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Thursday, April 14, 2005

Unitarian Jihad: Not our 'iPod strategy.'

Lest people misunderstand what I'm encouraging with all this attention to the "Unitarian Jihad" fad, let me clarify a few things — and give you an opportunity to vent:

1. I'm primarily interested in learning how to identify and respond to little bursts of Internet publicity for Unitarian Universalists. Some publicity — in fact, a lot of publicity — isn't ideal, especially for a misunderstood religion that's already the butt of a lot of jokes. The key for our marginal religious movement is figuring out how to turn unfortunate publicity into an opportunity to tell our own story. The "Unitarian Jihad" meme attracted a lot of attention, most of it obviously transient, silly, and unflattering, but we can't stop this kind of attention. Happily, there are ways of redirecting at least some of this attention in directions we care about. That's my priority.

Some might say, "But it's just the Internet. It's not real publicity." Unfortunately, for many people — especially for many younger people — the Internet is a very large portion of their media diet. If we want to introduce some vitamins into a junk food diet, we have to figure this form of media out.

2. In trying to point at least some of the "Unitarian Jihad" traffic toward real Unitarian Universalism, I'm drawing on my observation that an astonishing number of people know nothing about Unitarianism, much less about Universalism. I don't mean that they haven't read William Ellery Channing very thoroughly or that they have a distorted perception of Hosea Ballou's theory of atonement; I mean that they have never heard the words "Unitarian" or "Universalist" before and don't have a clue what they stand for. Do a Google search sometime for "Unitarian Universalist 100%" and check out the number of young people's blogs and message boards where people report that they've just taken the Belief-o-Matic and turned out to believe in the doctrines of a religion they've never heard of.

Every time one of our words is first introduced to a large number of people, at least a few of them are going to want to learn more. I want to reach them with some of our message, even if they think they're simply looking for a good laugh or form a negative first impression. In our culture, these silly chain emails and blog fads actually transmit forms of cultural knowledge. Some of it happens to be about us. Not the best knowledge, mind you, but I figure we have to learn how the game works and then play it.

I don't care how uncomfortable the overtones of the original joke played out, or whether they offend our heightened rhetorical sensitivities. We can save the reeducation camps & conferences for later; the first priority is giving an improved context to the part of the phrase that belongs to us. I'm sure many Muslims are mad about the "Islamic Jihad" thing; I'm sure most of them, if they read Jon Carroll's column, recognize that "Unitarian Jihad" mocks the terrorist group, not the religion it very badly represents.

3. The highly focused little ad strategy that Chutney hit upon should not be mistaken for a marketing strategy for Unitarian Universalism. It's a tiny, targeted, flexible way of reaching very specific people in a specific context. A Google search for Unitarian Universalism won't bring up the Unitarian Jihad ad. I haven't seen it show up in the Google ads that show up on my site. Only a "unitarian jihad" search will bring up the ad. I think that's clever and useful.

Strategies that attempt to respond to or reframe or redirect some small piece of cultural conversation about Unitarian Universalism should never be confused with a general marketing strategy for a local church, much less for the whole movement. One thing ought to be very clear: Responding to something like Jon Carroll's column requires a bit of entrepreneurial evangelism — and a sense of humor — but let me be as clear as I can be: a UU "iPod strategy" it ain't.

4. This should be obvious, but perhaps isn't: In suggesting that Unitarian Universalists take some individual initiative in responding to some kinds of publicity, I'm suggesting that many forms of marketing don't require vast institutional resources or UUA involvement. But we do have to take some responsibility for this. People do not simply wake up thinking, "Hey! I oughta check out that Unitarian Universalist church." We have an unusual faith; we may need to learn to use some unusual methods to reach people.

5. An experiment can go well, or it can go badly. The point here is to learn how these trends/fads work, how to identify ones that require a response from ones that are simply fleeting, and how to develop appropriate and effective responses. Will "Unitarian Jihad" yield some first-time or return visitors to a UU church? Hopefully, yes. But no matter what, some other little opportunity is going to show up, and next time we might even be quicker at recognizing and seizing an opportunity.

Then again, Chutney and I and others could be completely off our rockers, as you are very welcome to suggest in the comments below. If you'd like to help think through the response, though, please comment at "How's the Unitarian Jihad doing?"

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 14 April 2005 at 8:45 AM

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April 14, 2005 09:12 AM | Permalink for this comment

OK. You've sold me. To Paypal I go.



April 14, 2005 09:37 AM | Permalink for this comment

I'm rather flummoxed by all the focus on this clever and funny little article. I've had it forwarded to me by several UUs and it seems to me an occasion for an entertained smile, nothing more. UUs get mentioned in the Boston news as a legitimate, respectable religous group quite frequently (yay Rich Higgins!!) so I am guessing that some of it is that thrill of "we got our name in the paper! We got our name in the paper!" thing for those outside Ye Olde Brahminville.

I just can't generate a lot of enthusiasm for the use of parody as a tool for evangelism, especially when so many Americans develop their opinions of UUs through the satire of Garrison Keillor to begin with.

Still, thanks to those of you who bothered to try to hook up the interest in this article to some good UU resources. If we even get a few seekers walking through our doors, I'm fer it!


April 14, 2005 10:24 AM | Permalink for this comment

I think this probably is just a flash in the pan. But hopefully we'll see a small spike in new visitors on Sunday. Can't hurt to try.

Scott Wells:

April 14, 2005 11:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

But jihad doesn't just refer to violent terrorist action. It refers also -- perhaps especially -- to the Muslim inner struggle of faith.

Still not impressed . . . .


April 15, 2005 08:15 AM | Permalink for this comment

I don't understand why people are getting hung up on "jihad." Should satire limit itself to only the fullest, best meaning of what it targets? I think we would soon find ourselves without satire at all.

And, respectfully, Scott, we're not trying to impress you---you're already on the team. The audience for this is all the people who've made this the number one thing on the net (according to anyway).

Michael Cassidy:

April 15, 2005 09:53 AM | Permalink for this comment

Greetings - as a former politician I have now been named 'Brother Honorable Blunderbuss of Debate' by Unitarian Jihad - perhaps it fits - thanks.

Purpose of this note is actually to alert Philocretes to a different story up here in Canada - the ongoing debate over same sex marriage.

We currently have a lively debate underway in the House of Commons over a government bill to recognize same sex marriage in federal law. Court decisions in nine provinces and territories have now recognized same sex marriage - a number of Unitarian (and other) churches are now performing s/s ceremonies, including our Ottawa church.

The federal bill is being ardently opposed by the Conservative opposition and may well be filibustered to extinction before an impending federal election (on issues of corruption). That won't invalidate the access to s/s marriage now available in most Canadian jurisdictions. Even if the Conservatives get in, an effort to outlaw s/s marriage is unlikely to succeed - a federal bill would probably be disallowed by the Supreme court under Canada's Charter of Rights.

The anti gay mzrriage groups held a rally with about 10,000 supporters on Parliament Hill on Saturday. A number of us set up a (mostly) silent vigil as a counter demo with Unitarians and various Christian denominations represented.

Reflecting the mixed participation, we sang:

"The church's one foundation, is Jesus Christ our Lord
It doesn't really matter, if Barry marries Gord"

Alternatively, "if Sheila marries Maude".

I'm not sure of the names, but you get the idea.

Here is the statement by the coalition for equal marriage rights. The full statement is at the URL above.There's also an effective lobby groups on the Internet, 'Canadians for Equal Marriage'.

Mike Cassidy, Ottawa, Canada

An Affirmation of Diversity

1. Diversity of Religious Opinion

The Religious Coalition for Equal Marriage Rights includes representatives from liberal and traditional faith communities in Canada. The Coalition attests to the diversity of religious opinion on the question of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples, and the growing support in religious communities for equality for these couples. We include The United Church of Canada, the Canadian Unitarian Council, the Muslim Canadian Congress, the Canadian Friends Service Committee of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), the World Sikh Organization, Coalition of Liberal Rabbis for Same-Sex Marriage, Metropolitan Community Church, Ahavat Olam Synagogue (Vancouver), Church of the Holy Trinity (Anglican) in Toronto, Apostolic Society of Franciscan Communities - Canada, Saint Padre Pio Congregational Catholic Community (Toronto), and liberal and progressive members of the Bahai, Buddhist, Catholic, First Nations, Hindu, Mennonite and Muslim communities.

The United Church, Canadian Unitarian Council, Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto, and Coalition of Canadian Liberal Rabbis were interveners in support of equal marriage rights before the Supreme Court of Canada's October 2004 hearings. Since legalization in various jurisdictions, clergy from each of these groups have performed weddings for same-sex couples. One Anglican diocese now celebrates same-sex blessings. Some Quaker Meetings (congregations) have also taken same-sex marriages under their care. The Buddhist Council of Canada has issued a statement in support of equal marriage rights.

The URL is as follows:


April 19, 2005 10:49 AM | Permalink for this comment

Well, you can count at least one new attendee to a UU fellowship based on that thoughtful and hilarious article. In Gulfport, MS, no less.

I've been bouncing around moderate Protestant faiths all my life: Presbyterian, Methodist and most recently Episcopalianism. I had briefly attended one UU service in Burlington, VT a few years previous and kind of freaked out when they sang "Sounds of Silence" as a hymn. Call me Mr. Conclusion Jumper.

The 'Jihad' piece drove me to the UU website and I was surprised to discover how much I agreed with the core principles of the fellowship. Soon I discovered our local group, who have no building and gather at the Mental Health Center. Needless to say, it's highly unlikely I would have ever tracked that place down if not for Unitarian Jihad.

Admittedly, I'm an off-kilter fellow to begin with, occasionally driven to distilling truth from humor. That's why Jon Stewart's The Daily Show is so excellent.

There is a core of reality in that article: it's not about UUs as much as it is about the desperate need for a moderate, rational, spiritual voice to counter the current political situation. Where is Brother Neutron Bomb of Serenity when we need him? :)


April 27, 2005 06:21 PM | Permalink for this comment

I think you UU guys are taking this too seriously. I'd never heard of UU before this article. It encouraged me to look up some sites on it, including this one. I may not join but atleast now I know.

Its like the other poster said about The Daily Show with Jon Stweart. Some of us out there will distill truth from humor, 90% of the rest will forget about the whole thing a week from now. So, you know...Don't Panic.

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