I wrote about Pete Seeger because I am trying to start a new conversation about contemporary Unitarian Universalist history. Because Seeger was a presence in so much of our history, and because there were differences in how ministers I know were responding to his death, talking about him illuminates some of the complexities of our history.
Why do we need a new conversation about our history? Because as secret Calvinists, we have a understanding of history that is first, self-centered, and two, moralistic.
Self-Centered: we believe that everything that happened in the past is the result of the drama of our internal struggle with sin. And Moralistic: our actions in the past must, first of all, be evaluated morally. As a result, most of our discussion of UU history is an exercise of moral positioning. Who are the "good guys" from the past? Who were "the bad guys" from the past? Who are the most moral acute commentators on our history? Who is being insufficiently self-critical?
I think you have to start from the external events, the bigger historical trends. The lens through which I view UU history since the founding of the UUA in 1961 is the marginalization and demobilization of progressive forces in the United States from 1968 to 2008. The marginalization and demobilization of progressive forces, I call the great Nixon-Reagan counter-revolution. And it was a political, cultural, ideological, and economic offensive.
It was an overall historical trend. Everyone dealt with it. The labor movement. The Democratic Party. The African American movement. The Latino/a movement. The movement among Indigenous Peoples. The Women's Movement. The GLBTQ movement. And yes, the progressive religious movements and the Unitarian Universalist movements.
And elements of each of these movements responded in different ways. There were trends of defiance, and radicalization and self-criticism and ideological struggle. Another trend was to modify and tailor the movement to fit what was possible in the new diminished circumstances. Another trend was to retreat into more supportive small communities. An overall trend was that the nascent coalitions between movements that had begun to form before 1968 broke up.
To understand the history of the UUA, we need to view everything and everybody through the lens of the overall historical situation. Just as in every other movement at the time, there were UU's who radicalized, there were UU's who tailored and trimmed the aspirations to fit the circumstances, there were UU's who retreated into smaller more supportive communities. And because we are talking about a fifty year history, there are people who bridge to the pre-1968 era, and people who never knew that era, or who only know of it through media representations.
None of this is to glorify the pre-1968 situation. They are not "the old glory days". The political sophistication of the movements was much lower. White liberals were much more paternalistic. Male-domination was the norm. Every movement had its own closet. They did win some victories, though. But because they were weak and unformed and unready the progressive movements were in 1968, they were unprepared to fight back effectively against a corporate funded, sophisticated machine that put together a majority based on the racial resentments of whites, patriarchical conservative religion, white nationalism, and homophobia. An essential element of the Right's victory was the ridicule of the Left as unmasculine, effete, elitist, ineffective, posturing dopes. We need to be clear-eyed about the pre-1968 UUism, but it is beyond our judgement.
So here is your homework: Take any event in UU history since our founding, and try to analyze through the lens of our many and varied responses to the great Nixon-Reagan counter-revolution. Make the connections between what was happening elsewhere and what was happening among us. Why did we pass the Seven Principles? What did the Women and Religion Commission represent in terms of the overall Women's movement? (The Women and Religion Resolution was presented at the 1977 GA, the same year that the last state to ratify the ERA did so.) Why did UU churches readily respond to the GLBTQ movements by performing ceremonies of union, and welcoming congregation programs, but were largely absent from ACT-UP? How about the rise of lighting chalices, and water communions and our rituals? How about our growth in the South and shrinkage in New England?
Let's start a new conversation about our history....