#PublicTheology Again

Yesterday, I posted a little rant about the self-blame that progressive liberals take when talking about the persistence of things they protested 'back in the day.' I think they blame themselves for the lack of progress and ignore the hegemonic power of the elite, working through a rightwing movement.

Predictably,  in the Facebook feed, I have been accused of conflating UUism with 'leftism' which is 'inappropriate.'  So, let me explain again, and in more detail, how I view the relationship between UUism and progressive liberal politics.

It's empirically true that many more UU's are political progressives than political conservatives.

I rely on this fact in my analysis of modern UU history. Subjectively, most UU's have ridden the same emotional roller coaster as political liberals since merger. Our sense of where we fit in the social order, whether we are surrounded by a friendly or hostile culture, are intertwined with the fortunes of the political liberals.  I think that the key question in modern UU history is how UU's have responded to the rightwing cultural hegemony that has gripped the nation since 1968.

But the empirical truth that many more UU's are political progressives than political conservatives arises from the fact that our theological development leads inexorably to political liberalism. Our way of doing theology, of understanding history, of understanding how we know what we think we know, all have social, economic and political consequences. (Isn't that what James Luther Adams wants us to grapple with?) What those consequences are in the current historical moment is a long argument that we are in the midst of having. That's why I regularly ask Grace Lee Boggs' question: What time is it on the clock of the world?

The reason why I do this blog is grapple with that question. I use the hashtag #publictheology because that is how I shorthand the question. If you want in on that argument, comments are welcome, although moderated with a gentle hand.

The old orthodoxy in UUism was that religious liberalism and political liberalism were disconnected, in separate spheres. That idea has its own history, but it functions mostly as a peacekeeping principle. But like most peacekeeping principles, it also serves to blur lines and stifle development. I think that it is time to question that principle.

So, I have said throughout the last year, that politically conservative UU's need to examine the contradiction between their political views and developments in liberal religious theologizing. Liberal theology has been questioning the ontological supremacy of the individual. It has been questioning the epistemology of privilege. It has been deconstructing the idols of the present social order. Liberal theology is no longer confined to skeptical interpretations of the traditional theological subjects, but has become intertwined with social theorizing. It is about ethics and morality, on a social as well as an individual level.

There is very little congruence between political libertarianism and contemporary liberal religious theology. Libertarianism fetishizes the individual and is supremely indifferent to the social consequences of the fullest exercise of individual choices. Look at the issue of guns. And the identification of the government as the most important agent of oppression completely ignores the testimony and experience of people of color in US history. How can authentic liberal theology be the product of such limited experience?

I don't get to decide who is a UU and who is not. I am just saying that there is a huge contradiction between political conservatism, including libertarianism, and where liberal religious theology has gone, and is going. If political conservatives are uncomfortable in the present-day UUA, that is their problem to work out, not mine.


  1. Steve Cook9:42 AM

    Tom, can you put a little more shape to this term, "liberal theology?" Who are some thinkers, scholars, spiritual leaders, commentators, etc. (within the UU world or not) that you see carrying the flag for liberal theology?

  2. Although I largely agree with you, there was a very significant conceptual turn in the period between, say, 1925 and 1945 in Unitarian (and Universalist) theology. The older liberal theology (self-culture, moral philosophy, etc.), which you still find libertarians resonating with, was vigorously challenged by more progressive thinkers, like Adams, Skinner, the humanists, etc., who saw evil as much more a social problem than an individual one.

    The progressive school eventually won the argument as far as the formation of clergy was concerned, but the individualist/libertarian form of liberal religion is alive and well in our churches. It just lacks articulate and vigorous champions.

    I mention this only to say that there was a real clash of ideas when early 20th century Unitarians argued about which version of liberalism they were aligned with. That fight may not have resolved, actually, until the late 1960s. I don't want us to downplay how significant that intellectual turn was.

  3. It seems to me that Hosea Ballou, more than a century before 1925, turned to social theorizing, ethics, and morality on a social level. His theology, although expressed in antique and Christian terms, was all about how the standard Christian concept of atonement affected how we treated ourselves and others.

    That said - right on - I don't see how it is possible to hold liberal religious views and current Republican and libertarian values simultaneously. Old conservative values, yes.


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