Required Reading For Unitarian Universalists

Ooooooooooh, boy. This is a tough one, gang.

I recommend that you read not just the article but all the comments. The insults flung by angry Wyomingites* (sorry if that’s not a word) are cringe-inducing to read but they’re really valuable market research.

Putting on my hat as an evangelist and congregational image consultant I can keep a pretty cool head and not take these rants personally.  For better or for worse, they  are a helpful snapshot of what a segment of the population sees, hears and believes about UUs. That we are a cult. That we have no right to use the language of calling. That we embrace every religion except Christianity. That our rites of passage lack gravitas (I actually heard this same bit of feedback from a theatre friend the other day over coffee. He attended a memorial service at one of our congregations and said that everything the minister said felt like a labored effort to avoid using the word “God,” that the language was shallow and euphemistic, the theology light-weight and more worthy of a dinner party toast than a funeral. Ouch. Double ouch. Hard not to get defensive or correctional there!). That we have failed to distinguish ourselves as a legitimate theological tradition aside from liberal political causes.

Taking a deep breath and keeping on that consultant’s hat I think, “Fair enough.” We know what we’ve done to deserve these criticisms. In marketing terms, we have an image problem. As HoneyBooBoo’s mama would say, “It is what it is.”

But we’re not a product and that’s why we should use marketing language and concepts very carefully, aware of their limited usefulness to us.  We’re not a thing that people either buy or leave on the shelf. We are a gathered free religious community and we need all the help we can get understanding how we are regarded among the wider society with, and to whom, we hope to be in ministry. So how do we respond to this article?

A) Defensively. These people are close-minded idiots! They don’t know us! They’re a bunch of flat-earth gun-toting reactionaries and we shouldn’t waste a second caring about what they think. I don’t need to explain myself to those fools. I’m never stepping foot in Wyoming!

B) Wounded. This is so hurtful. I feel so badly for Audette. How can people be so mean? How can people’s values be so different from mine? Don’t they know that writing to legislators to express an opinion on the common good is an important way to participate in our democracy? I feel terrible about this. It makes me want to move to the woods and live with a dozen dogs.

C) Prideful. I love the fight! This is exactly why I feel justified in feeling superior to “those people.” They have no idea what they’re talking about, and I can’t wait to go to church in the morning and put an extra contribution in the plate. I’m so glad I can be a UU.

D) Curious. Oh, wow. I wonder where these people got their information about Unitarian Universalism? It sounds like some of them have some real-life acquaintance with our congregations, but obviously most of them only know what they’ve read on-line and in the paper.

How many Unitarian Universalist and other liberal religious congregations are there in Wyoming, anyway? Maybe we should do some evangelizing in that part of the country or think about a church-plant out there. I’m sure there are a lot of people who would really appreciate a liberal religious community, even if they disagree on the gun issue — which is obviously a huge part of Wyoming self-identity and culture.

E) Evangelical/Relational. How can I have more conversations with people who might be ministered to by a Unitarian Universalist religious community? [Note that this is a different question than, “How can I have more conversations with like-minded people might find a home in UUism” or “who are UU but don’t know it.”]  It concerns me that people whose lives might be made deeper and more meaningful by some kind of participation in the liberal religious community aren’t getting accurate information about who we are. I wonder how I can personally help to remedy that.

In this new era of what I feel — and hope — is a deepening of our maturity as a faith community, it’s worthwhile to reflect on how we react to this sort of pile-on.  I’m sure you can guess my preference for reaction modes D and E.  Not only do they spare us unnecessary agita, being curious and relational are creative and productive responses. And that works better for our hearts and souls and for the souls of our congregations.

Congratulations to the Rev. Audette Fulbright for committing news and giving really good media.*


*I’m fascinated by the accompanying photo and will be getting in touch with Audette for a BTFM quote soon.




* Thank you to reader David Stump for this clarification:

The Blaze is not a local Wyoming media outlet. It is more like a cross between Fox News and The Drudge Report, a venture launched by Glenn Beck. Hence the responses are not necessarily made by people in Wyoming, but rather by that segment of the US population who hold to an ultra-fundamentalist view of Christianity and are on the hard right of the already far right Tea Party. Anyone who isn’t with them is more or less a godless traitor who wants to corrupt good, upstanding citizens. Not sure if that changes your thinking about the list of potential responses, but it seems like some options were missed, such as praying for them (odd to be missing from a response on behalf of a religious organization), commenting calmly on the issue itself without responding to specific comments made (might be useless or all the more provocative on a forum like that), or ignoring/not empowering such rhetoric.

Be well.

Thanks, Dave. And because you asked, in my theological understanding, spending time reflecting on the words of these commenters, trying to put myself in their place and also wondering about their spiritual needs is praying for them. – PB

5 Replies to “Required Reading For Unitarian Universalists”

  1. Most people in Wyoming are not like that guy. They may not agree but are polite. Check out Senator Bernadine Craft- a leader of her local Episcopal Church in Rock Springs WY.

  2. Rev. Weinstein:

    As you note in your follow-up, the commenters at this website are people whose political and social beliefs are extremely far to the right. I don’t think that most of them in their online personas are particularly interested in learning about UUs or having conversations with UUs.

    I don’t think this would change regardless of even very significant changes in how UUism operates. Even if we embraced every element of theology that UU Christians would advocate, I doubt whether that would make UUism any more acceptable to the vast majority of these commenters. We would still be a quite liberal religion, and that would be enough for us to be condemned by such online commenters, without a second thought.

    Of course, I think that many of them as human beings who we might encounter as individuals would be interested in having conversations or learning more about people with liberal religious beliefs.

    So, I agree with Dave. Let us hope for a world where people have a little different mode of interacting with each other. I don’t think that UUs have particularly much to learn from critiques provided in this form, particularly as most of the critiques seem to be based on very little information, or even any desire to acquire information. We of course should be interested in other people, even if their perspectives are decidedly illiberal. But I think our communication is more fruitful if it takes place through other venues and modes.

    [Thanks for writing, Tim. Makes a lot of sense to me. I had no idea that this was a Beck venue. However, I’m still glad I got to think about how we react to bad news about ourselves. The Blaze commenters were almost a parody of the right-wing critique of religious liberals, they stuck so well to their limited script. But although they’re a magnification of critiques leveled against us, I have heard all of those views in much less vitriolic terms for decades. As exaggerated as they are, I still think they’re a valuable bit of market research. – PB]

  3. Oh, dear. No. By all means, no. Glenn Beck’s folks are not quite the average Wyomingite (just right term). I’d be glad to give you a better view of what it’s been like here. UU World interviewed me on this recently, but not sure whether it will be shared.

  4. Unfortunately, I (and perhaps others) must admit that this type of cultural misunderstanding works in both directions. The far right has their stereotypes about UUs, but we have ours about them. This of course does not mean that either group’s perceptions are necessarily correct.

    A few years ago, I had a colleague, more left-leaning than average, whose husband was more right-leaning than average. Very occasionally, this led to fights and one partner sleeping on the sofa. When I mentioned that I could not tolerate being married to a person with whom I would be in frequent political conflict, she accused me of being intolerant. I reminded my colleague that unlike hers, my family of origin was strongly Republican (in fact, a few of my relatives actually belonged to the John Birch Society), “moderate right” regarding many social concerns and often “far right” on economic and military issues, therefore I “had done my time,” was well-acquainted with the not-infrequent hypocrisy of right-wing people, and frankly didn’t want to have to deal with it any more. And yet. . .

    In college, I learned that left-wing people have their own hypocrisies, most prominently the stated desire to “live in a better world” but a refusal to give up their own high-tech consumer lifestyles. My husband and I belong to a local food co-op where a majority of the democratically-elected board members have corporate jobs, some for companies that have past or current military contracts (personallly, I only vote for board members who are small-business owners, educators, and professionals). In 21st-century America, cognitive dissosance rules.

    As an informal student of medical ethics, last year I learned about an organization called “Reece’s Rainbow” which encourages the adoption of children with Down Syndrome, physical disabilities, and HIV+ status from abroad, mostly eastern Europe. Attitudes about disability in the children’s home countries are still similar to those that are also an unfortunate part of the history of the United States: by the time many of the children are only four years old, they are warehoused in adult mental institutions, where they are sometimes abused, nearly always neglected, and often die.

    When I began reading the blogs of families who adopted “Reece’s Rainbow” children, I quickly became ashamed. Nearly ALL are fundamentalist Christians and several are pro-military, the very people I tend to blame (after Wall Street and K Street, of course!) for many of America’s current problems. Yet they find the money, time, commitment, and love to give to these children. We UUs, despite our first principle, apparently do not. . .at least through this program, despite a lack of faith-based restrictions:

    [Preach it, and keep preaching it. Next time, don’t be Anonymous. You have something important to say: don’t hide! Anyone comes for you, others with similar stories have got your back, ‘kay? We’ve got to keep having this conversation. – PB]

  5. The only thing about UU’s I know is you, PeaceBang and it looks good to me! I’m reasonably liberal (with conservative pockets) Anglican but I’d happily come and worship with you and I’m sure I’d be blessed and that we’d all be reaching toward the same God.

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