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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

How's the Unitarian Jihad doing?

Last Friday's San Francisco Chronicle humor column by Jon Carroll warned of the looming threat from the "Unitarian Jihad." Carroll himself stopped by Philocrites to express amazement at the widespread fear — ahem, enthusiasm — the jihad has generated since its debut last week. How much enthusiasm are we talking about? Why, it's practically a mini sensation on the Web, folks, a pop-culture moment that some enterprising Unitarian Universalists should promptly grab.

Blog trackers like DayPop and BlogPulse show continuing high interest in Carroll's column and in the two "Unitarian Jihad name generators" that have sprung up in its wake. When I started this post earlier this evening, Carroll's column was the number 3 link at DayPop's Top 40;the name generators were number 5 and number 36. But DayPop is small potatoes compared to the traffic BlogPulse is monitoring: BlogPulse had tracked 1,064 blog references to the phrase by this evening and highlighted its "burstiness" in Monday's roundup of weekend blog activity.

More intriguing, however, is how the sudden popularity of the phrase "Unitarian Jihad" compares to the much-commented-on surge of online interest in the United Church of Christ after two broadcast networks rejected its "bouncer" TV ad in December. There are obvious differences, of course, which I'll get to a minute, but let's focus on the opportunity first. Here's a chart comparing the trend lines for "Unitarian Jihad," "United Church of Christ," and "Episcopal Church" over the past six months:

 Graph by Intelliseek's Blogpulse, 4.12.05

The orange line shows what percentage of all blogs mentioned "United Church of Christ" in the last six months. You can very distinctly see two major spikes: The first surge of blog attention happened around December 1, 2004, when blogs rallied to the church's defense after the ad's rejection. (The denomination quickly realized that it had just been handed a publicity bonanza, and tapped all that blog energy for more than 137,000 visits to its "Find a Church" web page and $23,000 in donations to its FCC license appeal campaign and at least a portion of approximately $500,000 for its ad campaign.) The second surge took place during the third week in January, when the UCC website challenged Focus on the Family's weird anti-Spongebob Squarepants campaign with an article and photograph showing the president of the denomination extending the church's radical hospitality to the cartoon character.

The green line shows blog references to the Episcopal Church, which has been in news a lot lately as the Anglican Communion reacts to the U.S. church's confirmation of the election of an openly gay bishop.

The blue line represents the sudden appearance of "Unitarian Jihad." As you can see, it rocketed past the height of the UCC's sudden online fame. It's much too early to tell whether any of that visibility will translate into interest in actual Unitarian Universalist "cells" — ahem, congregations — but if we were creative right now, we might be able to point people to the "pockets of reasonableness and harmony" that are already scattered throughout the country. (One way would be to link some of the popular phrases from Jon Carroll's column to pages introducing Unitarian Universalism or to the UUA's Find a Congregation page, as I've just illustrated.)

Why should we be thinking this way? Consider that in the past four days, my website has been visited more than 300 times by people doing web searches for "unitarian jihad." There's also the peculiar fact that a really dizzying number of people have already started talking about organizing themselves into local cells of the Unitarian Jihad. Weirdly — touchingly — they're finding genuine inspiration in a parody of real Unitarian Universalist beliefs and practices. They're not just cracking jokes and enjoying a good blue-state vibe about the state of American culture, either: Here's a member trying to figure out how to do some diplomatic outreach to the Unitarian Church. Wow. We should find some ways to introduce them to the real thing.

Much of the fervor for Unitarian Jihad is in the LiveJournal universe of blogs, where viral marketing works unusually well. Unlike the UCC's surge into the blogosphere, which tapped into the more media-focused political blogs that use Movable Type, Blogger, and Word Press, the LiveJournal blogs don't publish ads, so it's not possible to attempt any kind of marketing outreach to the venues that have generated the most interest in the concept. But there are hundreds of Unitarian Universalist users of LiveJournal; by all means, UU LiveJournalers, join the Unitarian Jihad community and introduce your local congregations to all the people who are looking for pockets of reasonableness and harmony!

A few caveats: Buzz about a humor column is obviously more fleeting than commentary about a church's rejected ad or news stories about a church's controversial stand on homosexuality. Unlike blog buzz about the United Church of Christ or the Episcopal Church, the Unitarian Jihad buzz isn't about our congregations even though it clearly reflects our congregational culture (for good and bad). But it conveys key features of our religious life and vision and introduces half of our name to all sorts of people who didn't know there was a name for such a worldview. I say let's find some ways to tap into that interest.

Who's got some good ideas?

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 12 April 2005 at 11:02 PM

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Scott Wells:

April 13, 2005 07:55 AM | Permalink for this comment

Let's keep our wits about us. This is a blog phenomenon. It isn't sounding in the news.

Plus, it makes us sound banal and clueless. Wasn't Garrison Kellior enough "help" there?


April 13, 2005 08:56 AM | Permalink for this comment

Granted. I didn't ask for this soon-to-pass blog phenomenon, either. But I am intrigued by it, and I know it won't be the last time. Scott isn't alone in sounding some cautionary notes:

John Cullinan writes:

I believe in the power of humor as a spiritual tool. I believe iconoclasm can breed a deeper respect for icons. I have boldly planted fake poo in sacred cow pastures when necessary. In short, I love a good joke.

Unfortunately, I think we as UUs in general (if you will allow me my perception of the corporate entity that is Unitarian Universalism) love our jokes just a wee bit too much. . . .

Maybe this will be our equivalent of the "bouncer ad".

Or, maybe we'll end up with an even larger population that misunderstands what we are about, a larger population that self-identifies as "Unitarian" on a national census without really knowing what that means. And more seekers who find no reason to set foot inside our walls.

Chalicechick worries:

I just can't help but wory this is going to make us look silly, as good as the article was.

I agree with all this. (I also think we do plenty to make ourselves look silly without any help from anyone else — a topic for another day.) But I'm still trying to figure out how enterprising UUs can take advantage of not quite positive P.R. to introduce something more meaningful. If the only thing jihad joiners know about Unitarianism is what they read in Jon Carroll's column, woe to us all. I'm trying to figure out how to successfully point them to something with more substance and reality.


April 13, 2005 10:07 AM | Permalink for this comment

We could take out some blogger ads pointing to a page on, maybe the P&P page? Or a congregation page? I'd set it up if folks would chip in. (It's by daily budget, so tell me how much you want to put it, and I'll divvy it all up by the day for, say, two weeks?)

Could be something like:
Join the Unitarian Jihad (link here)
Radically diverse. Spiritually alive.
Justice centered. The journey starts here.


April 13, 2005 10:17 AM | Permalink for this comment

Did some research at googlewords.

There's a 35 character limit per line, and you get two text lines besides the title. You also have to have a "display" URL in addition to the "real" URL (can be the same though).

At their lowest rate-per-click, we'd be spending less than five bucks a day (they estimate). Although with the buzz, this could easily turn out to be more.

Email me if you're in. The 35 character limit will be tough, so help there also appreciated if you can't offer money. And we also need more "key words."


April 13, 2005 10:18 AM | Permalink for this comment

Scott worries that the "unitarian Jihad" phenomenon makes UUism sound banal and clueless. However, I think this is the same reason it has traction. Also the same reason Keillor's gentle swipes do. Also the same reason that blunt, tart, critical blogs like the new "UU Enforcer" do.

You can say the same thing with humor, irony, or a blunt mallet, but in some respects we're all saying the same thing, and what we are each saying in our own way is that we see significant swathes of the UU field that have devolved into banality and cluelessness. What we are each groping for in our own way is a cure. What we cherish, when done properly, is too good to let slip away.


April 13, 2005 11:12 AM | Permalink for this comment

fausto wrote:
"...we see significant swathes of the UU field that have devolved into banality and cluelessness."

Such as?


April 13, 2005 11:24 AM | Permalink for this comment

Absolutely nothing is banal or clueless about UUism. Nothing. At all. Ever. Never will be. Nope. Nada.


April 13, 2005 11:33 AM | Permalink for this comment

Such as the self-congratulatory, self-worshiping tendency mocked by Keillor when he came to Boston to host "Prairie Home Companion" in the Wang Center for the Performing Arts, formerly known as the Boston Music Hall, which long ago housed Theodore Parker's 28th Congregational Society pulpit. Keillor put on a skit in which an aspiring actress tries out for a part in the Unitarian musical, "Song of Ourselves".


April 13, 2005 11:37 AM | Permalink for this comment

If I could divert us away from having a delightful conversation about what makes our religious movement funny/clueless — we can always get back to it soon — I'd very much like to focus us on ways to capitalize on the interest that people show in liberal religion even when we're funny. That is all.


April 13, 2005 11:44 AM | Permalink for this comment

One thought about Chutney's Googleads idea: In order to minimize the indignation of all sorts of serious people, I'd love to send people to an intermediary site that pointed people to the UUA's find a church and About Us pages, but that didn't look like the UUA had bought the ads.

Ron Kossik ( has bought the domain, and one approach would be to join forces with him to set up the page so that it both pointed to the original humor column and to the actual resources we'd like people to find. It would probably have to be designed with enough of a wink to let people know that, yes, the communique is a joke but that no, the religion isn't. I wonder if the folks at would be interested in taking this on.


April 13, 2005 11:47 AM | Permalink for this comment

Then again, I see that the Google Ad already exists. Good job, Chutney! Are you taking Paypal donations?


April 13, 2005 11:50 AM | Permalink for this comment

Indeed I am. (Email me at chutney AT myirony DOT net for Paypal info.)

And we can still finesse the ad as much as we like, so no need to cut off the discussion. I think your last idea, Chris, would give it better contact than where I have it linked now.


April 13, 2005 11:58 AM | Permalink for this comment

I'm not sure you can dissociate the two points. If we're going to be able to capitalize on the popularity of a fad that makes fun of us for being vapid and taking ourselves too seriously, we have to be able to show (a) that we know ourselves well enough to be able to see the truth in the humorous portrayal, but (b) that in fact we are able to laugh at ourselves, and (c) that in spite of all that, we have something profound and meaningful and life-enhancing to offer.

We have to both acknowledge and refute the caricature. Referring inquirers to a site that doesn't acknowledge the caricature and put it in perspective runs the risk of unintentionally reinforcing it instead.


April 13, 2005 12:06 PM | Permalink for this comment

So who can put up the new webpage? Just takes a minute for me to redirect traffic to it.


April 13, 2005 12:50 PM | Permalink for this comment

Where is the google ad directing people now?



April 13, 2005 01:16 PM | Permalink for this comment

Immediatly the traffic for could be sent to

If you don't like the content on that page it can be modified (it's a Wiki).


April 13, 2005 03:16 PM | Permalink for this comment

Was going to Now going to John's site.


April 13, 2005 04:34 PM | Permalink for this comment

Also added some of what's there to some of what's at the wikipedia entry.


April 13, 2005 05:32 PM | Permalink for this comment

Such clever people! Here's where things stand now:

Chutney and John Cooley have conspired to send ad traffic to the Unitarian Jihad entry at the UU Wiki. Check it out! It points people to some of the UUA's introductory material as well as to the satirical column that got this ball rolling. I think the tone is just right. Meanwhile, you can contribute to the costs of the Google ad by contacting Chutney.

Also meanwhile: The LiveJournal Unitarian Jihadsters — not us, but the people who latched onto this "meme" and organized themselves into a lively online community — have written their own Wiki about their nefarious purposes:

Unitarian Jihad is a nascent satirical religious/humanist movement, which intentionally juxtaposes the Unitiarian Universalist principles of a creedless faith and rational discussion with the Islamic concept of Jihad, specifically the use of that word in connection with the idea of a "holy war". . . .

Satire is inherent in the organization of Unitarian Jihad, as reference is often made to the committee model used by most Unitarian Universalist congregations, while Carroll's lead in using names like "Brother Flaming Sword of Moderation" is followed to parody both the language used by Islamic fundamentalist groups and the principles of Unitarian Universalism.

Note that the author of this Wiki entry intends to satirize Unitarian Universalism and Islamic fundamentalists. (I thought that Jon Carroll was actually satirizing the bombastic culture of fear in George W. Bush's America, but I must not have been paying attention.) Just as they are poaching off of our reputation and practice, the ad strategy Chutney has hit on poaches off them. It's all a symbiotic feeding frenzy!

The important point is that we are learning how to tap these little bursts of Internet buzz to shape a message the way we'd want it shaped. As Brother Flaming Sword of Moderation, I say sometimes you gotta fight fire with fire — peaceably, of course, and noting abstentions.


April 13, 2005 06:57 PM | Permalink for this comment

Just wanted to throw out a point of clarification that the Unitarian Jihad page on UUwiki is not "my" site, it was just my suggestion. Not that anyone really cares, I just don't want to take credit where credit is not due.

John aka "The Cattle Prod of Compassion"

Louis Bookbinder:

April 15, 2005 01:09 AM | Permalink for this comment

I love it! I think we SHOULD look silly. If someone wants to find the serious side, they should dig for it. Love is half laughter as well as empathy. GO FOR IT!

Louis Instant Retaliation of Reason

Joseph Santos-Lyons:

April 15, 2005 10:50 AM | Permalink for this comment

What do folks think about the use of the word "jihad" in this humor...I'm not aware of the use/meaning of the word, am only aware of it through media reports of Islamic fundamentalists and terrorist (not always one and the same).


April 15, 2005 12:10 PM | Permalink for this comment

In Islam, "jihad" is a term used broadly to mean, approximately, "spiritual struggle". The idea of "holy war" is only one connotation of the broader sense, but it is the one we Westerners are most familiar with because of its current association with terrorists and other violent fundamentalist fanatics.

I think the "Unitarian Jihad" joke plays off the popular Western understanding, and tries to draw a humorous ironic contrast between the fanatical violence of terrorists and the seemingly fanatical non-specificity and reasonableness of some UUs.

However, I think there's also a deeper level of irony based on the broader meaning of "jihad" that may not be intentional: the idea that it can often be a struggle, as a Unitarian, to pierce through the thick crust of superficial banality and euphemism and discover truly holy, profound and meaningful spiritual insights, but that the very process of struggle is necessary in order to reach such insights.


April 16, 2005 11:59 PM | Permalink for this comment

Parody begets parody: Watch this interaction between some very politically-correct UUs and the Unitarian Jihad. In the process, a splinter movement of "Discordian Universalists" is also formed, and its "founder" says straight-to-parody things like:

I realized the Religious Left needed more voices. And what could be farther left then a movement inspired by Unitarian, Universalist and Discordian thought? . . .

Many have joined the banner of the Unitarian Jihad, a noble and moderate cause. However many of it's converts are unsure of how to identify themselves. They do not wish to join the established Unitarian Universalist church, perhaps not wanting that much Orthodoxy.

I'll be so glad when this jihad thing has run its course.


April 18, 2005 05:01 AM | Permalink for this comment

As the Hwictkwitshabcalta of Discordian Universalism I object to the pejorative use of the word parody. Of course it's parody! parody is the reason for all buzz silly. Parody is good, satire is good. That is why so many that flocked to the Unitarian Jihad banner are Discordian, they have embraced parody. Parody is simply metaphor with the addition of humor.

Many here are Unitarians attempting to make use of the Unitarian Jihad. Good! But I wouldn't be so quick to assume the Unitarian Jihad is going to subsume itself into a larger Unitarian movement. These are not people that flocked to the Unitarian Church, but people who flocked to the sentiment of a single comedic article, and a couple of name generators :)

Many are not, and do not wish to be Unitarians. I happen to be a UU, born and raised, but one of the advantages of the UJ is that it does not need to convert anyone to any thing identified as a church. The Unitarian Jihad, as a Jihad is simply a call to struggle.

-Brother Rail Gun of The Short Path

--Mathias Timidi Cono Klast

---Discordian Universalist



April 18, 2005 10:21 PM | Permalink for this comment

A few words on this comment:
"Note that the author of this Wiki entry intends to satirize Unitarian Universalism and Islamic fundamentalists."

You misinterpret the author. I know, because I am the author.

In creating a Wikipedia entry, my intent was to catalog the event-- whatever becomes of the Unitarian Jihad meme, it is an internet phenomena and will have some historical value/interest. I attempted, with limited success it appears, to examine the phenomena from a detached perspective. (I should note here that I am a Unitarian Universalist.) My intent as the author of the Wikipedia article-- or more to the point, as the author of the iteration of the article you quote-- is not as you say to satirize UUism or Islamic fundamentalists; my observation is that by adopting the principles of UUism and the language of Jihad, that the people who self-identify as part of this 'thing' called Unitarian Jihad are, whether intentionally or not, doing just that-- creating satire.

Your comment that Carroll was satirizing the culture of fear created by the Bush Administration is well taken, but I would point out that whether he likes it or not, Unitarian Jihad is no longer a concept controlled by Jon Carroll. The concept has been adopted and the "movement" of Unitarian Jihad has become a distinct and separate entity from the author who created the concept. Whether or not that's a good thing remains to be seen. It is that separate entity that is the subject of the Wikipedia article.


April 18, 2005 10:48 PM | Permalink for this comment

Oh no! My reading comprehension skills are shot to hell. When Improvidence wrote in the LiveJournalers' wiki entry about the Unitarian Jihad, "They also follow Carroll's lead in using names like 'Brother Flaming Sword of Moderation' in order to parody both the language used by Islamic militant groups and the principles of Unitarian Universalism," I inaccurately concluded that parody was being embraced by the author. Instead, the LiveJournal Jihadsters are the ones satirizing Unitarian Universalism, and Improvidence is merely reporting on it. Glad we got that cleared up.


April 26, 2005 10:41 AM | Permalink for this comment

Curious about the overlap between Unitarian Jihad members and Unitarian Universalists? Here's a poll of the LiveJournal Jihadsters that shows 53% are not UUs, 23% are UUs who don't attend services, 15% are UUs who attend services regularly, and 5% are UUs who have never attended a UU church service.


April 29, 2005 10:42 AM | Permalink for this comment

Here's the home page for the International Unofficial Unitarian Jihad and its LiveJournal forum.

dave eaton:

May 22, 2005 03:55 PM | Permalink for this comment

I was churched catholic as a kid, and call myself cathgnostic right now. I do this because, for better or worse, it's Roman Catholicism that I know enough about to doubt.

I found the Unitarian Jihad thing beautiful for a lot of reasons, but I guess I suspected from the beginning that it was a sort of hijacking of the UU name, and never really held UUs responsible for it. I played with the name generator, and resonated with "Brother Broadsword of Reasoned Discourse". In all the humor and frivolity, I have been led to think about this deeply- a parodic pseudo-religious extremism centered on rational thought puts me in the mental state to take religion seriously again! I'm an outsider, but I believe that this happy accident is a golden opportunity to do some good.

So I hope real UUs can figure out a way to use it to engage people, and can look past the turf infringement and see it as a genuine way to touch some small number of people who might really be searching.

Karyl Lee(aka Sister Boot Knife of Enlightenment):

April 4, 2006 10:35 PM | Permalink for this comment

I hope that this is still alive for one reason. In the course of checking into name generation related to the "jihad" there is the random factor of synchronicity striking the mark of concious engagement with what could the name mean? And sometimes in that speculation there will be a wish to merit the name, or to disavow it, and exploration of why either reaction occurs. I think questioning is a key component of UUism and should never be disavowed, so I am glad to see it stimulated, however gently it may be done.

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