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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

They attacked Thomas Jefferson's religion, too.

Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) is getting some blog buzz. A right-wing blogger who seems to think that you gotta accept Jesus as your personal lord and savior in order to be elected has decided to impugn Conrad's character by attacking the moderate Democrat's religious affiliation. Conrad is the only Unitarian Universalist in the Senate and one of only three UUs in Congress: The others are moderate Republican Nancy Johnson (CT) and liberal Democrat Pete Stark (CA).

The blogger follows wingnut practice by misidentifying the religion as "Universal Unitarian" — you know, like "the Democrat Party." He claims that Conrad "distances his private thoughts with his public actions," although I can't tell what he means by this when Conrad has always openly identified as a UU and seems unusually responsive to his constituents. And the blogger assumes that John Sias's little book published by the UU Church of Nashua, New Hampshire, 100 Questions That Non-Members Ask About Unitarian Universalism, is an authoritative and accurate statement of UU beliefs. Sigh.

In response, partisan Democrats — including a bunch of UUs — are having a field day expressing outrage at Daily Kos and at Street Prophets. A good time was had by all, I'm sure. (Memo to Pastordan: No need to hyphenate "Unitarian Universalist.")

It's worth noting that Unitarian Universalists are not a voting bloc in North Dakota. After all, there are only 165 members of the two Unitarian Universalist congregations in the whole state. (There are probably a few dozen other UUs who are members of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, a UU church-by-mail.) I'm impressed and honored that Conrad identifies with us at all. And anyone tempted to think that Conrad's votes in the Senate are dictated by the UUA General Assembly could quickly recover from that notion by comparing G.A. resolutions to Conrad's voting record: This is a senator who represents North Dakotans, not G.A. delegates. Just last week I thought about scolding him here for joining four other Democrats who voted for an amendment barring U.S. detainees at Guantanamo Bay from invoking habeus corpus in the federal courts — a position I find hard to square with American legal tradition, much less with last summer's G.A. resolution denouncing torture and prisoner mistreatment by the U.S. But, since I don't consider G.A. resolutions binding on my conscience, I can hardly complain when they don't seem binding on Senator Conrad's.

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 23 November 2005 at 5:28 PM

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November 23, 2005 05:57 PM | Permalink for this comment

Conrad is also known as the fiscal wonk on dKos. He's a statesman. (By the way, I just found out that there are UU Congregations in all 50 states and DC. That's pretty cool to know.)

Kevin McCulloch:

November 23, 2005 06:36 PM | Permalink for this comment

Out of curiosity, what is your problem with the Nashua church's book? The bits quoted on the blog don't tell a very well-rounded story, but they seem in keeping with the way contemporary UUs generally talk about ourselves.


November 23, 2005 06:58 PM | Permalink for this comment

Twelve years ago there were 7 UUs in Congress, three Republicans and 4 Democrats. Today we have three. Two are over 70 and a new UU hasn't been elected since 1986. Is it possible that the tendency of the UUA to take seemingly bigoted positions is making moderate politicians uncomfortable as UUs?

For example, last year the UUA campaigned for legislation to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions. Many people would see that as anti-Catholic. Last summer GA passed a resolution supporting a terrorist leader who has organized the killings of over a hundred Jewish civilians, including many children. We called that mass murder "his activites on behalf of Palestine." Many people would see that as antisemitic. UUs frequently belittle conservative Christians, especially Evangelicals and Catholics.

If you were running for office in most of the US, would you want to be associated with us?

Dan Harper:

November 24, 2005 10:03 AM | Permalink for this comment

Hmm... uuwonk, like you, I greatly enjoy criticizing the silly resolutions that are made in General Assembly by a handful of non-representative Unitarian Universalists. But don't you think the marginalization of Unitarian Universalists in the U.S. today has more to do with the fact that we're a shrinking percentage of the population? If you want to look for a secondary reason, how the fact that the religious right dominates U.S. public discourse to the point where half the U.S. population doesn't even believe in evolution any more? What Chris's original post brings home for me is the reality of the culture wars and the fact that we're a tiny minority.

And think what would happen if we were to focus more on *theology* than on politics: --if we were more aggressive in challenging the "intelligent" design folks and affirming the compatibility of religion and science; --if we were more vigourous in affirming our rights as a religious institution to perform any marriages we wish to perform; --if we were even more public about affirming that a belief in God is *not* necessary in order to be a religious person; --a Unitarian Universalist affiliation would likely be *more* of a liability to a budding politican than the points you bring up. However, we'd likely attract a lot more new members who are appalled by the religious right, and we'd grow to the point where we could take on the religious right, and *win.*


November 25, 2005 11:23 AM | Permalink for this comment

GA resolutions may not be binding on members' consicences, but certainly the principles of morality are. On that ground you would be more than justified in criticizing Conrad (and all the others who voted against habeus).

Jason Pitzl-Waters:

November 25, 2005 12:16 PM | Permalink for this comment

"...last year the UUA campaigned for legislation to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions. Many people would see that as anti-Catholic."

This issue is far more complex than you make it sound. You would be surprised how many non-Catholic doctors work in "Catholic" hospitals. You would also be surprised how many doctors (Catholic doctors included) are in favor of more autonomy regarding patient care. In many areas of our country, the Catholic-owned hospital is the only hospital in driving distance. So issues of what sort of treatment doctors are allowed to prescribe in these outposts of medicine are very much a growing concern. This isn't a matter of "making" a Catholic perform an abortion.


November 25, 2005 06:01 PM | Permalink for this comment


Your points are well taken. Perhaps I was most bothered by the UUA's tone, which seemed disrespectful of the Catholic Church. Anyway, the whole issue was a Republican troll, designed to make pro-choice politicians look anti-Catholic. Not a single Democrat voted for the UUA's position.

Bill Baar:

November 26, 2005 06:22 PM | Permalink for this comment

Illinois will revoke the license of a a Pharmacist who believes abortion is murder and refuses to dispense a morning-after pill.

Look at Philocrites post on UUs and politics. Only 2% voted for Bush with the vast majorit of the other 98% split between Kerry and Nadar. I don't think you'd find such a skewed distribution in a Evangelical Denomination.

I think a big reason is people who feel spiritually comfortable with our faith our put off by some members expectation of what your politics should be.

That's unhealthy for any faith.

My personal experience with politics among UUs is the topic doesn't come up much because people assume your NOT for Bush (or before him Reagan) and for someone some where on the left.

My personal experience with Evangelicals is they're much less inclined to ask about politics because they disconnect the faith and politics more.

I volunteer at our homeless shelter. My fear is an Evangelical will ask me to explain the Trintity because they assume as a Unitiarian I'm opposed to it. They don't understand it much either and hope I can shed some light.


November 26, 2005 09:41 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'm sorry to report, Bill, that other denominations are very strongly skewed in the other direction -- and that these groups represent hugely larger segments of the population than 1,000+ UU ministers.

The book I cited in my previous post, "Pulpit and Politics," gives the following percentages of Evangelical ministers voting for George W. Bush in 2000:

  • 98% of Evangelical Free Church clergy (Mrs P's childhood church; no votes for Al Gore)

  • 93% of Presbyterian Church in America clergy (no votes for Gore)

  • 91% of Assemblies of God ministers

  • 90% of Nazarene pastors

  • 89% of Churches of Christ clergy (not to be confused with the "liberal" United Church of Christ)

  • 87% of Lutheran-Missouri Synod ministers

  • 86% of Southern Baptist clergy

  • 79% of Christian Reformed Church pastors

Mennonite Church USA pastors were the only Evangelical group discussed in "Pulpit and Politics" that split its vote evenly between Gore (30%) and Bush (37%).

Final point: The survey only assessed clergy voting patterns, although other studies have shown that Unitarian Universalists are more thoroughly identified with the Democratic Party than other "white" Protestant denominations.

Steve Caldwell:

November 26, 2005 11:42 PM | Permalink for this comment

On 26 November 2005, Bill Barr wrote:
"Illinois will revoke the license of a a Pharmacist who believes abortion is murder and refuses to dispense a morning-after pill."


Strictly speaking, the morning after pill is not the same as the RU-486 abortion pill. The morning after pill is not an abortion-inducing drug.

The morning after pill prevents a pregnancy from happening through 3 possible outcomes:

(1) prevent ovulation

(2) prevent fertilization

(3) prevent the subsequent implantation of a fertilised egg (zygote)

None of these three effects of the morning after pill meets the commonly accepted legal and medical definitions for pregnanacy.

Here's the commonly accepted definition for pregnancy:

"Medical professionals and Pro-Choice groups define pregnancy as beginning when a fertilized ovum, which has developed to the blastocyst stage, has attached itself fully to the lining of the uterus."

However, so-called "pro-life" groups use a different definition for pregnancy:

"Pro-lifers almost universally state that pregnancy begins at conception."

Bill Baar:

November 27, 2005 07:14 PM | Permalink for this comment

If a Pharmacists was a CO on giving an asprin, I'd give 'em a brake.

Chris, is your list of Evangelical Denominations also a list of Denominations that are largely made up of folks with their origins in Europe? It looks a bit tilted. If you include more majority African American Evangelicals you're going to find more Gore supporters in the last election (although I think that's changing).

UUs just seem way too wraped up in Liberal politics at a time Liberal politics deeply confused about what it's about.


November 27, 2005 08:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

Bill, you're changing the subject. Of course the African American denominations are tilted Democratic. (That's news?) If I had presented those figures as well, your complaint about "skewed distribution" would have been even more groundless.

You had complained about UU ministers overwhelmingly voting for Gore or Nader. You wrote: "I don't think you'd find such a skewed distribution in a Evangelical Denomination." So I showed you the figures for the evangelical denominations as presented in "Pulpit and Politics." They were just as skewed, if not more so.

As for your final point, perhaps you're unaware of my own perspective on the theme. I agree that Democrats are divided about the core ideas of their party, and that the word liberal has been debased and kicked around by left and right -- but I'd strongly disagree with you about the extent to which George W. Bush can be seen as any kind of champion of any kind of genuine liberalism.


November 28, 2005 02:21 AM | Permalink for this comment

I have a good friend who is a left-wing, African-American, Evangelical Christian. If our tent isn't big enough for her, maybe I will join her tent. (That isn't true. I was born UU and will die UU. But it is how UU sectarianism makes me feel.)


November 28, 2005 08:04 AM | Permalink for this comment

uuwonk, I get the feeling that I have missed something in this thread. Are you responding to some sort of UU sectarianism in this conversation specifically, or more generally? I thought we were talking about partisan attacks on a UU legislator.

But since both you and Bill have misconstrued the point I was making about Evangelicals, let me be very explicit. I listed GOP-aligned Evangelical denominations for two reasons: The source I was citing treated white Evangelical denominations separately from African American Protestant churches (which are often also theologically Evangelical). I was relying on a Baylor University Press book's figures, so I relied on the book's organizing scheme as well. Second, I was conceding a point Bill had made, which is that UUs are the most Democratically-aligned denomination that is historically European-American.

Let me also be explicit about something I don't often say: I often attend my wife's Episcopal church in Cambridge, in part because it is much more theologically, culturally, and ethnically diverse than any UU congregation in the area. It may also be politically diverse, but I haven't discussed politics enough there to know. I'm dismayed by the sociological monotony of Unitarian Universalism. If I come across as a UU sectarian on this site, I suppose that's just an occupational hazard. I'm actually quite restrained in my enthusiasm for most things UU.

But I would like to understand how this conversation tripped a wire for you.


November 28, 2005 05:52 PM | Permalink for this comment


I wasn't complaining about anything in this thread. I was originally commenting on the decline of UU politicians. I was wondering if that might be a result of the UUA drifting towards positions which most Americans find sectarian and extreme. 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.

We are a tiny group. I know things are different in New England, but I live on the west side of Los Angeles. The area around our church houses about 500,000 reliable liberal voters, including many prominent enemies of the religious right. 300 of us show up at the UU church on Sunday. Our competition is not the religious right but the many large, friendly, inclusive, left-wing Catholic, Evangelical, mainline, and New Age congregations most of my neighbors attend.

Getting back to politicians, politics is all about understanding the other person's point of view. In principle, UUism respects that too. Maybe that is one reason so many UUs have done well in politics in the past. But if we are calling ordinary Christians fascists, supporting anti-Catholic legislation etc., we aren't there anymore.

Dudley Jones:

November 29, 2005 12:48 PM | Permalink for this comment

Is this comment un-threadly? It relates to UUs and Catholicism. Checkout the way James Luther Adams talks about Catholicism. I am not a JLA scholar but I think you will see he does not like it very much.


November 29, 2005 02:25 PM | Permalink for this comment

Dudley, JLA said a lot about many things. What specifically should I check out? Adams had positive things to say about a number of Catholic theologians -- I especially recall an essay he wrote about the Catholic modernist Friedrich von Hugel. And as a Protestant observer at the Second Vatican Council, he praised new developments in the Catholic Church. Obviously he was a Protestant committed to theological liberalism, and many of his intellectual heroes in Catholicism had been silenced by the pre-Vatican II church; I would find it peculiar indeed if he hadn't been critical of some aspects of Catholicism.

Unitarians do have a long history of wariness (and outright hostility) toward Catholicism. Beacon Press made waves in the 1950s with the publication of Paul Blanshard's book, "American Freedom and Catholic Power." (Beacon took aim at another powerful American church in the 1980s with "The Mormon Corporate Empire.") But informed criticism is not the same thing as bigotry. No one, in my view, has the right not to be criticized.

If you do want a hero of UU-Catholic relations, check out Adams's friend George Huntston Williams, the Harvard historian of the radical Reformation who was a personal friend of Karol Wojtyla. Williams is believed to have been the first American to predict Wojtyla's election as pope, and John Paul II later honored Williams for his Polish scholarship with a knighthood in a papal order.

As familiar as I am with Adams's work, though, I confess not to recall an instance of outright anti-Catholic bigotry.

Dudley Jones:

November 29, 2005 07:13 PM | Permalink for this comment

About James Luther Adams: I was thinking about his section in "The Epic of Unitarianism", D. B. Parke, where there is an excerpt from the JLA essay "A Faith for Free Men", where he talks about "the grinding rut of the Vatican Line, the Nuremberg line, and the Moscow line."

I am amazed (and pleased) that there was a Unitarian at the Second Vatican Council. Could something like that ever happen today?

Dudley M. Jones:

November 29, 2005 07:19 PM | Permalink for this comment

Please ignore my last post. UU - Catholic relations are not as bad as I sometimes think. It is probably just a result of some bad personal experiences. JLA was not anti-Catholic and I was being crabby.


November 29, 2005 09:30 PM | Permalink for this comment

My very long response to uuwonk's comments is attached to my "Political Survey of UU Ministers" post.


November 29, 2005 09:45 PM | Permalink for this comment

Kevin asked, "Out of curiosity, what is your problem with the Nashua church's book?" I wrote a response to this and then seem to have lost it. My apologies for the delay!

It's been a while since I read the book, but the impression that has lingered is that it presents descriptive statements in a way that makes them seem normative. "Most UUs believe X" turns into an implied "Unitarian Universalism means believing X." Whenever religious liberals poll themselves to find out what they should be committed to, I cringe.

Although I may be a really weird UU, I much prefer normative statements that people have to argue for and defend. I've often referred to David Rankin's list of ten things UUs believe, even though I have disagreed with at least one of them. Such a list makes a lot more sense to most people than a sociological survey of our various preferences this week or even this century. People want to know about our tradition.

On this point, the Commission on Appraisal has offered a new summary of UU beliefs. It's a little on the descriptive side, but it's phrased normatively enough that the principles and claims it makes can be argued about.

Bill Baar:

December 3, 2005 03:59 PM | Permalink for this comment

My point --in my head at least if not in word-- was UUs skewed more to the liberal left than Evangelicals / Fundamentalists / Conservative Christians skewed to the right. And one should include African American Evangelicals who were solidly for Clinton in the past. And then more so if you include Conservative Catholics.

My experience is UUs link Politics and Religion more closely together than most religious people do.

I think closely identifying religion with politics or for that matter politics with any aspect of life is a bad habit.

Most people apolitical and more and more areligous. That's where the majority of folks are at.

Bill Baar:

December 3, 2005 04:06 PM | Permalink for this comment

Jefferson by the way one of my least favorite people. He deserved attack, not for miscegenation he was attacked for in the Presidential campaign; but rape.

We have to wait for Lincoln before we find a Liberal Universalist one can really respect in American History.

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