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.)


  1. 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, especially in most of our lay-lead congregations. Most UU's can think of no OTHER good reason to gather than to change the world.


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