There has been some talk recently on Unitarian-Universalist blogs and listserves about boycotting the 2008 General Assembly, ostensibly because it will be located within a security zone and thus necessitate showing ID for admittance. General Assembly rarely fails to generate criticism, often rhetorically tied to issues of “justice,” “privilege,” “welcoming,” and/or “acceptance.” In fact, few large-scale actions by the UUA fail to provoke some sort of righteous outcry, regardless of the subject and regardless of which way the UUA decides on the issue.
Some commentators have taken the boycotters to task because they perceive the ID issue as relatively minor, especially compared to incidents and issues around previous General Assemblies. Why then has the anti-GA furor begun so early, and with such seeming (to some, at least) over-reaction?
One way to think about this is to divorce the calls for action from the actual particular issue at hand. If there is a persistent pattern–the UUA performs some action or makes a decision, especially surrounding GA, and people gnash their teeth, point accusingly at the Principles, and threaten to picket, stay away, or send angry email–then scholars of religious studies might profit by considering the pattern as the essential matter, with the changing issue(s) from year to year being of relatively less significance.
It may be that what we see here is an important UU religious practice, part of Unitarian-Universalist religious tradition. In addition to singing (and rewriting) hymns, attending Sunday morning church services, lighting the chalice, and so on, stereotyped expressions of outrage can serve as actual religious practices for many people. This is hardly limited to religious liberals–witness the predictable search by right-wing religious commentators for evidence of a “War on Christmas” each year. This doesn’t just serve to increase advertising revenue as it draws more listeners/viewers–it also functions as an important ceremony that heightens religious emotion, creates in-group solidarity, ritually and publicly expresses the fears and values of the group, and results in catharsis as various unrelated tensions are channeled into a manageable form that can be released by the simple acts of denunciation, self-righteous reaffirmation, and perhaps a little picketing or civil disobedience.
Outrage around GA could be part of a similar pattern and serve similar functions. Recall that an important part of the liberal religious heritage is the predilection for making public statements about issues of morality, ranging from simple expression of opinions to programs of intense and systematic action toward specific ends (think of liberals’ roles in the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements, for instance). With such a heritage it is natural for people to want to be outraged on some level, in order to publicly agitate and thus connect with the storied UU tradition of witness, courage, and religious/cultural progressivism. Such an attitude needs only a spark, really any spark will do, to set the routinized ritual of outrage, reaffirmation, and catharsis into motion. With suspicion of centralized authority and higher organization built into the DNA of Unitarian-Universalism, it’s small wonder that any action undertaken by the UUA or around GA risks setting off yet another round of denunciation as praxis. Sometimes it is the state or federal government or some other bureacracy that initiates the outrage cycle, but perhaps more often in liberal religious circles it is the near Other, rather than the far or utterly different Other, that is the target. On a smaller scale this pattern also repeats itself within districts, seminaries, and single congregations, with the Board, minister(s), and similar loci of authority providing the symbol against which to rail.
Not all UUs are reactionary towards GA or the UUA, of course. In fact, a second form of Unitarian-Universalist ritual practice may be found in the responses to GA-outrage. Just as some UUs almost automatically assume the worst and call for strong measures, other UUs rush to denounce the denouncers. Here we see the tension in liberal religion between radicalism (sometimes for radicalism’s sake) and reason (sometimes expressed through moderate-ism and the equation of reason with reasonableness). Thus some UUs, building on the denomination’s strong history of progressivism, enact their spirituality through periodic outrage as praxis. Other UUs, building on the denomination’s founding principle of reason, enact their spirituality through rhetorically distancing themselves from perceived over-emotionality.
Neither is more authentically “UU.” Rather, both are inherited patterns of religiosity that have played themselves out innumerable times in liberal religion, and are unlikely to pass away anytime soon. This is not intended to belittle the feelings or actions of either group or any individuals, nor to suggest that some issues aren’t worth the outrage or that some people are reactionary in their aversion to protest calls. It is worth noting the overt and more subliminal (but no less strong) forms of religious practice that liberals engage in, the better to understand denominational dynamics and contextualize repetitive cycles within liberal religion.
For those who wish to explore the issue of IDs and accessibility at the 2008 GA, here are some links will shed further light (they are not intended as examples of outrage or anti-outrage, just sources of info and discussion):