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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Political survey of Unitarian Universalist ministers.

One of the books I picked up at the AAR conference this weekend is Pulpit and Politics: Clergy in American Politics at the Advent of the Millennium, which includes chapters on the political engagement of ministers in 18 different denominations — including Unitarian Universalists. John C. Green of Akron University reports on a spring 2001 survey of 1,011 ministers serving UU congregations; 65.9 percent of the ministers responded. The results?

Party identification

Strong Democrat56%
Weak Democrat11%
Independent, lean Democrat22%
Independent, lean Republican2%
Weak Republican<1%
Strong Republican1%

Presidential choice in 2000

Al Gore81%
George W. Bush2%
Pat Buchanan0%
Ralph Nader15%
Did not vote


Political involvement

What kinds of political activities do UU ministers consider appropriate?

Take a stand while preaching on some moral issue99%
Participate in a protest march97%
Contribute money to a candidate, party, or PAC89%
Commit civil disobedience to protest some evil86%
While preaching, take a stand on some political issue86%
Publicly (not preaching) support a political candidate50%

What kinds of political activities do UU ministers engage in?

Urged their congregation to register and vote66%
Contacted a public official about an issue62%
Prayed publicly about an issue35%
Took a stand from the pulpit on some political issue34%
Prayed publicly for political candidates5%

I didn't find any surprises in this data, although I'll be very interested to look at how UU ministers compare to ministers in the other "liberal" denominations. It would be very interesting to ask a random sample of UU church members these same questions about ministerial political involvement and see if there's any disconnect between lay and clergy response.

Source: John C. Green, "Unitarian-Universalist Association," Pulpit and Politics: Clergy in American Politics at the Advent of the Millennium, ed. by Corwin E. Smidt (Waco: Baylor Univ. Press, 2004): 273-284.

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 22 November 2005 at 1:28 PM

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November 22, 2005 05:10 PM | Permalink for this comment

Considering the political leanings of UU ministers and their congregations it is initeresting that most of the UUs prominent in politics are Republicans. William Cohen, Elliot Richardson, Francis Sargent and Leverett Salonstall would be examples from recent decades. My take on this is that most UUs live in New England and New England politics is highly sectarian. Protestants don't win statewide Democratic primaries.

Given the UUA's recent campaign against legislation allowing Catholic hospitals to refuse to perform abortions, this sectarian rancor seems unlikely to end any time soon.


November 22, 2005 05:16 PM | Permalink for this comment

You're remembering prominent UU politicians from a generation ago. William Cohen -- the only person on your list who held a prominent position since the rise of far-right in GOP politics -- served a Democratic administration. Of the UUs currently serving in Congress, only 1 is a Republican.

Seems to me that the Republican Party has abandoned the liberal Republicans pretty completely, and I think that's reflected in the decline of GOP-identified UUs. It will be interesting to see how long New England moderate Republicans stay in the party.


November 23, 2005 05:52 AM | Permalink for this comment

I don't mean to flame this discussion... but if we rank the average IQ of the ministers of all the denominations (like this IQ and politics ranking), UU should be up there as well.

Bill Baar:

November 26, 2005 11:40 AM | Permalink for this comment

re: high IQs.

I've worked for brillant peopl. One obstacle they face is they're so smart they can convince themselves of all sorts of absurd things. It can be a real problem.

A religion this closely linked to politics ought to consider the Economist's profile of Nancy Pelosi and Dennis Hasterts congressional districts.

I live in Hastert's and enjoy visiting Pelosi's. Hastert's the more egalitarian of the two and the aspirational place immigrants with kids come too to succeed.

Elz Curtiss:

November 28, 2005 10:47 PM | Permalink for this comment

This type of increasing homogeneity is no mystery. Our ministers are fellowshipped through a single tightly-knit network of authorities -- working without any public spotlight on who they select or reject and why. Yes, the MFC and the regionals are good and hardworking people of great faith. The ones I have known wrestle with their consciences on a regular basis, usually over as many candidates as they meet.

But groups that operate without the tension of public feedback are vulnerable to "groupthink." So long as our fellowshipping process relies on "vision retreats" by the judges instead of public meetings in which the judges are reviewed by the public, we are likely to see ever more convergence of expressed views.

The ministerial candidates themselves have been known to self-select for the fellowshipping screeners, or, in a modification of that process, tell the screeners what they think they want to hear. I know the fellowshipping folks work hard to appear open -- and usually really are -- but holding so much power, they cannot really blame anyone who looks to them for clues about favorable opinions.

This is not to impugn anyone, just to point out that closed systems are great at reducing their own tensions -- and lousy at mirroring the tensions in a free-speaking society.

I might add that our denominational website often highlights our UUA president engaged in political activities that assume a particular point of view. So anyone who is trying to find favor with him and his allies -- again, good people who are usually doing good work -- will again be careful about their political expressions.

Meanwhile, our country is full of deeply faithful people who completely agree with the theologies for which our martyrs died and founders sacrificed -- but who have no place to worship because their political conclusions do not match what comes from the pulpit.

Matthew Gatheringwater:

November 29, 2005 10:58 AM | Permalink for this comment


I heard that you wrote a "manifesto" about the MFC process. I'd like to read it. Is it available online?


November 29, 2005 09:27 PM | Permalink for this comment

Commenting on our Sen. Kent Conrad discussion, uuwonk wrote:

Is it possible that the tendency of the UUA to take seemingly bigoted positions is making moderate politicians uncomfortable as UUs?

And, in another comment in the same thread, he speculated that the decline of moderate politicians (i.e., electable in places other than a small number of liberal cities and small New England states) who identify as UU might also stem from what he called "sectarian" UU positions:

By "sectarian", I don't mean pro-UU. I mean hostile to non-UU Christianity. For example, the current UUWorld has a respectful interview with a UU minister who believes that people who have a belief in a supernatural God, i.e. 95% of the US public, are supporting fascism.

A couple of days ago I received a fundraising appeal from the UUA which defined UUism entirely in terms of whom we dislike, the "religious right". I am no friend of the religious right, but I don't go to church to learn to dislike anybody.

I'd change "bigoted" to "reflexively more liberal than thou," but then I'd agree with uuwonk's first statement. I have a more complex response to his insightful second comment.

Here's the thing about UU social justice statements, which I wish more delegates understood: The resolutions passed by the UUA General Assembly have no influence at all on politicians. It's true -- because we don't make up a constituency that any politician anywhere must pay attention to. Not even in Boston. A few isolated legislators or city councillors might nod their heads -- but not because they were swayed by our arguments; they already agreed with us. Our resolutions rarely even draw the attention of the media, so they can't be said to influence the public conversation. Maybe they exert some sort of metaphysical power nudging the universe toward the formation of a U.S. Department of Peace (ex nihilo? deus ex machina?), but I doubt it. So what are they for?

After watching the social justice resolution process up close but as a non-participant for the last nine years, I've come to the unhappy conclusion that UUs pass resolutions to make ourselves feel virtuous, not because these carefully worded statements actually accomplish any meaningful work in the world.

I could justify them if they were at least effective marketing. ("Unitarian Universalism: The Department of Peace Church.") But I suspect these statements have at best a tiny impact on our growth rate, especially compared to the personal experience people have in local congregations. But if you disagree with either the substance or the method of many G.A. resolutions, you're probably not comfortable with the idea of trumpeting the politics of our resolutions as a way of bringing more reflexively liberal activists into our churches. Happily, the UUA-produced marketing materials don't play up this angle. Sadly, the other real work that the resolutions do is frustrate UUs who disagree, nudging them slowly but surely out the door.

Personally, I don't think we really need to draw more lefties into our churches while encouraging more moderate religious liberals to go elsewhere. I'm more interested in drawing in people who are receptive to theological liberalism but haven't fully signed on yet. Liberalism needs more converts, not more zealots. (Okay, some of you can rally the zealots. But it's just not in me.) And political liberalism needs loyal critics more than it needs a clerical band of partisans. When's the last time you heard a UU minister criticize liberals for anything other than not being "progressive" enough? I'm not always convinced that the left is right, and I know I'm not alone.

However, I don't endorse what I'd call UU quietism -- the belief that liberal religion should be "religious rather than political" or avoid contentious issues. But I do wish we showed more interest in understanding how politics really works and understanding more deeply how our religious tradition sheds light on the underlying ethical issues of our time. Too many of our resolutions sound like a church endorsing the talking points of secular political action groups, and I've never grown comfortable with that. Especially when those very same political groups are proving ineffective as well.

The most significant UU resolutions in recent years have all had to do with homosexuality -- and the reason that these have mattered is that they have been rooted in our own congregational and denominational experience of recognizing the dignity and worth of gay and lesbian people and their partnerships. They're about work we are already doing, which means that our recommendations for the larger world are rooted in what we know. They succeeded, not because they were uncontroversial, but because they had real rather than rhetorical roots in our congregational life.

The day that UUs engage in similarly difficult and transformative work with regard to, say, the Israeli-Palestinian question is the day that I'll care what a group of UUs has to say about it. Last year I quoted something Meg Riley said at the 2003 General Assembly about the UUA's public advocacy work:

“Historically we’ve mostly reacted to news events,” she said. “Now we’re trying in a more disciplined way to actually go out and influence the public debate.” Three criteria, she said, will determine whether an issue moves to the top of the Association’s public witness agenda: “Grounding: Does this issue have authentic and deep UU roots? Fit: Is there a match between our resources, aspirations, and ability to make a difference? Opportunity: Do we have an opportunity to be heard on this issue?”

I think delegates (and the Commission on Social Witness) have actually listened to this advice at the last two General Assemblies, shifting the social justice debates toward a conversation about grounding, fit, and opportunity. At any rate, almost all the resolutions that have made it to the floor have routinely passed by overwhelming supermajorities at the last two Assemblies. I hope there comes a day when the G.A. doesn't pass any resolution -- no matter how grand it sounds, no matter how Liberal It Is -- that fails to cross this threshold.

Obviously, G.A. resolutions are only one factor in the "more liberal than thou" problem in UUism. UUwonk also pointed to things like unusually strident statements in denominational publications (the interview with Davidson Loehr on fascism, for example) and politically-charged fundraising appeals from the UUA. I can't comment on the second, but I will say one thing about publishing:

I think of UU World as a mirror of Unitarian Universalism more than as a corrective lens. Some of what it shows doesn't delight me at all, but it does reflect real trends and real perspectives within the liberal religious movement. In the work I do there, I attempt to find articulate and engaging voices, not necessarily voices I agree with.

The more important thing is for local congregations -- and public-minded leaders -- to develop the most compelling, visible, welcoming expressions of liberal religion they can: Hopefully these excellent, growing, vibrant places will take on the important task of sharing what they know in ever more creative and far-reaching ways. My hope for our democratic, somewhat chaotic faith is to see good examples eclipse the bad ones.


November 30, 2005 06:27 PM | Permalink for this comment


You make helpful observations. I certainly agree that the UUA is much more coherent and effective when talking about things it knows about and has thought seriously about, gay rights being the obvious recent example. Lexis-Nexis tells me that UU press releases and resolutions on other subjects receive zero press coverage, even in New England. So, as you note, they aren't about communicating to the public, they are about communicating to the membership and potential membership who access the website.

Even though they aren't "binding", they do define a sort of quasi-creed. Where else do UUs collectively define their beliefs? I think this is important to potential members. They turn to the website to find out how we are different from, say, Episcopalians. The Seven Principles aren't much help. The Episcopalians aren't _against_ "justice, equity, and compassion."

I certainly agree that the UUA is unconvincing when it just endorses a list of talking points prepared by some lobbyist. Even when I agree with the talking points, as I usually do, I am distressed by the sanctimonious boilerplate ("as people of faith we believe") the UUA often appends. I don't like the implication that people who disagree are not "people of faith", or even good UUs.

I am not so sure about super-majorities. In my experience as an activist, I have found that consensus based decision making stifles dissent. The dissident feels pressure not to ruin it for everybody. I also think a consensus based process tends to produce lengthy and incoherent documents.

Finally, let me state my real appreciation of UUworld in this context. In my experience, UUworld is far more liberal (meaning open-minded) than other UU national institutions. The articles are thoughtful and represent a range of points of view. Thanks for the good work.

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