The Unitarian Universalist Association leadership is attempting to both increase general UU membership and greatly increase racial minority membership. While the goals are admirable, the UUA’s approach is ill-conceived and likely to fail.
David Cycleback Ph.D. is a cognitive scientist and philosopher and a member of the British Royal Institute of Philosophy. Jewish, he attends both a UU congregation and a Reform Synagogue.
Unitarian Universalism (UU) is a tiny, eccentric, politically far-left, and predominantly white church with dwindling membership. It is far whiter than the United States population and then most Christian and conservative churches, including the Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Anglican Church, and Mormons. While UU has advanced from its heterosexual patriarchal roots, the lack of racial diversity has been a source of angst to many UUs who see themselves as social justice vanguards. (UUA 2010) (Braestrup 2017) (Pew Research Center 2015)
Doubling concerns, according to its 2022 report, the UUA has had the largest drop in membership and number of congregations in church history. There are currently the fewest UU congregations ever. The previous pre-Covid census in 2020 showed the largest drop in membership in twenty-three years and the largest drop in Religious Education membership in forty-nine years. (UUA 2022) (UUA 2020) (Loehr 2005) (Halsted 2019) (UUA 1997) The current national UU leadership has expressed that it aspires to both increase UU membership and greatly increase racial minority membership by moving UU even further to the political left into radicalism. This essay explains how these goals can conflict and how the current national UU’s attempts may achieve neither. (Frederick-Gray 2021) (CLFUU 2017)
UU’S TRADITIONAL CULTURE
As with most churches, Unitarian Universalism has had a particular demographic and culture. UU is associated with its white, Puritan, New England Unitarian roots. Famous Unitarians included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Jefferson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Kurt Vonnegut and Julian Jaynes. The Collegeville Pennsylvania fellowship is named after Thomas Paine.
Martin Luther King Jr. said Sunday at 11 a.m. is the most segregated time in America, with people traditionally tending to congregate with their demographic. Some racial minorities have said they are drawn to UU’s beliefs but have a hard time fitting in with the dominant culture. One congregant wrote, “I don’t think segregation is intentional. It’s a matter of music, demographics, age, culture, worship style, etc.” (Blake 2010) (Grossman 2015) (8th Principle 2021)
Anyone who attends a UU congregation knows they can have a controlled, insular, polite, Northern European-American culture. As a native of Wisconsin and with many Minnesotan relatives, I’ve commented that the culture of the Seattle UU congregation I attend is “very Scandinavian.” I am neurodivergent (autistic and bipolar) and Jewish and from personal experience understand how people who are different can feel frustrated and misunderstood in a UU congregation’s culture.
I agree with the UUA that UUs should work on being educated about different cultures and peoples and how to be welcoming to minorities who are attracted to UU’s beliefs.
IT’S NOT JUST RACIAL MINORITIES: UU IS UNATTRACTIVE TO THE MAJORITY OF ALL DEMOGRAPHICS
Usually omitted in the argument that UU culture is unattractive to most racial minorities– and in the mind of some is, thus, “racist”– is the fact that UU is unattractive to most whites. Many outsiders would describe the current UU as a counterculture. I once wrote, “Yes, It is true that UU is unattractive to most blacks. It is also unattractive to most whites, Asians, Hispanics, Middle Easterners, Jews and every other race and ethnicity. That’s why it’s so small.” My white libertarian friend from Texas would follow the UU’s Principles and is a fan of the Unitarian psychologist Julian Jaynes. He told me he could stand about ten seconds of UU’s brand of identity politics and politically correct language.
I have talked to atheists who I thought might be attracted to a church that has atheists and shares their political persuasion. The majority of the small sample had no interest in joining a UU congregation because they don’t want to belong to any organized church, even one that has atheists and agnostics, and attend services that have a church-like style. Even to these politically left atheists, a “church for atheists” was an incongruous concept.
Many working-class and working-class background UUs have long complained about classicism and vocation/education elitism in UU and UU congregations. Most proponents of the prevailing UUA-style social justice and identity politics are university-educated “cultural elites” who are often out of touch with and even dismissive of white and non-white working-class and poor American cultures and views.
A complaint about the recent years’ narrowing of UU’s politics is that it excludes political moderates and conservatives who would embrace the UU’s Principles. There is no political litmus test to be a UU, and there is no reason that many moderates and conservatives who believe in “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” can’t belong to a UU or other religiously liberal church. UU Minister Rev. Sean Neil-Baron put it “We are a liberal religion not a religion for liberals,” and there used to be an active group for conservative UUs. (UUA 2017) (Morgenstern 2020)
I know numerous UUs who have said they wish their congregational membership had a broader political spectrum. Many UUs are rotely dismissive and even openly disdainful of conservatives, often just assuming all UU congregants share their progressive views. A more conservative ex-UU wrote, “I left the Unitarian Church several years ago when I came to realize that it is little more than a liberal-left wing political advocacy group masquerading as a religion.”
MOVING FURTHER LEFT MAKES UU ONLY MORE UNATTRACTIVE TO MOST MINORITIES
About fourteen percent of the country is black. It is simply the statistical reality that if every church wants to be, say, forty percent black, that is impossible. UU, in its traditional or current state, will not be the type of church that attracts large swaths of blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities.
In her 2017 essay Where Are We Headed?, UU Minister Rev. Kate Braestrup wrote that UU would have to become more conservative and welcoming to a broader range of political views to attract many minorities who are generally more conservative than UU. (Braestrup 2017)
Pew Research Center polling has shown that the progressive left is only 6% of the United States population, and is predominantly non-Hispanic white and culturally elite (highly educated and economically privileged). Similarly, a 2021 national education poll reported that the “extreme woke” (Those who advocate for the dismantling of society, that students should be taught that whites are oppressors and non-whites are oppressed, etc.) make up 6% of the population and is disproportionally non-Hispanic white and culturally/socially elite. (Pew Research Center 2021) (Sumner 2022)
According to a 2020 Pew Research Center Poll, 65 percent of black Democrats identify as moderate or conservative, and only 37 percent of Hispanic Democrats identify as politically liberal. By a wide margin, whites are the most likely to be in the far left or progressive portion of the Democratic Party. An Indian immigrant told me that he no longer felt welcome or heard in his UU congregation due to his more conservative viewpoints. (Pew Research Center 2021) (Pew Research Center 2020) (Winston 2020)
Taking a variety of fringe political positions unpopular with most minorities, the UUA has called for the abolishment of police and for congregations to quit calling the police. A 2021 national poll showed that only 23 percent of blacks, 16 percent of Hispanics, and 22 percent of Asians support reducing spending on police. Polls over the years have consistently shown that the large majority of all racial and ethnic groups want the same or more spending on police and the same or larger police presence in their neighborhoods. (UUA 2020) (Pew Research Center 2021) (Gallup 2020) (Parker & Hurst 2021) (Hirsi 2021)
Black civil rights leader and Democratic Party Whip James Clayburn said that the “Defund the Police” sloganeering cost Democrats seats in the 2020 election and harmed the Black Lives Matter cause. Los Angeles Mayor and former Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass called Defund the Police “probably one of the worst slogans ever.” (Brown 2020) (Moore 2020)
The national UU and UU groups have aligned themselves with fringe Jewish groups, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, and movements that are out of step with majority Jewish views and even labeled as antisemitic by mainstream Jewish organizations. (McCardle 2016) (Leblang 2017) (ADL 2015)
Multiple national polls have shown that not only are substantially large majorities of all racial demographics against politically correct culture and the politically correct language adopted by the UUA, UU World, UU ministers and many congregations, but the top three in opposition are American Indians (88%), Latinos (87%) and Asians (82%). Seventy-five percent of black Americans were against PC culture and language. (ThinkNow 2019) (Monk 2018) (McWhorter 2022)
Black linguist and black-English expert John McWhorter wrote that the term “BIPOC” is unpopular with most racial minorities. A Latino pollster found that “When it came to ‘Latinx,’ there was near unanimity. Despite its usage by academics and cultural influencers, 98% of Latinos prefer other terms to describe their ethnicity. Only 2% of our respondents said the label accurately describes them, making it the least popular ethnic label among Latinos.” Some Latinos have called white people using Latinx “Anglo-Imperialist,’’ “Anglicizing our language,” “culturally ignorant,” and “English speakers imposing their social norms on other cultures.” (Thinknow 2018) (Douthat 2019) (McWhorter 2022) (Cunningham 2017)
Common sense says that a white-dominant church or congregation is not going to attract or be welcoming to most racial and ethnic minorities by adopting unpopular and sometimes even offending language and political positions.
Rev. Braestrup wrote: “Despite our decades of self-flagellating attempts to scour away every vestige of racism from our bleeding hearts, religions that have never made the slightest effort to ‘dismantle white supremacy’ aren’t just more successful at attracting congregants of all colors, they are — according to our own preferred measures — far less racist . . . . The statistics, in other words, strongly imply that anyone who wishes to belong to a non-racist church should depart Unitarian Universalism and join the Assemblies of God. Or– easier still– become a Catholic.” (Braestrup 2017)
While UUs like to think of themselves as independent thinkers and open-minded, I find them to be as much of groupthinkers and crowd followers as in any religious denomination. UU spaces are often political and ideological bubbles, unaware of or dismissing different viewpoints including from minorities. A UU said that to many UUs multiculturalism means “People who think like us but come in different colors.” I replied, “Multiculturalism means they aren’t all going to think like you, and many will think things you very much disagree with.”
UU leaders often hold up the goals of multiculturalism and diversity. However, they don’t really want multiculturalism and diversity. A multicultural and diverse church would contain diverse political, social and ideological ideas and values. With their new expectations of political and ideological conformity, national UU leaders are trying to create a monoculture that, ironically, will exclude most racial, ethnic and other minorities.
The UUA’s efforts are not just about attracting minorities to UU but being more inclusive and empowering of minorities already in UU. The latter are important but cause a conflict.
Racial minorities in UU tend to be much further to the political left, more radical and identity politics-centric than the general racial minority population. Also, UU advertises itself as a “safe space,” so attracts from the small percentage of minorities who psychologically want or need safe spaces. Many white UUs and white progressives are under the mistaken impression that radical minority activists are proxies for their entire demographics. This often is because UU leaders and idealogues misleadingly say that the positions are the majority views or the only “authentic voice” of minorities. UUs are learning about race relations from a tiny group that is unrepresentative of the larger minority groups. (Hirsi 2021)
Doing what “BIPOC of UU” want will make UU even less appealing to most outside racial minorities. The radicalization of UU may not only not attract many racial minorities to UU but likely will lead to many religious liberals leaving.
The conflict is exemplified by the word Latinx. UU works to be LGBT+ inclusive and the UUA, UU World and many UU congregations and groups commonly use the term Latinx. Latinx is simultaneously seen as gender-inclusive and is off-putting to a majority of Latinos. (Douthat 2019)
The use of Latinx demonstrates that UU aspires for the diversity and inclusion of numerous minority identities, not just racial and ethnic. In both practice and theory, this is a conundrum because minority cultures and demographics are never in exact alignment with each other. That’s why it’s a challenge to create successful multi-cultural and interfaith organizations. People with multiple identities often experience such internal conflicts.
MANY WAYS TO CREATE AND DIFFERENT CONSIDERATIONS OF DIVERSITY
Some UUs are not troubled by the lack of racial diversity. They say that most churches and congregations have particular cultures and demographics, such as Scandinavian Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox congregations, many Muslim and Hindu temples and Jewish synagogues. The least racially diverse American church is the National Baptist Convention with ninety-nine percent black membership. Of the six least racially diverse American churches, three are 90+ percent white and the other three are either 90+ percent black or 90+ percent Asian. With 80 percent of Jews worldwide being Ashkenazi, it’s no surprise that the synagogue I attend is predominantly Ashkenazi. Further, a congregation mostly attracts people from its neighborhood which means the congregation will tend to reflect the demographics of the neighborhood. (Pew Research Center 2015)
As far as attaining diversity and multiculturalism go, there is more than one way to skin a cat. For example, congregations can do interfaith work with other congregations and organizations. A Seattle UU congregation belongs to an interfaith network with members from the neighborhood mosque, Hispanic Catholic congregation and synagogue working together in neighborhood charity work. This type of work involves not only a diversity of races, but of cultures and beliefs.
It is problematic when UUs want ethnic and racial minorities to be part of their church but only if they “think the way we do.” I see a tokenizing and fetishism in focusing strictly on the percentage of skin colors in a congregation, and a pandering in doing whatever it takes to attract people of different skin colors. UU Minister Rev. Craig Moro wrote, “I suspect one of the things that drives ‘BIPOC’ folks away after a visit or two is that some UUs seem to be trying to ‘collect’ them– to add them to some sort of collection of skins and heads. That would scare me, too!”
An Asian man who quit UU wrote, “The tone of the entire organization has shifted more and more left and privileged as time goes on . . . When a person of color does show up (myself included), it was ridiculous. Our opinions were not valued because they were our opinions, but simply because of the color of our skin. In trying to be more inclusive, the organization became more racist. No non-white person wants to get in a room and watch rich white people flog themselves all day and apologize for transgressions that may or may not have ever happened. It is tiresome and has nothing to do with fellowship. It just makes those members feel better.”
I wonder about UU laity who are so easily and sometimes unquestioningly willing to discard their long-held UU values such as religious liberalism, self-determination, due process, diversity of individual views and paths, and freedom of expression and speech simply because a group of self-anointed authorities in classes and the pulpit instruct them to. It makes me wonder what other values they’d be willing to throw overboard in the name of a cause, because of the color of someone’s skin or to go along with a crowd.
Some UUs say that the object shouldn’t be to blindly fixate on a numbers game of “bringing in minorities” but on making sure congregations and members are welcoming to the racial, ethnic and other minorities who are attracted to UU’s beliefs.
I belong to different communities. These include a mostly white but gender diverse UU congregation, a synagogue, a multi-racial and racial minority-led workplace, my Armenian-Iranian immigrant partner and her family, and a vintage baseball card collecting club that is nearly all white male but with a wide diversity of religious and political beliefs. The combination of these and other relationships is my multicultural experience, and I neither expect nor want each to be the same.
The challenge of creating racial diversity and how to attract and maintain minorities in dominant white churches is not an issue just for Unitarian Universalism. With challenges, successes and failures, there have been numerous attempts to create multi-racial Christian churches. (Gjelten 2020)
There is no one or objectively correct answer as to what should be achieved or how to achieve it, and any way involves conflicts and trade-offs. A church can’t be all things it wants and doesn’t want to be all things to all people. To gain one valued thing you often have to give up another valued thing, and pleasing one group of people within a community sometimes will turn off another group. Such is the nature of communities, especially in a liberal, pluralistic church.
I firmly believe the UUA’s attempt to move UU as a whole further to the left into extreme politics, in particular in the area of identity politics, and to try to create ideological and political homogony will neither attract substantial numbers of racial and ethnic minorities nor expand UU membership. My prediction is that UU membership will fall even more drastically.
It was after I wrote this essay that the UUA reported yet another huge drop in membership for 2023. (UUA 2023)
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