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Can Unitarian Universalism change?

Our tradition has always been responsive to the needs of its time, but are we ready to adapt to our increasingly multicultural society?
By Paul Rasor
Spring 2010 2.15.10

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Front Porch Conversations, ©2001 by Xavier Cortada. (The Bridgeman Art Library)

Front Porch Conversations (detail), ©2001 by Xavier Cortada. Acrylic on canvas. (Private Collection/The Bridgeman Art Library)

Nearly a century ago, the Rev. Lewis B. Fisher, the dean of the Universalist seminary at St. Lawrence University, memorably described religious liberalism’s flexibility. “Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand,” he wrote. “The only true answer . . . is that we do not stand at all, we move.” We could say the same thing for Unitarian Universalism today. Our commitment to religious freedom, our openness to new ideas, our insistence that religion should live in the present and not in the past, our healthy theological pluralism—all of these, the very theology that makes us liberal, mean that our collective religious identity will inevitably be difficult to pin down at any particular moment in our history. Yet there are times when the opposite is true, when the realities are so daunting that we freeze up, playing out Dean Fisher’s aphorism in reverse: We do not move; we stand.

We face a major turning point in Unitarian Universalism, and our decision whether to stand or move will shape the identity and set the course of our religious movement for the twenty-first century. In a word, our turning point can be summed up in the term multiculturalism.

The context of our challenge is familiar but worth saying. American society is now undergoing the most radical demographic shift in its history. These changes are forcing us to reexamine everything we thought we knew about ourselves, both as a society and as a religious movement. Being good liberals, Unitarian Universalists have been engaged in wrenching self-examination for several years now, at least since the 1992 General Assembly Resolution on Racial and Cultural Diversity. And yet, despite our efforts to become a truly multiracial, multicultural religious movement, we are changing much more slowly than the society around us, if we are changing at all.

We need to become a genuinely multiracial and multicultural faith, theologically and demographically. We need to do this not because it is the politically correct thing to do, or because our congregations need yet another exercise in antiracism and cultural sensitivity training, though they might, or because we think this will attract new members, though it may. Instead, we need to make this collective journey for spiritual and theological reasons.

Becoming a multiracial-multicultural Unitarian Universalism fulfills the vision we have long held. As the Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed has put it, we are moved to do this because we “see the richness in human diversity and [are] excited by its possibility.” Given the cultural context in which we now find ourselves, this is where we are drawn by our deepest theological principles and religious values. Religious liberalism has always been marked by its ability to engage and respond to the circumstances of its own time and place. This is what has kept our theology intellectually credible and socially relevant.

If we fail to respond to this new multicultural reality—if we choose to stand rather than to move—we will not only fail to honor this core principle of liberal theology, we will simply become irrelevant. We could devolve into a quaint relic of a once-vital tradition, holding fast to our good liberal ideas (while continuing to bicker about them), protecting an increasingly insular identity, ironically slipping into the kind of safe and unchallenging provincialism we have always resisted.

This would be a tragedy because we have much to offer, much to say that our world needs to hear. In many ways we are perfectly positioned to model a dynamic and life-affirming religious multiculturalism. But in order to move into this new future, we must let our eagerness to embrace change overcome our reluctance to be changed. Some of our core theological commitments can help us.


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2008 whites made up 65.6 percent of the population, while Hispanics and Latinos/Latinas were 15.4 percent and blacks and African Americans were 12.2 percent. For our purposes, however, the long-term trends are more important than a snapshot of any single year. The Census Bureau projects that by 2042, whites will no longer constitute a majority of the U.S. population. According to its projections, whites are the only group that will decline steadily over the next thirty years as a percentage of the population. Asians and Hispanics and Latinos/ Latinas will grow at roughly similar rates, but the fastest growing group will be those who identify as multiracial. The Census Bureau reported in 2009 that the number of people who identify themselves as belonging to “two or more” racial or ethnic groups increased by 3.5 percent in one year, and some demographers believe millions more remain uncounted.

A major factor in this shifting cultural context is immigration. Since the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, 38 million immigrants have come to the United States, and immigrants now make up 12.5 percent of the population. More important than the number of immigrants is their diversity. The previous peak immigration period took place around the turn of the twentieth century, when 22 million people immigrated to the United States. But the racist immigration policies of that time meant that 95 percent of these earlier immigrants were from Europe. Today, only 13 percent are from Europe. Half are from Latin America, one quarter are from Asia and the Middle East, and about 4 percent are from Africa.

These “new immigrants,” as they are often called, differ from earlier immigrant populations in other important ways that affect the roles they play in our new cultural reality. For example, the average educational level of immigrants other than those from Latin America is now higher than the average educational level of native-born Americans. The religious group with the highest education and income levels in the United States today is not Jews or Unitarian Universalists, or even Episcopalians, but Hindus.

So how do Unitarian Universalists fit into this picture? Do we reflect the pluralistic and multicultural reality of our time, or have we fatally linked our brand of religious liberalism to a culture that is disappearing? What progress have we made toward our announced goal of becoming a multiracial and multicultural faith?

To put this a bit differently: If you were asked about the racial and ethnic diversity within Unitarian Universalism, what would you say? If you wanted to verify your impression or discover how much we have changed over the past decade, where would you look? Whom would you ask? I tried to find out, and I discovered that nobody really knows. The UUA simply does not collect the data that could tell us how we are doing. When it comes to our own racial and cultural identity, our policy seems to be “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I find this both troubling and puzzling in light of our commitment eighteen years ago to create a “racially diverse and multicultural Unitarian Universalism.”

Multiculturalism is not simply about numbers, of course. The Rev. Taquiena Boston, director of Identity-Based Ministries at the UUA, reminds us that “diversity alone is not the goal,” and that developing a genuinely multiracial and multicultural identity “must be integral to the larger mission and ministry of the congregation.” Or, as former UUA President William G. Sinkford put it, “the objective of finding a few more dark faces to make our white members feel better about themselves is not spiritually grounded.”

And it is not just about numbers in another sense, too. Unitarian Universalism has its own cultural tradition, one that is rooted in European-American cultural norms and ways of being in the world. This normative lens is often invisible to those of us who look through it, but it is all too visible to those who view the world through different cultural lenses. This is why our ongoing antiracism work is so important. We cannot become a multicultural faith if we—subconsciously or otherwise—continue to treat a particular monocultural lens as normative.

Yet there are also some bad reasons for not collecting our own diversity data. One factor that often comes up in program evaluations is fear, especially fear of conflict and fear of change. Our “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy might simply be an avoidance mechanism, one that allows us to feel good about our workshops without having to worry about what they actually accomplish.

I understand that numbers are not the whole story, that seeking diversity for its own sake is wrong-headed, that the demographics will play out differently in different congregations, and that congregations with zero diversity can still be effective antiracist allies in their communities. But in the end, the numbers matter. If we are going to name ourselves as a multiracial-multicultural faith, the name should mean something, and part of that meaning is wrapped up in demographics.

The only data we have about the diversity of UU members come from two surveys taken ten years apart. The UUA’s Fulfilling the Promise survey data, drawn from 8,118 responses to a questionnaire published in UU World in 1997, showed that 91.5 percent of UUs identified as white, while 2.3 percent identified as Native Americans, 1.3 percent identified as black or African American, 1 percent identified as Latino/Latina, 0.7 percent identified as Asian, and 3.2 percent identified as multiracial/multicultural. (I have recalculated these percentages using the survey’s raw data. Earlier reports used inaccurate figures that overstated the percentage of white and multiracial/multicultural responses; see chart.)

In 2008, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey generated demographic information about even small religious groups like ours from interviews with 35,000 adults. (See UU World, Summer 2008.) Although Unitarian Universalist demographic information was reported as part of the more general “liberal faiths” category, the Pew Forum was kind enough to share the specific numbers for Unitarian Universalists with me. Its weighted numbers show that 89 percent of UUs identified as white in 2007, 3 percent as Asian, 3 percent as Latino/Latina, 1 percent identified as black or African American, and 4 percent as “other/mixed.”

These two surveys show that our diversity over the past decade has not fundamentally changed. Of course, we can’t be sure based simply on two surveys taken a decade apart using very different methodologies. The experience in your congregation may be different. We could avoid these ambiguities by regularly collecting our own data.

Fortunately, we have better information on our ministers and theological students. In fact, we have exact numbers rather than survey samples. The trend in our professional ministry might be indicated by the differences between current ministers and those preparing for ministry. According to the UUA’s Ministry and Professional Leadership staff, 95.7 percent of active ministers in 2009 identified as white, but only 88.3 percent of aspiring ministers were white. Currently serving ministers are less diverse than our movement as a whole, while our students are slightly more diverse—and the percentage of multiracial students, 6.4 percent, is much higher. This is in line with the overall demographic trend for young people, though we don’t know the ages of these students.

We have even less data about UU children than we have for our adult members, but we do know enough about children and youth in general to make some useful observations. Looking at the United States as a whole, we see that the multiracial and multicultural future toward which our society is rapidly moving is already here for our young people: 44 percent of those under age 18 are minorities, and children are projected to be majority non-white by 2023. Among the generation born between 1980 and 2000, one in five has at least one immigrant parent, and one in eight was born in another country. Finally, more than half of all multiracial persons in the United States are under age 20. This is the world of our children and youth, whatever their individual identities.

It’s tempting to think that all we have to do is wait another generation and our vision of a multiracial-multicultural Unitarian Universalism will happen by itself. But that would be a mistake. It would not only be a religious and moral cop-out, a repudiation of the very work to which we have committed ourselves, it wouldn’t work.

Our less than adequate data suggests that most of our congregations have at least a few children and youth of color, including transracially adopted children. But the UUA’s Mosaic Project Report, published in 2009, tells us that 42 percent of UU youth of color are the only ones in their congregations’ youth groups, and another 44 percent are in groups that have only two or three. In other words, UU children and youth for the most part attend religious education classes and youth groups that are far less diverse than their school classrooms. The Mosaic Project concludes:

The Unitarian Universalist culture [our Youth and Young Adults of Color] experience may not be relevant to their life experiences. Even though many of [them] have been UUs from birth, feelings of being an outsider are prevalent. The vision of community promised by our Seven Principles often fails them.

This is a powerful indictment, and it is another reason the numbers matter. If we do not become the multiracial-multicultural faith we have called ourselves to become, we will not only have failed our children and youth of color, we will very likely lose them.


Theological Implications

What theological resources do we Unitarian Universalists have and what theological challenges do we face as we continue our journey toward becoming a multiracial-multicultural faith? Two aspects of Unitarian Universalist theology are especially relevant to this vision: its orientation toward modern culture and its impulse toward theological pluralism.

It is widely accepted among scholars that religious liberalism’s central defining characteristic is its posture of intentional engagement with modern culture. Liberal theology starts with the premise that religion should be oriented toward the present, taking fully into account modern knowledge and experience. As a result, Unitarian Universalists and other liberals are not likely to feel their faith threatened by new scientific discoveries, for example. Rather than resist new developments, liberals tend to embrace them and incorporate them into their religious worldviews. This is how religious liberals have sought to keep their religious commitments culturally relevant and intellectually credible.

This posture of cultural engagement would seem to make Unitarian Universalists ideally situated to respond to the large-scale changes taking place in our culture—to become, in effect, the religion for our time, as UUA President Peter Morales puts it. But it’s not that simple. The challenge of multiculturalism raises some difficult questions about the nature of our cultural orientation and ultimately about our religious identity.

While our primary mode of cultural engagement has been intellectual, as religious liberals we do not simply and uncritically absorb every feature of our culture. We oppose social and institutional structures that perpetuate injustice; we reject our society’s celebration of violence; we do our best to resist the lure of its pervasive materialism. Our cultural engagement is a critical engagement. This posture grounds our prophetic practice, encouraging us to live fully in the world while bringing our religious values to bear on it.

In adapting to modern culture, Unitarian Universalism has for the most part adopted the core values of modernity, including its emphasis on human reason, the autonomous authority of the individual, and the critical evaluation of all religious truth claims. We want our religious beliefs and commitments to make sense, so we examine them and reexamine them, taking nothing for granted, and especially taking nothing on someone else’s say-so. These are important values, and we rightfully treasure them. Yet this legacy encourages us to keep our religious commitments largely in our heads, where we can hold them at a comfortable arm’s length. This gives us a sense of control; it allows us to feel spiritually safe.

Multiculturalism threatens this sense of safety. I have come to think that for many Unitarian Universalists, multiculturalism represents a form of danger. I do not think the perception of danger lies in the shifting demographics. Most of us welcome this as far as it goes. Instead, the sense of danger points to a deeper fear. At one level it is the fear of change, and the fear of difference that change always represents. At a deeper level, it is a fear of losing control. I am not talking here about political or social control, the fear perhaps that entrenched power groups in our congregations might lose their influence, though that might happen. Instead, the real fear is the loss of intellectual control. Our move toward becoming a multiracial and multicultural faith challenges our safe and tidy way of being religious. In this sense, multiculturalism might represent for some a threat not simply to our illusion of control, but to our very identity.

We cannot reason our way into multiculturalism. The reality of lived multiracial and multicultural communities cannot be grasped through analysis, statistical or otherwise. We will have to embrace it bodily, not just intellectually. We will have to wade into the new cultural waters up to our necks, and even risk getting in over our heads, without first being able to measure the currents or predict the storm cycles. In theological terms, our challenge is to embrace a new understanding of our cultural orientation.

Another feature of our faith tradition that should make us ideally situated to respond to the new cultural context is our inherent theological pluralism. This pluralism is a product of our commitment to free religious inquiry and our openness to insight from many sources, including other religious traditions. While we sometimes lose patience with each other and occasionally bite our tongues, on the whole Unitarian Universalists have learned to live comfortably with and even to celebrate our internal diversity. At its best it is mutually enriching and helps create an atmosphere of welcoming and invitation in our congregations.

Yet our comfort with diversity has its limits. Because we want our theological differences to be non-threatening, we tend to avoid discussing them too vigorously, or proclaiming our own beliefs with too much conviction, for fear of excluding or disrespecting other views. The result, once again, is that many Unitarian Universalists have unwittingly adopted a kind of theological “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Out of fear of saying something that might offend someone, we can easily end up saying nothing.

Like our cultural adaptation, our theological diversity can be kept safely in the intellectual realm. We tend to see it as an expression of freedom of conscience and individual autonomy, the natural byproduct of a creedless faith. But multiculturalism involves a different kind of pluralism. Our challenge is to transform our pluralism of ideas into a pluralism of being.

But how do we do this? What theological resources do we have that might address these concerns and ground us on this journey? I want to close by offering an insight from our Universalist heritage that might be helpful.

Universalism’s core theological claim is that all humanity—indeed, all of creation—is ultimately united in a common destiny. This was the meaning of its original doctrine of universal salvation. In contrast to the Calvinist doctrine of election, in which only a few of us—the “elect”—would be saved, Universalists held that all would be saved. Universalist theology refused to divide the world into factions or to exclude anyone from its vision. It said we’re all in this together, and wherever we are headed, we will all share in it.

Early Universalism was a communal faith. “Communal” here means more than a group of individuals who share a common belief and come together for mutual support and worship, the way we might understand it today. Instead, in this form of communal theology, the individual was removed from the religious equation. Universalists insisted that our personal salvation was no more important than anyone else’s salvation. As Ann Lee Bressler, author of The Universalist Movement in America, 1770–1880, puts it, Universalism “encouraged the believer to think of his own interests as inseparably linked with the eternal welfare of the whole body of humanity.”

This theological core led to a radical egalitarianism. The American emphasis, shared by most Protestant denominations, including Unitarians, had always been on equality of opportunity, at least in principle, while in practice tolerating vast inequalities of outcome. But Universalism’s egalitarian theological doctrine became the basis for a truly egalitarian social doctrine—“an egalitarianism not of opportunity, but of desert,” or outcome. In other words, Universalism was not simply pluralistic; it was radically inclusive.

There is something theologically vital in the original Universalist insight, something that might help us embrace multiculturalism as part of a radically welcoming, radically inclusive religious identity. If we restate this Universalist principle in the language of our own time, we might say that it is basically a commitment to liberation. Early Universalists understood that liberation is communal, that human fulfillment and liberation are possible only in a context of open and inclusive communities based on respect and justice. Liberal theology today, like early Universalist theology, recognizes that spiritual liberation and social liberation are inextricably linked.

Our commitment to creating a genuinely multiracial-multicultural Unitarian Universalism has deep roots. It is grounded theologically not only in our current Principles and Purposes, but ultimately in the early Universalist theology of radical egalitarianism, a theology lived out in radically inclusive religious communities and congregations. Our shifting cultural context is both a challenge and an invitation to reclaim this vision and make it a reality in our time.


Adapted from “Ironic Provincialism,” the 2009 Berry Street Lecture, ©2009 by Paul Rasor, delivered June 24, 2009, in Salt Lake City.

See sidebar for links to related resources. UU World is soliciting brief reflections on this essay and Rosemary Bray McNatt's response, “We Must Change,” for an upcoming issue. Click here to learn more.

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