What's Wrong with this Picture?

The picture is explained by this article by Tobin Grant at Religion News Service, and is based on data from the Pew Research Group. It is a graph showing the relative positions of religions and denominations on the pressing political and social issues of the day. 

What's wrong with it? Aside from the fact we call ourselves Unitarian Universalists, not "Unitarians". Other groups have names larger than their circles, so why not us?

I don't doubt that Pew Research has the best data around on religion, denominations, beliefs among the laity than anyone.

But they just have accepted rightwing tropes about politics. And because they do, how they place religious denominations isn't useful in the context of the actual political struggles of the coming day. 

First of all, who says that the most important ideological division in the country is between big and small government? Just about every committed rightwing commentator and every shallow minded mainstream centrist. That should tell us something.

"Small government" as an ideology has a history in the United States. Supposedly, it is one of the guiding principles of the US Constitution, and that is partly true. The Constitution is a compromise document that creates the strongest possible national government that would not have the power to interfere with the institution of slavery in those states that wanted to preserve it. If you do a clause by clause analysis of the Constitution, you can see that while it creates a new national government, that government was structurally prevented from interfering with slavery. "Limited or Small Government" is the ideological window dressing for preventing the US government from acting on behalf of African Americans. 

Small Government is still the principle by which federal action on behalf of African Americans is opposed. Conservatives are not against strong and powerful governments that act on behalf of white people, or against black people. Many conservatives, it appears, are all right with the police having the power to summarily execute suspected black criminals in the streets. A huge military, OK! Torture, OK! Corporate Welfare, OK! Food Stamps? No, we need small, limited government! 

So, what is wrong with this picture? The horizontal axis is mis-named. It should be Anti-Institutional Racism on the Left and Pro-Institutional Racism on the Right.  Some of the denominations might have be moved. Many would be stay the same. But it is true that the predominately black denominations would stay close to where they are now. 

This is an important change in language. Nothing is more mystifying about our political debates as the obscuring of the role of race in political ideology. This re-naming of conservatism to an abstract, ahistoric principle hides where people are on the real issues of the day. The most important ideological conflict in the United States is now, and has always been, over whether African Americans and other non-White people have a full and equal place in the United States. If they are, then the government has to be committed to their welfare. Are we a multi-racial democracy, or is the US a white peoples' nation with non-whites in a permanently subordinate status? 

When people say that they are in favor of helping the black poor, but just not with the government, they are saying that an abstract principle is of higher value than black poor people. It's a rationalization. 

What else is wrong with this picture? The vertical axis (protection of morality) is equally premised on a rightwing, conservative bias. Is stealing from the poor through usurious interest rates moral? Is causing the death of innocent civilians in war moral? Is a minimum wage that is less than a living wage moral? Are CEO salaries hundreds of times greater than the average worker's wage moral? In this chart, one gets the idea that morality is just sexuality and marriage, in other words, patriarchical morality.  So, the real axis is Pro-Patriarchy at the top and Anti-Patriarchy at the bottom. 

But that would only rename what is there.  When consider the morality of economics and social arrangements, the real division is whether the a church's moral stance declares the individual moral duty to go along with oppression, or to challenge it. Or, does the church really favor the full flowering of the human being, or try to tame it for the benefit of others. 

To be useful, a chart should where denominations and religions are in relationship to the power structures in this country at this time. Because the future will be the history of those struggles. 


  1. That's a first-rate piece of political analysis. I've been frustrated for a long time by the way right-wing framing has come to be a accepted so widely as a politically neutral reference point, but I hadn't made the connection with race in quite that way. Once seen, it's obvious.

  2. Anonymous8:19 PM

    I posted related thoughts with the author. It's as if "morality" only means pro-life, pro-prayer-in-schools, screw-the-gays (but don't let the gays screw each other), and keep the blacks down. And for some, sure, that's what their faith / parents / fears tell them.

    But morality can (and should, I'd argue) include civil rights for all people, increased choices by individuals in health care (only adults can decide to mutilate their own genitals), becoming a parent, and employment as well as providing for the neediest among us and righting historical inequalities. Those apparently weren't conveyed in the survey or the chart would flip, top-for-bottom.

  3. Anonymous9:37 PM

    Well the didn't even list Pagans on it, despite there more Pagans than UU's, Friends and several other groups they did bother to include.

  4. Quick comment on the reference to "Unitarians" vs. Unitarian Universalists -- I think we have to accept that we're not going to typically get 9 syllables or 22 letters on the web or in a newspaper. Similarly, the Latter Day Saints will be called Mormons and Roman Catholics will be called Catholics. To me the likely alternatives to Unitarian Universalist are Unitarian or UU. I realize that UU is more inclusive, but I also think that it is unfamiliar to most people, and sacrifices the connection to both traditions by including neither in its original form.

  5. Pete M, I think you're probably right. And if we have to choose one or the other, perhaps we should choose Universalist.

  6. Was anybody else as surprised as I was by the economic conservatism of mainline Protestant groups? Anglicans? UCC?

  7. Doug- I wasn't. These are what I call NPR liberals. Social liberalism is pretty much cost-free for them and is de rigeur in their social circles, but anything that potentially affects their pocketbooks and their economic privilege is a different matter.

  8. John- I'm good with shortening the name to Universalist- I think it best describes us post- Knoxville and post- Standing On The Side Of Love. Of course, not everybody will be happy with that idea, plus I'm biased since I belong to a historically Universalist church. ;)

  9. Virginia Kahn6:36 PM

    Where are the Pagans listed they are one of the biggest groups in the Universal Unitarians

  10. I like Universalist because, as an apatheist and a naturalist, the question of whether God is one or three or the square root of pi isn't meaningful to me, but the "death and glory" Universalist conviction that no one goes to hell is one of the most liberatory statements possible.

  11. Virginia, Where would you think the pagan circle would go on the chart?

  12. Anonymous9:02 AM

    Thanks for this excellent analysis. I read the original article and was cruising on to the next item (on facebook) when your post showed up. I agree with you and the other comments here -- the measures of "morality" here fit some pretty narrow definitions. Not to mention the up/down, left/right of the graphic.

  13. I think we Unitarian's need to be careful patting ourselves on the back to much about being anti-institutional racism. Case in point would be the recent reduction in hours for the staff person building ministries to youth and young adult of color at the UUA over other cuts that would effect other groups with-in UU congregations.

    1. That is just one of many examples of UU s talking the talk but not walking the walk re race. It's not just geography, although the direction that existing congregations relocate is rarely *toward* areas with higher proportions of people of color. We are a largely monocultural denomination, uncomfortable and sometimes insulted by benign gestures and facial expressions , not to mention language, that are common elsewhere but unfamiliar to most urban-suburban middle-upper class white people. Earnestly trying anything that doesn't make us uncomfortable: not much to brag about, is it?

  14. Steve Cook12:09 PM

    A cogent analysis, particularly in the re-naming of the axes. It's very clear that Civil War still continues, its issues unresolved.

  15. I'm not sure that renaming the axes would make one bit of difference. The positions of the religious groups on the chart is based on responses to questions, and not some speculation as to where they'd fall on the axes. The names of the axes are just a summary of the questions.

    Your beef, I suspect, lies in the questions used in the survey that determine the positions on this chart.

    The results of the survey can be found here:

    This graph is just a helpful visualization of that survey. There's a lot of data here. The questions used start on page 119 of the document (121 of the PDF, for some reason).

    Actually, it looks like I was wrong. There is a specific question about protecting morality in society (question 5a). Since it's up to the individual to interpret that question (although I'm sure that the interpretation of this question is affected by the social discourse on what is morality and what are moral issues), I don't think that this is necessarily attributable to the creator of the graph. Question 6 provides the results of the other axis.

  16. On the one hand I'm always fascinated seeing how analysts visualize difficult concepts. But visualizations of course, are ... er ... well, just visualizations. They may or may not help us understand the world we live in.
    The little UU ring on the graph: is it in the right place? Are the X and Y axes valid? Both yes and no.
    I grew up in the US as a Unitarian, and looking back sixty years, I find the Unitarians I know/knew to be the staunchest defenders of protecting morality.
    But the morality they strive to protect isn't some kind of trumped-up superstitious dogma, it's international basic human rights, racial, religious and gender equality and so forth.
    I grew up adhering to the UU 'credo' but you won't find anything there about big or small government. There the focus is Human dignity; Justice, equity and compassion; spiritual growth; seeking truth; right of conscience; democracy; a just and peaceful world community; and respect for all nature. ALL of these are moral/ethical principles, none of them require one particular point of view or another on government size. Yet from each of them can be derived a political standpoint as to what governments should do to achieve good governance.
    Having been dislocated from the American society since the sixties, I look at the graph and think: “The X and Y axes may be what benighted Americans think are the important watersheds in American society – but Unitarians aren't that stupid!
    Tom has suggested one possible renaming of the axes, but given another name many of the congregations included would have to be moved around. My inclination would be to remake the graph using three axes X,Y and Z X being “greater protection of human rights → less protection of human rights; Y being “greater protection of natural environment → less protection of natural environment and Z being “greater protection of individual wealth → less protection of individual wealth” And then the graph would show something meaningful.

  17. Anonymous9:36 AM

    Hmmm. I consider myself a evangelical independent. I do lean to the right, if it must be "defined." But I disagree completely with the author's comments on what we think, believe, and how things should be done. So do most of the conservatives I know. We all make too many massive generalizations.

    Have you read Ben Carson's book? Excellent account of history, the constitution, and how it is/is not relevant now. He does not disagree completely with this author, but is much more comprehensive.

  18. John and Steve, I agree that Universalist would meet my criteria of a one-word name.

    To me, the question of which name to use should be looked at based how closely we want to be tied to our past as a small but highly influential and mainstream (or at least mainstreamish) denomination vs. something also has a long history but sounds more alternative/other. The Unitarian legacy is filled with presidents, Chief Justices, cabinet secretaries, abolitionists, academics etc. The Universalist legacy has less of this. That's not a value judgment -- my understanding is that the Universalists came later and were more likely to be working class or rural whereas the Unitarians were highly educated and often wealthy.

    Given that history, though, if a short-hand name for public consumption is designed largely to be recognizable to non-UU audience I think Unitarian works better. If the goal is focus inward the answer may be different.

  19. Clyde Grubbs12:17 PM

    We should teach them. Drop the Unitarian part of our name. Theologically, the number of heads in the god head is a yawn.

    God (or Love) will overcome Evil (the brokenness introduced into the creation) and we stand on the side of Love (healing, wholeness) is the Universalist gospel. The Unitariaism of our childhood (the interminable search for a meaningful "truth") is so yesterday although it is still good for a coffee hour discussion.

    And the UUA could have branding Universalism. Logos. T shirts. fun.


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