Category Archives: Defining Liberal Religion

Categorizing Religions in America

Last post related to Rodney Stark and Roger Finke’s Acts of Faith.  In this book, they set out a spectrum along which they locate various religions/denominations in the United States.  The scale is:

Ultraliberal
Liberal
Moderate
Conservative
Strict
Ultrastrict

This spectrum is interesting because it nuances the usual liberal-mainline-conservative categories used in describing American religion.  The ultraliberal category (perhaps unsurprisingly) consists for the authors of: Unitarian-Universalist, Unity Church, Unity, Spiritualist, Reform Judaism, and many New Age groups.  Liberal, meanwhile, consists of: United Methodist, United Presbyterian, Episcopal, Congregationalist, United Church of Christ, and Disciples of Christ.  Note that they also consider “the most liberal” wings of the UCC and Episcopalians to belong in the ultraliberal category, as well as (hearkening back to ancient times) some early Christian Gnostic groups.

According to Stark and Finke:

Groups in this niche typically have little intergenerational stability and must recruit new members each generation. In part this seems to be because they serve as a sort of halfway house on the route to irreligion. And in part it is because, like most of the offspring of the irreligious, their children so often opt for a relatively high-tension faith. These groups also suffer from low levels of participation and an oversupply of free-riders and therefore tend not to be durable.

It is worth noting here that Rodney Stark is a conservative-leaning Christian and personally repelled by highly liberal religion, and thus his writing on the subject tends to be more venomous than necessary (and also evidences errors and misapprehensions at times). But he is also an extremely accomplished sociologist, and thus his voice is worth considering thoughtfully.

Quotes are from pages 210-211 of Acts of Faith.

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Was a New Religion Founded in 1961, or Not?

Is Unitarian-Universalism a religion? In 1961 the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, two religious organizations that were not themselves religions, consolidated into a single entity, the Unitarian Universalist Association. The UUA is a collection of congregations, most of which belonged to the Unitarian or Universalist denominations/religions. Today, most member congregations of that association affiliate themselves historically with Unitarianism or Universalism or both, as well as in a few cases with Congregationalism, Humanism, Neo-Paganism, or some other variety of liberal religion.

The question is, when and how did the religion Unitarian-Universalism come about? Was it instantly wished into existence when these two organizations–neither of them fully representative of their respective denominations/religions–merged? Did it develop later, out of the shared post-1961 history of Unitarianism and Universalism, such that they become intertwined and basically united? Did it happen when people began to conceptualize themselves as not Unitarian or Universalists, but as Unitarian-Universalists? Or has it not yet happened–is it actually simply that there is a large association of congregations called the UUA, within which are various Unitarian and Universalist congregations?

It was by no means inevitable that we would come to think of there being a definable religion called Unitarian-Universalism. We might have just as easily gone on about our business of being Unitarians or Universalists, who happened to share leadership and organization at the top level of bureaucracy for expediency’s sake. It’s worth pondering the choices that were made to follow this path, to recognize that perhaps improbably the weight of a whole new religion has been asked to balance on a mere hyphen.

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What are the Most Liberal Denominations in North America?

Unitarian-Universalism arose from the consolidation of two of the most liberal denominations in North America, and continues to push the boundaries of liberalism, to the point that it is arguably no longer a denomination of Christianity but a small liberal religion unto itself.  If we thus bracket out the UUs, who is the genuine liberal edge of North American Christianity?  Some would argue for the United Church of Christ (the Congregationalists).  An argument can be made for the Episcopalians; and we ought to note the historic vote yesterday of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America to allow non-celibate gay ministers. Many other answers are also possible, but then again many are not–it’s unlikely anyone would nominate the Southern Baptists or the Missouri Synod Lutherans.

Of course, the answer is somewhat determined by how we choose to define “liberal.”  So what do you think: which are the most liberal denominations in North America today?  How do you come to that conclusion?  Note that while the emphasis here is on Christianity, it may be legitimate to talk about Judaism and other religions as well.

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Defining Unitarian-Universalism as Christian

Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian-Universalists have always had a conflicted relationship with Christianity.  Classical Unitarians and Universalists thought of themselves as Christians and represented themselves as such, but they were outnumbered by other Christians who disputed this claim, sometimes vociferously.  From a religious studies standpoint outside of the fray, it seems obvious that these groups were indeed Christian, of a type (and all Christians are “of a type,” after all).  So it reminds one of children who are biologically descended from someone but socially defined as “illegitimate”–they are indeed direct relations, but not acknowledged as such.  Later on, many Christians were more willing to admit the Unitarians and Universalists were family members, yet by then some of these scorned children had decided they didn’t care whether they were part of the clan anyway.  And now we have the situation of Unitarian-Universalists, whose religious structures, concerns, behavior patterns, and so on are consistently and obviously Christian to anyone who studies religious traditions that come from outside the West, yet who refuse to admit such continuing close relationship.  Now it seems like a situation of minors who get legally emancipated from their parents–they are still directly related, but socially they are determined to have severed that relationship and become free entities.

All of this makes for fascinating (and at times headaching) work for religious studies scholars, who, like other social scientists, thrive on classification.  If you ask an average UU if they are Christian, the response is likely to be “no.”  Yet if you ask the average member of any religion other than Christianity/UUism if UUs are Christian, the response is likely to be “yes,” because the things that separate them seem miniscule compared to the things they share (especially when lined up against the things that separate them from any other major religion).

This seems to point to a problem with the word “Christian” itself.  We should not confine it’s definition to merely the self-representational one.  One solution for scholars might be to use the word in a very strict, contextual sense.  This would entail rejecting the use of the word “Christian” as a noun in relation to the average UU.  For simplicity’s sake, we’ll use the first definitions supplied by Dictionary.com.  The noun definition of Christian is “a person who believes in Jesus Christ; an adherent of Christianity.”  You would not point out a random UU and say “He is a Christian.”

However, the word Christian could be meaningfully employed as an adjective.  The adjectival defintion of Christian is “of, pertaining to, or derived from Jesus Christ or his teachings.”  You could point at a UU church and describe it as Christian from a sociological or cultural perspective.  There is no doubt that UUism was “derived from Jesus Christ or his teachings” (and especially from the religious forms that grew up around those teachings).

So, is Unitarian-Universalism Christian?  Arguably, it all depends on the context in which the question is asked.

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A Chosen Faith?

Probably the most widely available introductory text on Unitarian-Univeralism is A Chosen Faith, by Revs. John Buehrens and Forrest Church.  As such, it serves as the primary face that UUism presents to outcomers before they actually visit a church–and there’s little doubt that the book was designed with this purpose in mind.  Likewise, one often hears from the pulpit that Unitarian-Universalism is a religion of “heretics,” with heretic etymologically defined as meaning “a person who is able to choose.”  Many ministers and lay preachers are proud to assert that UUism is a chosen faith–not chosen in the sense of selected by God (i.e the chosen people) but chosen by its practitioners in the pews.

This is apparently meant to distinguish Unitarian-Universalism from other religions, which are thereby represented as being unchosen faiths.  UUs choose what faith they adhere to and what religion they belong to, while others (the other in UU discourse always meaning “Christian,” whether or not it is explicitly referenced, but also often including additional religions such as Islam, Judaism, etc) do not choose their tradition or their beliefs.  The implication is that choosing your faith is the superior mode, of course.

Because this rhetoric is so widespread, it is worth meditating on a little further.  For one thing, it seems likely that a great many other people also choose their faith.  40% of Americans switch to denominations other than those they were raised in.  Even when this means changing from one form of Christianity to another form of Christianity, surely these people have chosen their faith in a meaningful sense.  Some people would argue that all religious faith is chosen to a certain degree, since no matter how you are raised, if you decide to stick with your childhood training then that is a choice–you might just as easily decide not to remain active with your tradition once you reach adulthood.

On the other hand, there is the matter of people born into Unitarian-Universalism.  If you grow up UU, and continue to be UU, without any particular interest in leaving the fold, do you practice a chosen faith?  If not, are there two different Unitarian-Universalisms, one of which is not a chosen faith?  And if so, are such people disenfranchised by triumphant language from ministers that proclaims the desirability of choosing over mere inheriting?  Or perhaps there are degrees of choosing that all UUs share, cradle or convert; but this again raises the question of how then UUs differ in this respect from any other religious body, especially Christianity and Islam, the two religions that put greatest stress on conscious choice to profess membership in a religion and have the largest bodies of converts among the world’s religions.

The first edition of A Chosen Faith was actually titled Our Chosen Faith–and here much may hang on the matter of a single small word.  When Buehrens and Church talked about the faith that they as individuals had chosen (neither was raised UU), there was less implication for defining an entire, diverse religious movement.  But when it shifted to representing itself as describing the type of religion they were talking about (the chosen type), the meaning shifted from autobiographical to broadly representational and definitional.  It becomes now a statement about what UUism, rather than what sort of UUs the author are.

Is Unitarian-Universalism indeed a chosen faith?  If so, is this true for all Unitarian-Universalists?  And how does it differ from other religions in this way, such that it can be significantly labeled as a chosen faith?  Despite the confidence with which it’s chosenness is proclaimed, these questions still seem very much to be open ones.

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Does Unitarian-Universalism Have Principles?

One of the proposed Congregational Study/Action Issues that will be discussed at General Assembly later this month is “Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice.”  In the official proposal is a section that describes the issue’s significance to UUism.  Here is what it says:

“Unitarian Universalists have a vision of environmental justice. One of our principles acknowledges “the interdependent web.” Others affirm the importance of human rights. Together our principles form one holistic statement that helps to define liberal religion.”

Leaving aside the actual issues of economic justice and environmental degradation that the CSAI is concerned with, let’s just take a look at the language of this proposal.  Simply put: does Unitarian Universalism have principles, as this statement claims?  The principles being cited here are those of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, which in its bylaws includes a set of principles that acknowledges “the interdependent web” and affirms the importance of human rights.  But are these the principles of UUism, or of the UUAoC, a specific organization within UUism?  And do these principles enunciated by the UUAoC indeed create a statement that helps define liberal religion?

This is intended as an open question.  What do you think?  Are the UUAoC principles also the principles of UUism?  Why or why not?  How do you go about determining the principles of UUism?  In what way are UUs responsible for holding to this “holistic statement” and the principles that underlie it?

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Buddhists as Liberals

This blog is on informal hiatus while summer research is being conducted.  A significant part of that is ethnographic fieldwork at a number of American Buddhist groups.  In sitting in on these meetings, it is hard not to notice the aspects of liberal religion that they embody.  While each of the five groups currently under study has a specific and different tradition that it explicitly connects itself to, all five are very open in their approach.  At every meeting people bring up other types of Buddhism, and even consistently bring up non-Buddhist religions and ideas, such as yoga, Vedanta, ancient Egyptian religion, Daoism, Christianity, Bahai, New Thought, Tarot, and so on.  Such “outside” influences are accepted by the other members of each group without objection, and often lead to thoughtful discussions.  Multiple interpretations of practices and texts are raised and no one tries to exert an orthodox position.  Part of this may be that none of the five groups has an in-house priest or monk as leader, but it is also a style that they seem to prefer.  For the most part, this diversity is seen as a strength by these Buddhists, as it allows a greater number of people to gather under one roof, and can enrich the sangha through multiple perspectives.

How do these five Buddhist groups, together representing the large majority of Buddhist traditions on Earth, function according to the definition of liberal religion given here previously?  They certainly acknowledge that religions change, and in fact each one has experimented regularly, slightly tweaking their ritual practice and discussing how Buddhism evolved historically.  None of them take a strictly literal approach to their core texts (many traditional Buddhists do take such an approach, though Buddhists have also consistently taken other approaches as well throughout history).  As already mentioned, they allow and even encourage multiple viewpoints in their groups and are open to finding wisdom outside of strictly Buddhist sources, which is essentially part of their overall perspective that each person must make their own decisions about religion and find the path that works best for them, a path that is not pre-programmed but arises in the dialectic between tradition and one’s unique situation and personality.

Other trends identified with liberal religion tend to hold up too.  These Buddhists, most of whom are converts, are generally politically liberal and environmentalist.  They value individualism and believe in human perfectionism, and think science and religion should work in harmony.  Most are fairly restrained in their emotional expressions, and while some of the most hardcore meditators are overtly anti-intellectual, in general the majority esteem reason as a tool in religious pursuits.

Buddhism as a total phenomenon cannot be categorized as liberal, but in America groups such as these certainly function in liberal religious ways.  They are part of the story of American liberal religion and have been for decades.  Scholars of liberal religious history would do well to pay them greater attention.

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