A New Conversation about Contemporary UU History

There have been a lot of reactions to my post yesterday about the differences in UU ministerial reactions to the death of Pete Seeger. Conversations always wander, and that one wandered off pretty quickly into the subjects of generational generalizations, American communism, and our favorite, critiques of the insufficiencies of Unitarian Universalisms of the past.

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....


  1. Steve Cook10:54 AM

    To take up one piece of this: My UU involvement began in the late Seventies; I attended seminary in the early Eighties. I believe the advent among us of chalices, water rituals and candles of J&C began during those years as a concomitant of the advent of women into our leadership, particularly in ministry. They brought with them a desire for some liturgy and ritual to complement or perhaps compensate for the decades-long practice of an arid, heady and, I'm willing to say, masculine-dominated humanism.

  2. Yawn. Over-analyzed psychobabel reheated in the microwave several times over. But what should I expect from a church that allows earth-worshippers to be members in full communion?

  3. Agree, but not sure where/how to begin.

  4. I'm trying to see how you are separating the "the marginalization and demobilization of progressive forces in the United States from 1968 to 2008" from the in-denial Calvinism of most UUs.

    So to answer your questions...

    Why did we pass the 7 Principles?
    Because they are mostly about personal (private) behavior/thought/action. Even the 5th principle about the democratic process is about HOW the system works, not about analysing the system itself. So this is all Calvinism.

    What did the Women and Religion Commission represent in terms of the overall Women's movement?
    Since Calvinism is based on the idea that none of us knows who the elect are, it stands to reason that women are just as likely to be in the elect as not; and that the spirit does not discriminate. Looks like the progressive Calvinist answer to the anti-feminist movement of people like Phyllis Schlafly.

    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?
    There's a huge difference between honoring commitments people make to each other than to stand up and critique a system in regards as to how it treats many of it most vulnerable members. Supporting ACT-UP would go against every Calvinist principle; AIDS is something that one acquired through private sin OF CHOICE (this is not my belief but my interpretation of Calvinist belief).

    I saw this attitude quite often in UU discussions of mass incarceration before Michelle Alexander's book came out. "It's a shame that so many young, black (or brown) men are in jail, but if they hadn't been doing drugs they wouldn't be there."

    UUs in-denial Calvinism goes hand-in-hand with the marginalization and demobilization of progressive forces in the United States from 1968 to 2008 because the system has always been on the side of, and worked for, most UUs. Politics follows theology, less so the other way around. So one can be for civic/civil rights (and expansion of said rights), and still think that bad things happen to "good" people because of private sin.

    I'm probably not explaining this as well as I can, so I'll stop here.

  5. Kim, I think that you have done well in explaining how our "Calvinism-in-denial" played a role in our demobilization. Radical and systemic critiques of the system had not penetrated for into the consciousness of most religious liberals. The belief that the system, indeed the universe, was fundamentally just, was still there. When the possibilities of radical change seemed to shrink year by year, the defense of the innocent and deserving seemed to be more than enough to do, much more than continuing the critique of those very categories. Neo-Calvinism was the theological link to Nixonian law and order and Reaganite welfare queens. Thanks. So when we try to identify what caused some elements of UUism to accommodate and conform to rightwing ideology, we can say that our unresolved Calvinism was a factor leading to accommodation. We had only rejected Calvinism on the surface, but in the depths.

  6. If (and I agree with the proposed if) our latent Calvinism -- call it our original sin that we carry with us, still -- plays out as Kim suggests, then the increasing embrace of the 7th principle seems potentially more momentous than I'd already concluded.

    It points to our being inescapably woven into the fabric of the universe, which implicitly (but unmistakably) reprises a key message of Universalism -- we are all going to the same place, together, and that what affects any part, or any one of us, affects us all. Including the thing that says "I" within each of us. The details of what and where and how remain more or less uncertain. But that is the ground on which we really reject Calvinism.

    When we see the mistreatment of GBLTQ folk, we need to see that it's abuse of us all, and the web makes it ours, while all the individualism allows us to step back into seeing difference (and the illusion of separateness). The same of mistreatment of indigenous peoples, the same of immigrants. The same of all life.

    Not there but for the grace of God go I, but only, only, only, there we all are, and only this so very persistent illusion makes it other-experienced rather than self-experienced.

    When we can recognize and carry that I within the We into our engagements, it doesn't allow us to accept that someone "deserved" their suffering. It makes it Our suffering (even if we're not the locus of the suffering) and demands that we not look away, and not accept it.

    Nixonian/Reaganesque society and law operated on Divide et impera (divide and rule). That's implicit in the southern strategy. But that only works (and it worked and works) when you can "other" people effectively.

    There is no place in Calvinism (or neo-Calvinism) for that deep unity of all. The more we embrace it, the less we can default to old habits of Calvinist thought and behavior.

  7. Here's a different angle to absence of ACT-UP: Congregants weren't members. ACT-UP was very much a member-driven organization, and UUs weren't members.

    ACT-UP also had radically less hierarchical structure than most UUs can bear.

    I think there's additional insight in there somewhere.

  8. You didn't talk about it, but the radical Feminist critiques never really made it into UUism. I came out of the Feminist movement into the all male seminary experiences of the late 70's and rather than issues about violence against women, the position of women in society, hierarchy vs. partnership, employment practices, sexual exploitation and sexual assault, etc. UU's were talking about which pronouns should be used in hymns. The MFC still uses pre-Feminist categories in looking at misconduct: seeing it as a matter of sexual education rather than of ethics, exploitation, and violence.


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