There is no going back

There is no going back

An unbridgeable gap is growing between Unitarian Universalism and the conservative movement.

Tom Schade
Black and yellow illustration of two groups of people separated by a chasm that is formed by a grecian style column.

(© Michael Austin/theispot)

© Michael Austin/theispot


There is an unbridgeable gap between Unitarian Universalism as it now understands itself and the mainstream of the Republican Party.

A big statement. Some qualifiers are in order.

Obviously, there are conservative and Republican Unitarian Universalists. According to a Pew survey, some 14 percent of UUs are not Democrats. They’re not all Greens or Libertarians. But, this is a relatively new situation. For most of American history, Unitarians and Universalists were Federalists and Whigs and then Republicans, as were most New England Protestants. UUs became Democrats only in the twentieth century.

No one has the power to exclude anybody from our covenant on the basis of political opinion. There will continue to be UUs who wear the red “Make America Great Again” hat and pull the Republican lever. But UUs and the conservative movement have each evolved to find themselves on opposite sides of a wide gap.

The evolution of the modern conservative movement is well known. In 1964, the national GOP allied itself with the white Southerners who resisted the Civil Rights Movement. They chose as their presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They also decisively rejected the eastern Republicans who had supported it. Since then the GOP has become more white, more Southern, more evangelical, and more resistant to the emerging multicultural and multiracial United States. In every situation, they support the old hierarchies.

The evolution of the political theology of Unitarian Universalism is harder for us to see, because it is our history.

In the middle of the twentieth century, when contemporary Unitarian Universalism was formed, our public theology was shaped by our resistance to the public civic Christianity of the day. Because we had adopted humanism so thoroughly (even our theists and Christians were humanists), we were the church that allowed disbelief at a time when church membership and attendance was at an all time high. We believed in “deeds not creeds” and in building heaven on Earth and in “social action.” We were militants about the separation of church and state. We were increasingly drawn toward an oppositional stance in society.

We have identified systemic oppression as what Unitarian Universalism’s Seven Principles oppose.

On a theological level, we were quite content to be sure of what we didn’t believe and much more vague about what we did believe.

Then, the 1960s turned to the ’70s and then to the ’80s, and political conservatism came to dominate U.S. culture. Liberals were thrown on the defensive, and UU congregations became, in many parts of the country, safe havens and sanctuaries for beleaguered social liberals, cultural liberals, and political liberals. We described our congregations as gatherings of “like-minded people.” We said that our congregations were “beacons of liberal religion,” which betrayed the assumption that aside from the light of our steeple, it was mostly dark out there.

In that cultural moment, in the second Reagan administration, Unitarian Universalists adopted the Seven Principles. Written in 1985, they were a positive statement of what we were for, and not just what we were against. Whatever anyone wants to say about the Seven Principles, they are a positive statement. They are relentlessly positive and sunny. They describe the world that we want to live in, and the congregations we want to belong to.

Nowhere do the Principles even hint at what they oppose and what opposes them. They are a description of health, but not a diagnosis of the diseases that prevent health.

The most important development within Unitarian Universalism since the adoption of the Principles has been our engagement with the reality of systemic oppression. We have identified systemic oppression as what the Principles oppose. Systemic oppression is, for us, the “powers and principalities” of this world.

We learned that we cannot build the religious community that embodies our sunny and positive principles because we are deeply embedded in a social order that is systematically oppressive.

That realization marks a paradigm shift in how we place our religious movement in the political/cultural environment.

Our engagement with our role in the systems of oppression has been fitful, painful, divisive, and uncomfortable. Given our demographic base—whiter, richer, and more privileged than most Americans, as a group—it was never going to be an easy ride. We are an unfinished work. And in this we are not alone. The reality of systemic oppression is being forced into our collective national consciousness by the outspoken bravery of those on the margins.

How are people responding to this new paradigm of the prevailing national political/cultural order? Some are leading, many are following along at their own pace, and some are furiously resisting.

The furious describe themselves as rebels against an overbearing “political correctness.” The furious resistance even to talk about systemic oppression is the fire that burns at the heart of the Trump campaign. Many of his supporters rail against “political correctness” because dehumanizing language is necessary to maintain systemic oppression. But our evolution as Unitarian Universalists has been to learn that systemic oppression is itself the barrier to our high ideals.

This is not a mere difference of political opinion. The Trump campaign is not a test of our inclusiveness. People look to their religious traditions to point to what is truly important, now and in the long run. Our religious affirmations—the inherent worth and dignity of each person, of every race and gender and sexual orientation and background and religion and immigration status especially—are being tested.

Trumpism demands a new clarity from us. The only way forward for Unitarian Universalists is to dissect and dismantle the systems of oppression that have warped our country since the beginning. And the faith we need is faith that a liberated people can create a different future.

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