Category Archives: Anti-Liberalism

Rethinking GA Security Checks in Light of the Knoxville Attack

Bill Baar raises the issue of security at General Assembly in the comments on the previous post, about the long history of violence against Unitarian-Universalists.  While no one wants to get hysterical over this, he may have a point.  Many UUs condemned the mild security checkpoint at the port of Fort Lauderdale, where GA was held last month.  Some went so far as to boycott GA entirely.  The issue was that police officers checked the photo IDs of adults at the door–and while only the tiniest fraction of adult UUs lack a qualifying ID, it was seen as part of a creeping surveillance culture, prone to inappropriate profiling, and discouraging to theoretical non-ID owners who might want to join in the event, such as illegal immigrants.  Even among those who didn’t mind the security check, pretty much no one expressed pleasure at its presence.

Has that changed?  Were some UUs living in a fantasy world before last Sunday’s attack on the Tennessee Valley UU Church?  Many American schools have security checkpoints and metal detectors today.  Many governmental offices and other buildings do too.  Security checkpoints at sports stadium are routine.  There are synagogues with them, probably churches as well.

UUs have always been targets for violence, but the last decade has been relatively quiet, so perhaps folks have gotten complacent.  The truth is that we live in a dangerous world, with rightwing nuts who intend to fire 76 shotgun rounds into a UU youth performance of Annie.  For every one who goes over the edge and pulls the trigger, there are many more close to that edge who may eventually tip as well.

Which brings us back to the GA security checkpoint.  Putting aside the theories about exclusion, we may ask, did it keep people safer?  That is the stated point of a security checkpoint, after all.  Suppose the man who attacked TVUUC lived in Florida and had targeted GA instead (indeed, no greater target for someone of his mentality could be imagined–thousands of the leaders and committed members of the most liberal denomination in America, all packed into a single public building).  It is possible he would have made it past the checkpoint.  After all, he probably owns photo ID.  But perhaps his guitar case would’ve been searched or his camera bag, in which case the shotgun and shells would’ve been discovered immediately (officers weren’t officially searching bags, but are empowered to ask to look inside them if someone is acting suspiciously).  Or his unstable attitude would’ve been noticed and he would’ve been pulled aside, or at least given greater scrutiny.  Even if he didn’t do anything to flag attention to himself, the presence of the checkpoint might well have been a significant deterrent, encouraging him to take his murder elsewhere.  Obviously, this is only speculation, but it seems legitimate to conclude that the GA security checkpoint that so many decried most likely helped to prevent a massacre like TVUUC experienced.

So, should there be a similar security checkpoint at GA next year?  An even tighter one?  Should GA have security checks from now on?  UUs have consistently contextualized security as the enemy, as an oppressive infringement on their rights, whether it be because of alleged age/race/class discrimination or intrusive government monitoring.  Can UUs learn to see security in another light, to see the other side of the equation?

The Fort Lauderdale security checkpoint was designed to prevent terrorism.  Terrorism is precisely what occurred in Knoxville this week.  No one ever wants to see a metal detector and guards at the entrance to a church, like a chilling embodiment of that UCC ad that ran a couple years ago.  The whole idea is disturbing, even repugnant.  But so is the alternative scenario, as we witnessed.  It is time for UUs to have a more informed, contextualized, and realistic discussion about security measures at churches and events.  The answer may not turn out to be security checkpoints, but surely keeping heads in the sand so as not to offend liberal values isn’t going to make people safer either.  The simple truth is that you are safer sitting at a Dallas Cowboys game or on an airplane or in a courthouse than you are sitting in a pew.  Perhaps some thought should be put into balancing that situation a little better, or at least articulating a decline toward security in a dangerous world that goes beyond knee-jerk reactions.

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A History of Violence Against Unitarian-Universalists

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.

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Unitarian-Universalianism?

There are persistent grumblings about the length, tongue-twisting, and Unity/Unification-like nature of the term Unitarian-Universalist.  Right after the two denominations consolidated there was a strong push to change the name to the Liberal Church or Liberal Christians, but the proponents were outmaneuvered and the name Unitarian-Universalist hasn’t been challenged on the institutional level since.

It’s worth recalling that neither Unitarian or Universalist (to say nothing of Unitarian-Universalist) were predestined names.  During the formative period of Universalism some people actually preferred the term “Universalian” to that of “Universalist.”  So modern day UUs could’ve ended up calling themselves Unitarian-Universalians, for example.  Or perhaps Unitarian and Universalist could’ve been retired in favor of Universalian as the name of the new denomination back in the 1960s.  Universalian: it sounds a bit unusual, but perhaps it implies not just universalism of theology and fellowship, but also a sort of universe-oriented thinking, outward-looking toward the cosmos and consistent with a modern, post-geocentric approach to life and meaning.

There were terms for the Universalists’ opponents that have also fallen out of favor at this point.  Universalists used to refer to other Christians as Partialists or Limitarians, because they had a partial or limited view of salvation vs. the Universalist/Universalian understanding of unlimited salvation and total reconciliation of man to man, God to man, and man to God (as the language of the day would put it).

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Do Bible-Oriented Christians Ever Allow For Any Validity in Unitarian-Universalist Exegesis?

Last night’s post suggested that there aren’t many Bible-oriented Christians who are “who are susceptible to UU exegesis.” Fausto, whose useful list of UU-significant Bible quotes started the conversation, chimed in that conversion probably isn’t likely, but that there is a satisfaction nonetheless in watching such Christians pause and think.

Indeed there is. Just for the record, full conversion wasn’t intended as the benchmark for a successful interaction, merely openness to the idea that UU Biblical exegesis might have any validity. So here’s a question to Fausto and other Unitarian-Universalist readers: in conversations with highly Bible-oriented Christians have you found them to be open to your UU interpretations of the Bible, even if they declined to agree with you?

[Obligatory notes: 1) Obviously UU Christians who claim to be particularly Bible-oriented are excepted here. 2) By Bible-oriented is meant the general category of Christians who take the Bible as the word of God and final authority on all matters Christian, generally treating it as if God sat down at a desk somewhere and hammered it out overnight on a typewriter as a single and internally-coherent book–a book that anybody can pick up, read, and understand regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, class, or whether or not they belong to a small group of pre-scientific people hanging out a long time ago in the eastern Mediterranean. Terms like “traditional” Christians are avoided here since, as the many historically-informed readers of this blog are aware, ideas such as Biblical inerrancy, literalism, and the plain meaning of the text are recent innovations in Christian history, not representative of how most Christians have understood the Bible(s) through most of Christian history. 3) If the preceding loose definition is rather flip it nonetheless is not meant to be disrespectful. Your definition may differ somewhat but as long as we can agree on the general parameters let’s keep the focus on the real topic: whether Bible-oriented Christians seem to accept that your interpretations of the Bible could have any validity, even for yourself.]

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Manufacturing Outrage as Religious Practice

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):

http://www.philocrites.com/archives/003826.html

http://revsean.com/?p=384

http://iminister.blogspot.com/2007/12/showing-identification.html

http://boyinthebands.com/archives/ga-2008-the-one-to-miss/

http://chalicechick.blogspot.com/2007/12/stupid-questions-about-whole-government.html

http://www.uua.org/events/generalassembly/updatesannouncements/61425.shtml

http://www.uuworld.org/news/articles/60906.shtml?p

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Fundamentalisms, especially Buddhist ones

UU blogger CK asked some good questions about the last post. Here is a partial response to her issues.

We do see the emergence of phenomena that we could term “Buddhist fundamentalism,” but we have to be quite careful about how we use such a term. All of the Buddhisms that are engaging with modernity by producing fundamentalist versions are deeply implicated with post-colonial nationalism–this was not a driving force behind the rise of Protestant (American) Christian fundamentalism, the subject of the previous post, but it is the most important factor in understanding these seemingly fundamentalist new Buddhisms. Buddhism is replicated in a militant and intolerant mode in response to ethnic tensions related to struggles in post-colonial states, so this Buddhism fundamentalism arguably is not a particularly parallel phenomenon to the American Christian one. Not that American Protestantism lacks a nationalistic side–far from it–but the situation is considerably different and the degree to which various forces are driving change (versus just being “in the mix”) differs as well.

Just to highlight one of many implications of this difference, Buddhist fundamentalism seeks to secure a certain traditional area as strongly Buddhist (such as the island of Ceylon), against the threat of ethnic and religious others who (at least allegedly) seek to disrupt the practice of Buddhism. It is about retaining specific geographic places for Buddhism in the face of perceived non-Buddhist encroachment.

American Protestant fundamentalism, on the other hand, not only seeks to hold on to traditional privileges but in many incarnations actively seeks to spread to historically non-Christian places, displacing their current religions and becoming the dominant local power. Furthermore, it emerges out of tension with its close theological other–liberal Protestantism–not an ethnic other, and is most concerned (even beyond missionization) with the defeat of alternate nearby Christianities. Christian fundamentalism came to destroy Christian liberalism and to convert the world, in that order.

This helps us distinguish the two religious fundamentalisms. Buddhist fundamentalism does not emerge from theological debate and is not locked in a struggle to eliminate liberal Buddhism, nor does it have a missionary impulse–it seeks to retain homelands, not colonize new areas. For these reasons it is not in fact strongly theological–Buddhist fundamentalism does not stress Buddhist beliefs, but rather Buddhist forms of social organization, with the beliefs and practices that bolster these forms being only of secondary importance. It reads texts historically and often rather literally, yet does so not to prove theological points but instead in order to produce cohesive ethnic identity and strong claims toward land ownership.

On the matter of Abrahamic religions’ responses to modernity, this may not be a fully useful category. The emergence of Jewish fundamentalism differs significantly from that of Protestant fundamentalism. Protestant fundamentalism stresses a divinely given text in the rationale for its creation, but Jewish fundamentalism, while indeed yet another response to modernity, is considerably more tied to orthopraxy than orthodoxy when compared with Protestant Christianity. Not that divinely given texts are unimportant in Jewish fundamentalism, but they are in a way secondary to the concern for preservation of Jewish practice as a marker of identity, rather than Jewish belief as a marker of identity (whereas Christian belief is central Protestant fundamentalism, with Christian practice, while important, being of secondary consideration). This is because the concern that birthed Jewish fundamentalism wasn’t taint by theological heresy, but the threat of assimilation. Jewish fundamentalism locates Jewish distinctiveness in Jewish practice, not so much Jewish thought, so it is practices, not texts, that fuel it.

Islamic fundamentalism inhabits a middle-ground between the Protestant and Jewish fundamentalist approaches. It is about equal in stress on divinely given text and on sharia, the body of law that enforces practice. As with Buddhist fundamentalism it emerges not out of fear of close theological others but from the politics of the post-colonial world.

All of this means that any characterization of reliance on divinely given texts as distinctively “Abrahamic” is problematic–not because it also happens outside of this category, but because it doesn’t even happen as much as we might think within this category. “Abrahamic” isn’t that useful as a tool for understanding Christian, Jewish, and Islamic fundamentalisms (especially in comparison to Buddhist or Hindu fundamentalisms) because these three religions are arguably actually more different than similar to each other in their production of modern fundamentalisms.

As to the question of whether Protestantism has had an influence on the way Buddhists understand their origins, especially Protestant fundamentalism on Buddhism fundamentalism, we can see there has been some influence but that it is not especially strong. Protestant fundamentalism tends to provoke a greater degree of attention to texts in Buddhist fundamentalism, but where Protestant fundamentalism largely still wrestles with science as an enemy, Buddhist fundamentalism tends to appropriate scientific rhetoric to assert Buddhism as the most intelligent and transmodern of religions. The Christian influence on Buddhist nationalism, which subsumes Buddhist fundamentalism, has been mainly in forms of organization, education, and communication, rather than in approach to texts. And much of this influence is a 19th century colonial story, before the rise of fully-fledged Christian fundamentalism.

There will eventually be a series of posts here about defining liberal religion in such a way that it contains liberal forms of Buddhism, especially in North America. Maybe this post is a sort of lead-in to that discussion.

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Origins of the term Fundamentalist

The term “fundamentalist” appeared less than a century ago, in relation to the Christian publishing venture known as The Fundamentals. These were released as a series of pamphlets in the 1910s. They were designed to provide clear, intelligent, orthodox pronouncements on Protestant Christianity–specifically, they served as repudiations of liberal Protestantism, threatening scientific advancements (such as Darwinism), and Biblical higher criticism, and as reiterations of what was fundamental and therefore eternal to true Christianity. These widely disseminated pamphlets provided a name for the emerging wing of ultra-conservative American Protestantism, and “fundamentalism” is now synonymous with scriptural literalism, dogmatism, and determined supernaturalism both within and beyond the Christian religion. While The Fundamentals have in many ways been forgotten by contemporary culture, the influence of the movement they helped shape is undeniable.

Written by scholars, ministers, and laymen alike, The Fundamentals range rather widely in quality and coherency of argument. Many of the essays, however, are of surprisingly high quality, avoiding ad hominem attacks and demonstrating engagement with opposing material rather than simple dismissal. But regardless of the merits of particular essays, throughout all authors show certain similarities. First, the Bible is taken as the ultimate authority, as inspired by God, and as literally true. Second, conservative American Protestant doctrines are taken as plainly expressing the clear meaning of the Bible’s words, not as cultural traditions developed over time in a process of change and adjustment. Third, orthodox Protestant Christianity is presented as the only legitimate form of religion, as possessing answers to all possible questions and situations, and as a matter of utmost importance.

This last point seems to be the driving motivation behind The Fundamentals. More than anything else, The Fundamentals are concerned to position conservative Protestantism as clear, straightforward, authoritative, and solid. Opposing ideas are attacked precisely for lacking these qualities. Darwinism is objected to less because it supposedly demeans humanity or insults God (though these arguments are made), but primarily because it is a theory. Several authors take pains to point out its hypothetical nature, emphasizing over and over again that it is speculative, weak on details, and full of confusing contradictions. This contrasts with the robust confidence inspired by the complete and perfect system of conservative Christianity. In all of this there seems to be a fear of the modern age as relativistic and fraught with uncertainty. This probably connects too to the diminishing sense of power and relevance felt by conservative white Protestants, as immigration and incipient religious pluralism began to threaten their sense of entitlement in America. The Fundamentals appear to pronounce the permanent truth and relevance of orthodox Protestantism precisely when such permanence, truth, and relevance can no longer be taken for granted.

As such, they are quintessentially modern works, not representative of traditional Christianity. They are as tied to their time as the statements of the liberals they oppose. There is a tendency among liberals to dismiss fundamentalism as somehow a survival of ancient, ignorant days, irrelevant to the modern day and thus puzzling in its ability to cling to life. But this attitude overlooks how The Fundamentals, and the works that have followed in their wake, are attempts by contemporary Christians to grapple with the modern world and find answers. Naturally, the answers they come up with, even if they masquerade as ancient and unchanging, will be to some degree conditioned by and probably suited to the modern context.

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