Leigh Schmidt and Sally Promey have produced a new edited anthology of scholarly essays, aptly titled American Religious Liberalism. With essays by scholars such as Emily Mace, Matthew Hedstrom, Kathryn Lofton, Yaakov Ariel, the volume is sure to be of great interest to historians of American religion. This is just the latest in a flurry of recent publishing on liberal religion, as the forty-six page long (!) review section in the latest Journal of Unitarian Universalist History makes abundantly clear. And there’s more in the pipeline for this year, so expect a similarly impressive review section in the 2013 issue as well.
Rev. Fred Hammond suggests that it is impossible, or at least incongruent, for Unitarian-Universalists to belong to the Republican Party. Leaving aside the reasons and arguments for this position, it is worth noting that historically Unitarians have been major supporters of the Republican Party, and that it was Universalist Israel Washburn Jr. who co-founded (and named) the Republican Party. One finds Unitarians and Universalists among the founders of state Republican Parties as well. Of course, a lot changes in 150+ years, and today’s Republicans, while a diverse lot, are far removed from those of the past (just as all Americans today live and think differently from people of the 19th century)
For those attending this year’s Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Phoenix, there will be an interesting program that seems relevant: “The Unheard Voices of Unitarian Universalist Conservatives.”
The Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence has extended an invitation to members of their local Occupy movement to camp at their church. The initial expected numbers are about 12-15 people in six tents. Details about the regulations of the arrangement are available at Occupy Northampton’s website, as well as a report about the meeting between Unitarian Society representatives, Occupy participants, and the mayor of Northampton that produced the agreement, and a report of the discussion that subsequently occurred within the Occupy Northampton group.
Meanwhile, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee has created open letters in support of the Occupy movement which can be read and signed online, one for individuals and another for congregations and organizations. The former has 4200+ signatures at this point, suggesting a widespread support for Occupy ideas within Unitarian Universalism. UUA president Peter Morales visited Occupy Boston in October and participated in a UU vespers service at the site; subsequently he released a statement of sympathy and solidarity. Later, the Board of Trustees of the UUA visited Occupy Boston as well. Perhaps the best place to keep track of the ongoing interaction between Unitarian Universalism and Occupy is via the tracker set up by Peter Bowdon at his UU Growth Blog. UUpdates, the UU blog aggregator, also helps one keep tabs on the online discussion (and is one of the only places you can find the few–but vocal–conservative UU voices opposing Occupy).
Unitarian Universalism’s alignment with progressive political/social causes is well known. Perhaps the most direct precedent for the actions of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence is the participation many UU churches had in the Sanctuary movement in the 1980s, or perhaps the shelter provided to draft resisters during the Vietnam War era (if one wants to go back much further, shelter and aid to fugitive slaves by Unitarian and Universalist churches might apply as another example of offering church space for people to sleep at).
In 1841, Rev. William Ellery Channing, founding father of American Unitarianism, wrote a letter to miners in England, detailing his mid-19th century prescription for the elevation of the laboring classes:
1. Temperance: “Ardent spirits have been the curse of the laborer.”
2. Renunciation of violence in the cause of class warfare: “Your true strength lies in growing intelligence, uprightness, self-respect, trust in God, and trust in one another.”
3. Avoidance of atheism: “It is under the cross that the battle of humanity is to be fought.”
4. National education: “To make [the laborer] enlightened and efficient, at once able and disposed to discharge wisely his public and private duties.”
5. Focus on inward satisfaction: “Good wages are not happiness. A man may prosper and still be a poor creature. . . Our very thoughts may be the means or occasion of signal virtues, and in this way may bring a peace and hope which no mere prosperity can give.”
From this we can see both that Unitarianism has had a long-standing interest in the plight of workers, and that it has often been approached from the perspectives of the middle and upper classes. Paternalism and concerns for propriety have often been mingled, therefore, with genuine sympathy and actual assistance. This pattern has by no means passed away today, though in the contemporary context the gulf has grown so great between gigantic corporations unimaginable in Channing’s time and everyday workers (including so-called white collar workers in many cases) that class lines must be drawn differently than in his day. The situation of the Universalists, who generally occupied a notably lower class standing than the Unitarians is somewhat more complicated. Readers interested in UU class history can get a good start with Mark Harris’s Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History.
Tandi Rogers, the Growth Strategy Specialist of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, is reaching out to UUs beyond the walls of UUA-affiliated churches. This means people who identify as Unitarian Universalists, but don’t attend churches that are part of the UUA (what she calls “Free-Range UUs). It is well known that perhaps the majority of UUs in North America are not actually members of UUA churches. What isn’t as well known–beyond anecdote and supposition–is why that is, what the demographics of these free-rangers are, how they conduct their lives as “independent UUs,” and other related questions (Peter Bowden lists some of the reasons people don’t attend UU churches at his UU Growth Blog). While the survey is not systematic (it casts a wide net hoping to snag willing participants, rather than methodically working with a representative sample size), it will be a good start toward better comprehension of the phenomenon of Unitarian Universalism beyond the congregations (hopefully Ms. Rogers will share her results when the project is completed). If you are a UU who doesn’t belong to a church, please consider taking part in the short survey. And if you know anyone who might fit the profile of a free-range UU, please pass the survey on to them. The site link is: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/FreeRangeUUs
Harvard Square Library, a project of First Parish in Cambridge (Mass.), has hired Dr. Emily Mace as their new director. Dr. Mace is a great fit for the site: she was trained in liberal religious history at Princeton University, and she teaches on Unitarian Universalist topics for Starr King School for the Ministry. For those unfamiliar with Harvard Square Library, it’s a website that includes biographies of important Unitarians and Universalists, as well as some documents by/about these figures (including entire books!). Not surprisingly, it tends to have a particular focus on Cambridge and the Boston area (hardly inappropriate for UU history).
The study of liberal religion, especially in the history of North America, is typically focused on looking at a fairly narrow range of Protestant and Jewish groups, with some Catholic movements as well. But the liberal impulse is hardly confined to these familiar locations. One important–but widely unknown–place that it has appeared is within Islam. The average Westerner’s opinions about Islam don’t typically include any sense that it has produced liberal movements; quite the opposite. But Islam is a diverse religion, just as Christianity and Judaism are–indeed, how could 1400 years of history and more than 1 billion followers with a presence in nearly every nation not produce diversity?
To help make sense of liberal Islam, here are a few useful starting resources:
HUUMS (Harvard Divinity School Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Students) sent out a notice recently to draw attention to its historic UU walking tours. UU seminarians are available to lead two hour walking tours in the Holy Land (aka Boston and its environs), which can include Divinity Chapel where Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his famed Divinity School Address on July 15, 1838. Check out their website for more information.
The Unitarian Universalist Association also provides a walking tour pamphlet,created by Christine Jaronski, if you prefer to do it yourself. It doesn’t include Divinity Chapel (since it sticks to sites right around UUA headquarters), but has many interesting sites. Perhaps readers will want to suggest other nearby sites that walkers can appreciate.