of the events of the day, a narrative of contending philosophies, especially when we end up straddling them. (Really now, an attempt to analyze a historical situation by setting up an opposition (collectivism vs individualism) and then concluding that both are right and both are wrong isn't really very helpful.)

The one legacy of our tradition that Fausto draws upon is the history of freedom of conscience in matters of doctrine.  In a backhanded way, he seems to think that connects to the "individualist" side of the dichotomy he (and the libertarians and objectivists) have constructed.  I think that there is a difference between "individualism" and "self-possession".

If Fausto, or anyone else, wants to argue that the essential value of Unitarianism is individualism, and that is best expressed today as libertarianism, they are welcome to make that argument.  It's the kind of argument I am trying to provoke here.