Quite often, religious titles are fairly descriptive and clear-cut. Baptist Christians are distinguished by their belief in the importance of baptism. Shi’i, or شيعي meaning “partisan” in Arabic, are partisans of Imam ‘Ali. In Hinduism, a Shaiva is a follower of Shiva and a Vaishnava is a follower of Vishnu. Zen/Ch’an (禅) Buddhists emphasize meditation, which is the meaning of zen/ch’an. The names of these denominations are accurate descriptors of the principles they hold.
As we’ve discussed before, when the words we use to describe religion are clear, it keeps our discussion of religion from becoming irrational and incoherent. On the other hand, when the terminology is needlessly confused, truth and meaning become impossible goals.
For example, many Trinitarians question whether Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons (not to mention Unitarians!) are actually Christian, despite the fact that they assert the Christhood of Jesus of Nazareth. They claim that, in order to be a “real” Christian, you must be a Trinitarian. However, if the term “Christian” has to mean “Trinitarian Christian” then the term “Trinitarian” becomes redundant and vacuous. And, if “Christian” doesn’t mean “someone who believes in Christ” unless they are also a Trinitarian, then what do you generically call someone who believes in Christ?
This problem with denominational nomenclature is particularly important for AUR (and for all reformist or traditional Unitarians) because of the way that the official stance of the American Unitarian Association, and the Unitarian Universalist Association into which it merged in 1961, drifted away from an ideologically Unitarian position without leaving behind the Unitarian title. What the Association stands for today is a completely creedless and ecumenical open-ness to all beliefs (and non-beliefs), a philosophy that was accurately described as Free Religionism among Unitarians in the late 1800s.
When the principles of the American Unitarian Association were changed from Unitarianism to Free Religionism, the name was not changed with them. The current Unitarian Universalist Association not only retained the long-obsolete Unitarian title when AUA merged with the Universalist Church of America, it aggressively hoards the use of AUA’s misleading name many decades later.
The American Unitarian Conference, a small reformist group that broke away from UUA in 2000, found this out the hard way when they initially tried to use the long-discarded “American Unitarian Association” for their organization. In a Scientology-esque maneuver, the UUA filed suit against the reformists to stop their use of a name that members of the Association had not used for nearly half a century. Unable to compete with the resources of the much larger UUA, the reformists shifted to the more legally safe “Conference” moniker.
Despite the fact that the Unitarian Universalist Association no longer espouses the Unitarianism its name implies, the seven Principles it does promote are quite admirable; in fact, AUR fully endorses each of them. The Fourth Principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association is “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” It is important to note that “free” and “responsible” temper each other; over-emphasizing one tends to erode the other. Neither a free search without responsibility, nor a responsible search without freedom, will actually arrive at truth or meaning.
Tragically, the way that the UUA uses the term “Unitarian” violates the spirit of the Fourth Principle. The continued use of the obsolete name drains the term of its original, organic meaning and leaves a semantic cloud in its place. In the way they are used today by members of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the terms “Unitarian” and “Unitarian-Universalist” mean little more than “having to do with the Unitarian Universalist Association,” a circular argument.
The Association and its members also have an unfortunate habit of retroactively imposing Unitarian-Universalist identity on persons who died before there was such a thing as Unitarian Universalism in the Free Religionist sense that the combined phrase has today. Imagine how absurd it would be if we referred to Cotton Mather or Captain John Smith as United States citizens, simply because they lived in colonies that eventually abandoned their original principles of government and merged into a new polity. This would be intellectually dishonest, especially considering how many colonial residents rejected the formation of the Republic and returned to Great Britain after the Revolution.
Why then, when speaking of Unitarians past, should we assume their membership in a denomination that never existed in their lifetimes, their concurrence with a shift in core beliefs that took place after their passing, or their consent to a Unitarian-Universalist merger that was conceived long after they were gone? Such name-dropping, without reference to the actual beliefs held by historical figures, serves only to confuse the public’s understanding of what a “Unitarian” is.
All of this is particularly ironic considering that Unitarian Universalists are constantly wrestling with misunderstandings among non-members about what Unitarian Universalism stands for. While AUR has great respect for UUA and its Principles, we believe that the title Free Religion Association would not only be a more responsible and sincere contribution to the search for truth and meaning, it would also eliminate the Association’s greatest hurdle to self-promotion and self-presentation: the fact that its name does not accurately and honestly describe what it is.