Trying to Put Back Together What We Separated

In the 1970's, the social issues (which are really just cultural resentments moralized) coopted the conservative Protestants and the Roman Catholics for right-wing politics.

Faced with an aggressive and ascendent conservatism in the 70's and 80's, Liberal Religion separated the personal and pastoral from the public and prophetic.  To bear witness to public liberalism got to be too hard, too frustrating, too dispiriting.  The progressive movement was caught up in internal conflicts between liberals and radicals.

In a silent refutation of the understanding that "the personal was political", the liberal church accepted a compartmentalization of the human being into individual and social spheres.

As individuals, each of us needs to become better people, more skilled relationally, more at peace within, more sophisticated observers of our emotional response to the world and more skillful at regulating ourselves.  These concerns were called the Human Potential movement and the New Age movement but later on, it was just called "spirituality." The liberal church accepted it as its most important work.  It was a turn toward the pastoral, toward building safe, warm, welcoming and nurturing communities.

It was a turn away from public ministry, a turn away from prophetic ministry.

Turning toward the pastoral de-emphasized political differences within our congregations.  Religious liberals who were also politically conservative could also come to work on their spiritual development.  After all, personal spiritual development and political practice were two separate spheres.   (The minute you step back from this, it becomes instantly absurd and grotesque.)

To state it sharply, the liberal church reduced its work to producing men and women of the qualities of Lord and Lady Grantham on "Downton Abby" -- liberal, kind, compassionate, responsible people who saw no contradiction between their social and economic position and their personal qualities.

The other side had its stalwarts as well:  people who saw the church as an instrument of mobilization. Often, the same folks were suspicious of "spirituality" as diversions from the work of learning about the critical issues of the day and asking everyone, "But what should we do?"  Some ministers defined their ministry around activism.  There are offices and task forces in the structures.  Plenaries to be held, and resolutions to be voted on. And churches have their social justice committees.  But these are on the side; not the main work of the church.

My point: The split between the personal and pastoral vs. the public and the prophetic comes from the attempt to separate the personal from the social or community.  Liberals made that division because we felt weak and powerless against an aggressively conservative culture.  It was of a particular time, place and condition.

We have been arguing over how these fit together ever since.  Mostly we defend the decisions we have made in our own lives as though we discovered some eternal principle about the purpose and nature of the spiritual life.

It's time to re-think all of it.


  1. Amen and AMEN! And yet, where we do have people beginning to re-think it, we find the institutional structures in place neatly re-compartmentalize. I suspect, as we are seeing a pushback against just this sort of compartmentalization, and a growing interest in and commitment to prophetic ministry, we will see more opting out of the institution. It'll still be liberal ministry...but it'll opt out of the "UU brand" because the institution has little flexibility in it.

  2. Curious what's your evidence on Liberalism refuting "the personal was political". I've always felt that to be an enduring and unfortunte legacy of the 60s. It's contrary to my experience with Liberalism and the Left.


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