Attrition in Unitarian Universalism Reflects History

Earlier this year, a guest posting at the Unitarian Universalist Growth Blog discussed the perennial problem of high membership turnover in the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), eliciting comments that highlight the tension between UU and its Christian origins, Christian origins that American Unitarian Reform (AUR) has chosen to embrace rather than hold at a safe arms’ length.

As a matter of etiquette among general friends and allies, Reformed Unitarians tend not to contrast ourselves with UU as often we do Trinitarians.  But, to understand the issues facing “Unitarianism” in America, it is appropriate occasionally to revisit the philosophical history of American Unitarianism, and explain the differences between our two divergent paths.

Or, more accurately, between the path of AUR and other Christian Unitarians, and the lack of an explicit path in the UUA.

A Free and Responsible
Airing of Family History

AUR and UUA are both children of “classical” American Unitarianism.  If Christianity is our Mother, the practical-minded rationalism of the Enlightenment is our Father.  The term “Unitarianism” is itself the result of a pragmatic reading of the Bible; early American Congregationalist ministers like Jonathan Mayhew simply could find no justification whatsoever for the doctrine of Trinitarianism in the Bible, so they did away with it.

Unitarian essentially meant Christians who believe in One God, in the context of other Christians who believe in a Three-In-One God.  It was seen as a way of becoming a better Christian, a more authentic Christian.

However, if Christianity and the Enlightenment are the parents of Unitarianism, what has become the UUA started hanging with a rebellious crowd (most notoriously, Ralph “Conform to Nobody” Emerson) in the 1800s, got into a drawn-out fight with Mom and Dad, and ran away from home.

Or, more accurately, kicked them out of their own home: the American Unitarian Association, formed by Unitarian Christians in 1825 at the peak of American Unitarianism.  Rejecting all Unitarian theology and trappings, they nevertheless took control of the Association and continued to use the term “Unitarian,” eventually merging with the still somewhat Christian Universalists in 1961.

Over half a century later, the modern Unitarian Universalist Association jealously hoards the name of its predecessor organization, even bringing a lawsuit against a grassroots organization of former UU’s trying to renew the Unitarian Christian tradition of the old Association.  Members of this revived American Unitarian Association were eventually cowed — under the force of the UUA’s greater resources — into choosing another name.

Theory and Practice

How did people who no longer believed in Unitarianism come to control the American Unitarian Association?  There are a few books on American Unitarian history out there (and those interested are encouraged to read them!) but a brief retelling might be in order.

Under the influence of Transcendentalism, many Unitarians began completely abandoning their philosophical ties to Christianity in the mid-1800s.  This movement eventually took on the informal moniker of Free Religion, as it asserted absolute freedom from all religious doctrine.

Free Religionists observed that there are many paths to the truth, and these many paths are similar in dignity.  AUR would agree with this proposition; although we are Christians, as idiomatic rather than dogmatic believers we do not condemn others as “religiously incorrect” simply because they are not on the Christian path.

However, this “many paths to the truth” principle is not how Free Religion was practiced.  A rational person might observe, for example, that the recognition that there are many valid paths to truth does not in itself justify abandoning the path that you’re on, carrying off its way-stations, erasing its language, and obliterating its artifacts.

But that’s precisely what Free Religion did.  After a long struggle with Unitarians (during which they briefly formed the appropriately and honestly named Free Religious Association) they wrested control of the American Unitarian Association from Unitarians, and set out deleting all Christian language from its official statements of principles and ideals.

It was, to put it flatly, a hostile coup and purge.  The Free Religion movement eviscerated the Unitarian church in the late 1800s and now wears its skin under the moniker of UU.  It was as if they had declared, paraphrasing Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All religious paths are equal, but this one is less equal than others.”

Underneath the talk of diversity, the movement’s practice of seizing control of a Christian organization and cleansing it of Christian language revealed an anti-Christian impulse that has, in more recent years, evolved into full-blown anti-religious sentiment.

And this negativity is a major source of tension among its more reasonable members.  Some prominent UU’s have even spoken out about this tense relationship with Christianity, describing UU as “a dysfunctional family with a secret, we seem to have an unspoken agreement not to bring it up.”

As the comments on the UU Growth guest blog demonstrate, UU’s want to bring it up.

A Church Overrun

Of course, blog comments — even at a quasi-official organizational blog — do not constitute anything resembling a representative sampling.  However, they can illustrate the experiences of UU’s who feel uncomfortable with the unspoken negativity and prejudice bubbling under the surface of positivity, open-mindedness, and diversity.

One commenter echoes the AUR observation that what UUA now offers, religious freedom, was already achieved in the United States with the ratification of the First Amendment to the Constitution:

Most UU churches don’t offer much that is different from the secular world. Young adults can easily attend lectures on a multitude of topics, get involved in environmental or community causes, and find many outlets for their talent and energy without joining a church.

Many of these outlets, such as Habitat for Humanity, are more effective than churches, and offer a higher quality experience.

After Free Religion seized the reins, what is now UU became redundant with secular society, “Unitarian” a word desperately in search of a new meaning.  The Association itself has become little more than a non-profit political organization that fails to understand itself as such.  Unwilling to choose a religious identity, UUA ends up with no effective identity at all.

This is a real tragedy, we believe, because this incoherent self-image is why UUA often fails to act as effectively as other organizations, like Habitat for Humanity, which “own” their identity as political or social-action groups.  Many well-intentioned people find their intense zeal for social justice stunted by what Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams called the “fissiparous individualism” implied by absolute creedlessness.

Just as Adams emphasized that religious commitment must start with is-ness before moving on to ought-ness, an effective social justice organization must first be something before it can effectively do things.

But the absence of an explicit identity allows the unspoken, negative dogma of Free Religion’s anti-religious subtext to thrive in the shadows.  Another astute UU commenter correctly diagnoses the problem:

I don’t think the answer to this [attrition] issue is as simple as integrating programming. There is a deeper problem at hand – the lack of experiencing any deep spirituality at church because the church is overrun with people who have anti-religious baggage.

As a born-in UU I have very little in common with most Unitarian Universalists who – no matter how wonderful their intentions – come across as folks looking for a peer group that is willing to engage in Bible-bashing banter. That sort of atmosphere is not encouraging to deep spiritual growth, and by the time youth come-of-age they usually decide that all religion is irrelevant (including UU) or that they need to find a deeper spiritual home in another denomination that feels less like a post-christian self-help group.

Replying to this, a UU educator retold an anecdote about such “Bible-bashing” and said

the community assembled identified it as an issue, raised the very issue you are commenting on, and affirmed our need to move that “post-christian self-help group” mentality.

This is encouraging talk, and demonstrates the sincerity and good will of UU’s as they struggle with their message and growth concerns.

However, merely affirming a need is not sufficient any more than simply recognizing the “Bible-bashing” symptom.  The symptoms lead to problems, but they are not the ultimate cause of them.

The underlying malady must be identified for an effective course of treatment, and this should start by locating the point of infection in UU’s history.  The alternative to this candid assessment of Unitarianism’s history is made clear by the first commenter quoted above, who continues:

Some church leaders think this area [the Pacific Northwest] is fertile ground for liberal churches because such churches reflect the larger society. But the opposite is becoming true. Conservative churches find the Pacific NW an excellent “mission field” because they offer something that is distinctly different from the secular culture.

In other words, conservative churches offer something.

Facts Are Stubborn Things

The dynamic described by this commenter from the Pacific Northwest is merely a recent and regional microcosm of the history of American religion as a whole, from the 1700s to now.

In fact, Unitarians were the driving force of progress in Revolutionary America.

The father of American Unitarianism, Jonathan Mayhew, popularized the famous slogan “No Taxation Without Representation” and penned the sermon that unravelled the Divine Right of Kings.  The most zealous champions of American independence, human rights, and democracy were largely Unitarians, and Thomas Jefferson himself trumpeted Unitarianism as the future of American religious life.

Beginning with Transcendentalism’s aloof and isolating contrarianism, however, Unitarians began marching down the pathless path to irrelevance.  Emerson’s anti-rational “expect me not to show cause” evolved into a general disdain for sincere engagement with the theological and moral details fundamental to the issues confronting Americans.

By the time Free Religion won its final victory in the late 1800s, Unitarianism’s influence in America’s religious life was sputtering to obscurity, to be quickly replaced by the Fundamentalism that arose in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Free Religion offered little more than an adolescent sneer at its own parentage; Fundamentalism offered ideas, however retrogressive and incorrect those ideas were.

As a direct result, American religious life today is dominated not by the heirs of Mayhew, Franklin, Adams, Hancock, Jefferson, and Channing, but by the heirs of the Niagara Bible Conference and oil tycoon Lyman Stewart’s The Fundamentals.  As UUA — and other progressive religious denominations with an aversion to doctrine — struggle with growth issues, their foes pack mega-churches and stadiums with converts.

If UU’s want to win back the bully pulpit enjoyed by Jonathan Mayhew and William Ellery Channing, UUA must offer something more than vaguely anti-religious gestures of tolerance, something more than a repackaging of the religious freedoms every American already enjoys.


One thought on “Attrition in Unitarian Universalism Reflects History

  1. “Free Religion offered little more than an adolescent sneer at its own parentage; Fundamentalism offered ideas, however retrogressive and incorrect those ideas were.”

    No kidding. . .

    I dare say that there are few ideas more retrogressive and incorrect (at least within the context of Unitarianism) than those of the intolerant and belligerent *fundamentalist* atheists who hijacked the Unitarian church now aka The U*U Movement. It’s not much wonder that Unitarian*Universalism is a “tiny, declining, fringe religion” when it not only allows anti-religious atheists to be members in The U*U Movement but even ordains intolerant and abusive “fundamentalist atheist” “Humanists” as U*U clergy. . .

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