Sunday’s terrible attack on a Unitarian-Universalist church is, sadly, only the latest in a long history of violence against UUs and UU institutions by rightwing terrorists. One chapter in this history was discussed here last month, the bombing of Rev. Brooks Walker’s house in 1965. But there have been many incidents since Walker, as well as plenty before the attack on his home, and the tragedy at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church will likely not be the last.
Domestic terrorism has been an ongoing threat to Unitarian-Universalists because they tend to embody cutting edge trends that society is slowly, painfully moving toward. The issues change through the decades–integration, civil rights, women’s rights, pacificism, gay rights, environmental conservation, universal healthcare, religious pluralism, and so on–but the Unitarian-Universalists remain ahead of the pack year after year. Even though society generally catches up with them in time (by which point the UUs have typically already moved ahead once again), being on the fringe of the mainstream is a dangerous place, in America and in most any country. At various times and in their homes, churches, and out in public, UUs have been beaten, stabbed, shot, or blown up simply for their beliefs, and there is no reason to assume this will ever come to a complete end.
Attacks such as the one in Knoxville are another reminder of UUism’s double status. On the one hand, it is a majority white denomination with high levels of education and income: UUs have been cultural gatekeepers for close to two centuries in America. On the other hand, it is a minority religious movement that has had legal and paralegal power employed (at times violently) against it in a discriminatory manner many, many times in that same period. Though times are changed and UUs are now allowed to testify in court, hold governmental positions, and enjoy other rights once legally denied them, a fundamental danger remains when one is a religious minority in America. This is the irony of UUs as privileged minorities–privileged, yes, absolutely, but also unquestionably a minority group and imperiled by that fact, forced to guard themselves in some social situations and aware of a threatened-outsider status that the majority never has to think about. It is something many birthright UUs became aware of on the playground long ago; for others who came to UUism as adults it may be a sobering realization to discover that in accepting fellowship they moved from a comfortable majority into a minority group targeted irregularly for hate crimes.
These are the perils of liberalism in America. If you believe in love on a wide scale, your life is in danger. Maybe not extreme danger–most UUs thankfully will never face the horror the parishioners in Knoxville did–but a real, underlying level of never-quite-escapable danger nonetheless. If you believe in religious freedom and tolerance, your life is in danger. If you believe that all people should have equal rights before God and under the law, regardless of whether they look or think like you, your life is in danger. If you really believe in many of the principles America was founded on, believe in them as living facts to be embodied and not just given token lip service, then your life is in danger. If you are a Unitarian-Universalist, your life is in danger every day. And if you take your family to church with you, you imperil them in the process. That is the reality, something the shooting on Sunday did not create, but merely reminded us of.