Unitarian Universalism in the Age of Obama

In an informal conversation with John Buehrens at the UU History and Heritage Convocation in DC last weekend, we remarked on the 1890's as a period of inactivity in the history of Unitarianism.  He had noticed it in the history of All Souls in New York, and I had seen the same at First Unitarian in Worcester.  John suggested that periods of social progressivism were not good periods for Unitarianism or Unitarian Universalism.  The 1970's were another example of the same thing.

The hypothesis is that when there are many outlets for action for change, liberal churches are not as needed.  It seems to make sense.

But I have some questions.  One is that the 1890's was a progressive era, only in part.  The 1890's was also when Jim Crow was consolidated in the South.  Revisions to state constitutions in the Southern States formally disenfranchised African Americans, making possible the enactment of strict laws of segregation.  The 1890's saw the anti-lynching struggle of Ida B. Wells.  So, I think more historical analysis of how Unitarian and Universalist churches were positioned in that era is needed.

But if periods of progressive change (at least in the circles UU churches are tending to travel in) are not good for their growth and vitality, what about the near future?

The USA is currently in a period of extreme political polarization caused by reactionary resistance to the growing political power of reform-minded population.  All of the cultural, social and economic issues are being concentrated and expressed in an overtly partisan political conflict.  I have argued that Unitarian Universalism, as a religious movement, must recognize this, and act appropriately.  What we hope for, and have worked for, and have tried to embody is now resolutely resisted, by any means possible, by one party and its allies, and supported by the other.

History moves toward crisis and clarity.  All of the myriad opinions about slavery in the US eventually came down to the question of victory or defeat for the Union.  If the Union won the Civil War, slavery would end.  It it lost, slavery would continue in a breakaway Confederacy.

Our customary thinking about the political neutrality of liberal religion will not be applicable for the present and the near future.

But this extreme anti-reform reaction will be defeated.  The political branches of "powers that be" are not adapting well to the changing demographics of the country, and the viewpoints of the young. What political institution can the 1% rely on to protect their interests?  The GOP is too beholden to its elderly, racist, theocratic base to win and exercise power.  The 1% can also try to influence the Democrats, but there, they are trying to moderate a progressive party fueled by the votes of the One Percent's most politically aware adversaries.

There may be window of time when the GOP can no longer win, and the 1% don't yet control the Democrats.  In that window of time, serious reform is possible.  Just imagine what would be happening if the Democrats win the House in 2014, and if the Senate Democrats end the filibuster.  Comprehensive immigration reform, ENDA, better gun policies, raising the minimum wage, ending the war on drugs, national marriage equality, nationwide federal election and voting rights reform, Wall Street regulation, retirement security and more could be possible.  A tax on carbon?  Reproductive Justice?

Would Unitarian Universalism, then, still be relevant?  Or are we where socially progressive white middle-class people gather for strength and solace when and where the culture is hostile? Who are we going to be when most churches are welcoming, when marriage equality is universal, and when the general culture reflects the values of the millennials.

In the 1970's, some Unitarian Universalists looked for the cutting edge.  We embarrassed ourselves.

I do not think that we can be relevant purely on the basis of our "religious" ideas.  "Religious" ideas don't matter anymore in and of themselves.  On the other hand, people who seem to have clear ideas about important matters and appear to live by them seem to matter.

In both the time of greater conflict to come, and in an age of social reform, what matters most for Unitarian Universalism is whether we provide a path from humane thought to humane practice.


  1. John Buehrens has been the first to point out -- and has worked hard as one of our Presidents -- that these were also eras of extreme schism in the Unitarian (and to some extent Universalist) movements/denominations. Folks who desperately, proudly, valued liberal Christian liturgy wanted that to be the focus of the faith. Folks who saw progress being made toward the Kingdom of God on Earth were equally sure that theirs was the only definition of religion that Jesus himself would be working on.

    I have been on both sides of this divide. What I finally realized is that the answer was staring me in the face. every congregation. Every Sunday.

    So long as we believe our religious communities need to gather as one people facing one pulpit, we will be small, and whenever things outside offer more meaningful spiritual avenues, we will go there.

    It is worth noting -- and I was there for this -- that during the 1970s, we spent lots of time moving the furniture, sitting in circles, and taking down high pulpits. Today, though, the pulpits seem pretty secure.

  2. This may not be exactly addressing your point, but it's always seemed to me that progress/liberalism on the social front traveled on an inverse path to politics. I would argue that the mid-to-late '60s/early 70s were the beginning of a conservative wave yet that was also the sixties of popular imagination. The 1950s and early 60s were socially conservative yet the politics of that era accepted the New Deal and there was growing support for Civil Rights. This isn't a precise formula but I'd suspect it works for other eras.

  3. Two, somewhat contradictory, responses come to mind:

    1) if an entity fails (ceases to exist) because it has met it's mission (success), then the failure should be a welcome one

    2) human nature is such a mix of positive and negative, that even if the larger culture became more just and humane, we would be mistaken to think that we could relax our practice of focus on the path of "humane thought to humane practice


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