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.



Filed under Defining Liberal Religion, Liberal Religious History

22 responses to “What are the Most Liberal Denominations in North America?

  1. We don’t even need to define Liberal if we’re no longer a Christian denomination. Liberal needs a spectrum from Liberal to Conservative.

    If we’ve taken ourselves off the scale, Liberal makes no sense.

  2. I agree that in many ways the Episcopalians appear to be very liberal. However, this is somewhat deceptive because they have long taken the big tent/ wide tent approach, which allows enough leeway that theological conservatives, reactionaries, moderates, liberals, and radicals could all coexist in the same church. In other words, any individual Episcopalian or individual Episcopalian parish might fall anywhere on the theological spectrum. This has been possible because their identity is more strongly linked to liturgy and hierarchy than it is to the details of belief.

    It has mostly been in reaction to the issue of homosexuality that the Episcopalian big tent has collapsed in places and is likely to collapse in yet others. The fallout seems to be that a smaller tent is likely but a more uniformly liberal one. The Episcopal Church appears more and more theologically and socially liberal while remaining fairly conservative liturgically and hierarchically . But that is yet to play out…

    I would agree that the UCC is the most broadly liberal denomination in American Christianity. However, here too there is risk of over generalization because of their congregational structure. The UCC churches in my neck of the woods are not very liberal socially even though they are part of a denomination that advertises their acceptance of LGBTQ people. The out and obvious LGBTQ person is not likely to get an open-armed welcome at the UCC churches around here. Of course, there is a heckuva lot more to liberalism than sexuality and gender equality…

    • i would have to say that it would indeed depend on how one defines “liberal”. And yes, while i don’t think many would claim the “Southern Baptist” as liberal – they’ve changed so drastically in the past 40 years, that they’ve long left the traditional “conservative” definition in the dust….
      Of course, the old Unitarians and Universalists would have said that they were both liberal and conservative, conservative in that they were Bible believing while the other denominations distorted scripture.

  3. Of course, there is a heckuva lot more to liberalism than sexuality and gender equality…

    It seems to be for some UU bloggers that’s all there is to Liberal Religion.

    In a sense, they’re right.

    If Liberalism is an evolution from subjection and dependency, to autonomous freedom; than sexuality and gender equality may be penultimate.

    What comes after that, in what must be the final step of liberal religion, I don’t know.

    What else can we free ourselves from?

    • It seems to be for some UU bloggers that’s all there is to Liberal Religion.

      🙂 It must be in the water… Just think of all the religious conservatives, evangelicals, fundamentalists, etc., for whom “im/morality” is most often just about sex…

  4. I would nominate Unitarian Christianity, the Disciples of Christ, and the Society of Friends. One common thread among progressive Christian denominations is their emphasis on individual beliefs and eschewing uniting documents and creeds.

    • Of course, the Disciples of Christ is just the liberal branch of the Restoration Movement, whose conservative (and reactionary) wings are found in the Church of Christ (non-instrument) and in the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, fundamentalist churches that also give strong lip service to individual freedom of belief and that also eschew uniting documents and creeds.

      Progressive/ liberal churches do not own these approaches to faith. Rather, they are expedients, historical developments that get passed down the religious family tree like mutations in DNA. In themselves they have no content. They are only part of the framework in which one’s progressive, conservative, reactionary, or radical tendencies express themselves.

    • Deb

      I belong to the “First Christian Church”(disciples of christ) & they are very open & welcoming. Mind you not all congregations are inclusive but many of them are.They are a great fit for me & my partner.

  5. I’m surprised that no one has mentioned Ethical Culture Societies in this discussion:


    My only contact with this religious group has been having an Ethical Culture member as a participant in an Our Wholes Lives human sexuality curriculum training workshop and what I’ve read online about them.

    From what I’ve read online, Ethical Culture looks very similar to the 20th century humanist movement within Unitarian Universalism but its roots are not within the Protestant Reformation — its historical roots are found in Judaism and transcendentalism.

  6. Paul Oakley wrote:
    Of course, there is a heckuva lot more to liberalism than sexuality and gender equality …

    Susie Bright (who writes about human sexuality from a sex-positive feminist perspective) commented several years about the tendency for many new religious movements to be sexuality-negative for the followers (and often the leaders are abusing their sexual power over their flock as well).

    She was astounded by the folks who rejected the traditional Abrahamic religions but who would embrace new-age movements who taught their members that masturbation was wrong because it somehow wasted some sort of spiritual “energy.”

    Her thoughts were why would one leave the sexually repressive religion of one’s childhood for another sexually repressive movement.

    Susie thought that this regulation of sexuality was simply a tool by autocratic cult leaders (and by “cult” she included a large chunk of traditional religions as well) to control their flocks.

    A friend of Susie’s who had joined an anti-masturbation new-age movement said that she was using a religion’s approval/acceptance of masturbation as some sort of “litmus test” for the religion.

    She thought about this and realized that a religion’s attitudes towards masturbation were a very useful way to see if a religious movement makes sense sexually. So … this might be a very effective litmus test.

    • Interesting, Steve. I’m not so sure we can get at the essence of a religion by means of any litmus test, though. Rather, I believe we need to examine them holistically.

      That said, I would/did use a sexual litmus test for one purpose, to determine whether a religious body that is otherwise acceptable is one I can become a part of. In my case as a gay man, partnered for 23 years, if I were church shopping, I would never become a member of or closely associate with a religious body that in ANY way treated me as less than than they treat someone with within the sexual majority.

      Hypothetically, if Davidson Loehr were right that UUism is dying and no sufficient remedy is applied and, so, I had to go a shoppin’ for a new religious home,,, well, let’s just say that it would be a whole lot more complicated that deciding what the most liberal denomination or denomination/ congregation combination is.

      In that hypothetical situation, my list of possibilities would include UCC (first cousins to UUA, after all), Episcopalian (love the high church ethos), liberal unprogrammed Quaker, and Reformed and Renewal Judaism. I could probably get along with Ethical society, but there are only 24 outlets in the US, 11 of those in New York and New Jersey. Philosophically I like Reconstructionist Judaism, but it too is spread really thin. A last resort might be Metropolitan Community Church, the denomination of my older brother and his partner of 25 years, but I don’t like the self-segregation by sexuality, porous though the boundaries are. The Disciples of Christ would probably not be on the list simply as a matter of discomfort by association: they are the sibling denomination of the fundamentalist denomination I was raised in.

      However, the question of which religious bodies I would have a sufficiently low level of discomfort to strongly associate with on some level if a UU church were not available is not quite the same thing as asking which are the most liberal. Plus, I do separate liberal theology from liberal ecclesiology from liberal politics from liberal opinions re sex and sexuality. It’s not all the same thing. In my mind, a sexuality litmus test is insufficient to test for liberal theology. It might even be insufficient to test for liberal politics.

      • Niecy J

        Hi Paul and everyone. I’ll start by saying I’m not a UU member but stumbled upon this site will researching ‘changing lyrics of songs’ for church use. I am a member of a MCC church in California and in a committed gay relationship for 15 years/married for 1 year. I’ve enjoyed the discussion in this blog thus far and hope it continues. I don’t know anything about the UU church beyond what I’ve recently read here so please excuse my ignorance and forgive if I step on toes due to lack of knowledge about UU.

        MCCs are recognizing the hypocracy of excluding some of our members by virtue of their sexuality and are making conscious efforts to become more inclusive in stating who we serve. I’ve notice an upswing over the last 6 years in how often instead of saying just Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual we are now including Transgender, Questioning, and Straight in the description as well. It’s an important distinction and I’m glad for it. It felt wrong that those who started a church because they felt marginalized would marginalize others. This is especially sad since some of our own ministers are straight. Glad to say we are making progress in this arena but there is always room for improvement.

        My reply to your comment is that I agree that sex and sexual inclusivity are not by themselves sufficient litmus tests for the liberalism of the church. They are as good a starting point as any because so many people are polarized on these issues. Another primary test would be how God is viewed by the church. Does the church go beyond the boundaries of the typical ‘God as a patriarchal entity’ that a lot of churches take without question? What steps are being taken by the church to regularly show more inclusiveness of the many faces of God? How does the church respect God’s gender neutrality and show gender balance in respect to God when gender is used? People’s reaction to God as gender neutral speaks a lot to why it serves as a good test. Other issues to review are equity in male/female leadership roles within the church and inclusivity in respect to social, class, physical (dis)ability status and cultural/ethnic background. How are these issues respected, even when people with these qualities are not present in the church or are not part of the group that sets the church’s direction? What you do when others can’t see you speaks volumes towards how your ideals direct your actions.

        Thanks again for allowing me to share in this discussion. I look forward to learning more about your religious views.

  7. Sue

    The Society of Friends gets my vote. (Though I mysel go the Episcopalian route because A) I like Communion and B) I cannot sit still Quaker-long in silent contemplation. ADHD or some such. I would be only a fidgety distraction. 😉

  8. Karen

    Association of Unity Churches is the most liberal, Christian-based faith that I’m aware of. Teaches that Jesus, as Christ, is the fullest realization of human and Christ-consciousness known to man. That we are all God-in Expression. Teaches Universal Truths that are present in most faiths, but with the emphasis that Jesus, as Christ, is our way-shower.

  9. Charles K.

    I have attended UU churches off and on for about 10 years. For me, I found it very accepting of people in the GBLT&etc. people, but as a religion I found it rather spiritually empty. Hardly anything at all in it that is about traditional theological subjects, like soul, spirit, survival after death, suffering, Heaven/Hell, punisment, forgiveness, etc. It seemed to to be far more a liberal political club than a religion. I may be a liberal at heart, but I can’t equate liberal politics to religion.


  10. Steve

    Most of the replies appear to equate (and for good reason) the word “liberal” in churches to the gay issue. As a zoologist, I wonder which churches are the most scientifically liberal. It certainly wouldn’t be the Southern Baptist whose leader still rejects evolution entirely.

  11. Intersting discussion of liberal approaches to religious faith. However, it leaves out any real inclusion of Islam and faiths other than Christianity and Judaism.

  12. Mahdi, UU’s almost without exception ignore Liberal Islam. Baachi Kahan, or Farooq Khan. Great Humanists, Liberals, Patriots, and MUSLIMS completely ignored.

  13. Don’t the Unitarians have some sort of rather abstract universal fellowship where liberal Muslims and almost anyone with else with liberal tendencies are invited to join? The abstraction is more like a network of similar minded folks who have no need to meet face to face and have no need for some form of corporate structure.

  14. @Mahdi Ibn Ziya That would be news to me. Please email me should you find a link for it.

  15. John payne

    I would nominate the Disciples of Christ, of which am an ordained minister.
    I was in the Catholic and Episcopal tradition for over 60 yrs. at 51 I retired an entered a UCC seminary . Most of my theological training was in the Episcopal tradition. I turned down the priesthood of the Episcopal church out of their lack of theological progress and the heavy handed ness of conservative Bishops

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