Jim Crow and 40's/50's Unitarian/Universalism (dialectical theology part 5 of many)

Section 3: The Civil Rights Movement.

We are talking about the historical context of the 1940's and 1950's Liberal Religion. The first factor was the Cold War; the second factor was Suburbanization, and the third was the emergence of integrationist Civil Rights Movement, mostly in the South: Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Unitarians and Universalists were largely sympathetic to the Civil Rights movement. In this, they were moving in that direction with a larger force of white liberals. The question that I have is "how did those U/U's see the theological justification for that alliance?"

In 1946, in the immediate aftermath of the war, A. Powell Davies proclaimed in: ‘A Faith of an Unrepentant Liberal”: calling Unitarianism “the faith that begins in individual freedom of belief and goes to the limitless, building throughout the world the Free and Universal Church." Davies was centering a universal movement toward freedom in the Unitarian experience of seeking individual freedom of belief. From that core, the liberal church was connected to the universal aspirations of freedom.             

In the prewar Unitarian and Universalists denominations, there had been a steady movement toward calling for an end of racial discrimination in the society, (although often cloaked in the vaguer language of “brotherhood”). Much of this seemed to proceed from the rhetoric of World War Two against the racialism of the Nazi’s, as though American anti-black racism was, somehow, an extension of European anti-semitism. Concrete analysis of the racial history of the United States, or of U/U history with race since the Abolitionist movement, did not seem to appear.

At the same time, denominational structures were discouraging actual African Americans from succeeding in our ministry, as extensively documented by Mark Morrison-Reed. And also at the same time, it was often noted, with chagrin, how few Negroes attended most of our churches.

So we can see, nearly a lifetime ago, the solidification of the situation of white Unitarian/Universalism: a religious body politically committed to an abstract ideals of brotherhood and non-discrimination, but largely ignorant of the material history of racism in the USA. A religious body unconscious of race as a factor in its own institutional history. And, because they were washed along by the system-wide flow of the white population into the suburbs, they were increasingly isolated from African Americans.

Mark Morrison-Reed, describes the situation as follows:

During the two decades that followed the Second World War, the UUA and its predecessors increasingly articulated their strong support for racial justice. Unitarians and Universalists supported school desegregation, open housing, equal access, and integration. Furthermore, the majority of their ministers engaged in the cause of racial justice in some way.
The liberalization of laws, the amelioration of cultural mores and UU largesse notwithstanding, Unitarian Universalists still held a narrow, often self-serving understanding of race relations. Going to committee meetings with black folks and earnest working for change enabled them to identify with the solution to the problem. It also impeded their awakening to the way in which they themselves perpetuated it. The insularity of their lives as Euro-Americans produced a skewed view of the world and blinded them to how little they truly understood about the realities of African-American life.
(Mark Morrison-Reed, The Selma Awakening, page 92.)
What Went Wrong?

Unitarians and Universalists have been living and breathing the contradictions of their relationships with African American people, and systemic racism, for as long as anyone alive among us can remember. On the one hand, U/U’s are politically committed to the cause of African Americans. To be more precise, and using Mark Morrison-Reed's memorable phrase, they have identified with the "solution of the problem" (integration) , as they understand it.

 On the other hand, they are, for the most part, isolated from African American people, and not even particularly welcoming to those who approach or even join our congregations. 

The situation is the result of a theological failure.

Theologically, Unitarian Universalists emerged from the 1950’s, into the era of the Merger, at war with themselves. They worked from sharply contradictory theological assumptions.

On the one hand, as functional humanists, theologically they were focused on the here and now. “one lifetime as a time.” The purpose of their theology was to guide people into living “good lives” in the present, not to prepare for them eternity and the afterlife. Our present lives are lived at this moment in human history, and no other.

Yet, the building blocks of their theological thought were trans-historical, abstract idealisms: brotherhood, equality, the universality of individual worth. Lifted aloft by these abstractions, they floated above human life, and dipped down into it to participate in the political struggles of the day. Their “here-and-now-ness” became the application of abstract principles to real life situations. That is not the same as a material engagement with the history of the situation, or the people involved.

Theology enters into the “here and now” as ecclesiology, or the theology of the church. For what purpose does the church, or the religious community, exist? Who are the people of the church? How do people become the people of the church? What do they do? How do they relate to people not of the church?

The ecclesiological practices of Unitarian Universalism completely surrendered to the social process of suburbanization, through the concrete process of congregational polity. We form congregations where “our people” go. We abandon the places where “our people” have left. We encourage ministers who will be likely to succeed in the congregations that result. We discourage ministers who we think will not.

Dialectical theology examines itself in the context of its social, historical, and material circumstances. It attempts to see how it, as a current of thought, responds to its environment. It attempts to imagine a concrete and faithful response to events that proclaims what is of ultimate importance, its core values and insights.


  1. Anonymous1:48 PM

    I’m curious about how the — call them marginal cases, outliers — affect the analysis. Many of our existing churches moved with “their people” to suburbs. But not all. How have the experiences and examples of places that survived (even thrived) informed us as well? The places where UUism played out differently, as well.

    For example, All Souls in DC, which built and maintained a multi-racial/ethnic community and stayed put. Or FUS Chicago, or some of the smaller churches that remained in place in older cities.

    Have they helped inform what went on, or simply anchored a longer reaction to the swing of events of the 20th century?

  2. Anonymous : There is a whole history to be written about urban UU churches -=- which is a question that Mark Morrison-Reed asks in "Revisiting the Empowerment Controversy." He notes how many African American UU's at the time were clustered in a relatively few UU Urban churches -- many of whom have shrunk considerably since then. Which ones survived and thrived? Which ones have shrunk down to a smaller size? How did the aftermath of the Empowerment Controversy affect them?

    Another question: how does the current process of gentrification affect our urban congregations?


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