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.