Monday, January 30, 2006
On early Unitarian fears of 'popery.'
Although I'm delighted to see that Patrick Murfin has joined the interdependent web of Unitarian Universalist blogs, I find it odd that his essay on Unitarian anti-Catholicism overlooks any theological or doctrinal root for the sentiment. Murfin focuses, like a good marxist, on class antagonism between the English Protestant New Englanders and Roman Catholic Irish immigrants. I wouldn't try to quarrel with this line of thinking because I think it's true so far as it goes, but sheer bigotry does not adequately account for the phenomenon. Murfin's essay misses the fact that many early 19th-century Unitarians were also registering a profound theological objection anchored in their own political theology.
He also assumes things about the ethnic and religious backgrounds of contemporary New England Unitarian Universalists that I don't think hold up under scrutiny. Every UU congregation I've visited in Massachusetts has large numbers of former Catholics — many more, in most cases, than "legacy" Unitarians with brahmin roots. Additionally, the anti-Catholic bias in Massachusetts strikes me as overwhelmingly a Catholic phenomenon these days: Ex-Catholics are much angrier and more anticlerical than most Protestants I know. Politically, of course, the state is center-left and increasingly independent, but continues electing center-left Catholic Democrats to the legislature and socially moderate fiscal conservatives as governor. So I don't see a political struggle that pits marginal UUs against Catholics anymore. (Not to mention the fact that the UUA and every other religious body in the state lined up with the four Catholic dioceses against the angry Catholic state senators who wanted to force financial statements out of churches, which the press — unable to see anything except Catholicism — barely noticed. The bill failed in the House.)
But back to theological history. I have suggested before that early Unitarianism wove together two different lines of thought. The first is what we usually think of when we say "unitarian." I call it our heretical legacy, and it's the more obvious part: Because religious liberals were willing to stand up for Christian doctrines that fell outside of the orthodox tradition, they were labeled "unitarians."
While this is the better-known aspect of early Unitarian theology, it is not the characteristic that lives on with particular vigor in contemporary Unitarian Universalism. (We may assume that Jesus isn't co-substantial with God, but most of us hardly care.)
The other line of thought that animates early Unitarianism is what I would call the democratic legacy. This is the line of thought that protested against the imposition of any particular dogma by the state or similarly empowered agency. It's a political idea, and for Protestants in revolutionary New England, the most compelling example of church-state coercion was Rome. For Unitarians, of course, the more immediate context was the dispute over the place of doctrine in determining who could join the local congregational church. The pope looked to them like a worldly king using coercive and hierarchical power to impose theological and intellectual conformity; as heirs to Protestantism and the Enlightenment, they didn't have many affirmative ideas of the pope or Catholic ecclesiology to draw on. And the pope was not exactly a big proponent of democracy or modernity back in the 19th century.
The Unitarians objected to bishops and popes as part of their theological commitment to democracy. I don't dispute the fact that this theological idea got mixed with nativism and economic anxieties about immigrants, nor do I dispute the observation that many Unitarians expressed — as many contemporary UUs continue to express — deep illiteracy and bigotry about other religions. But I think it's inaccurate and misleading to suggest that American theological liberals — who objected to kings and popes as part of the same agenda — were simply bigots. They weren't; they saw the papacy as an affront to true Christianity and true liberty. They were Protestants.
(It should be obvious but apparently isn't that the reason 20th-century Unitarians celebrated the Second Vatican Council is that they saw the Roman Catholic Church finally turning toward democracy and openness.)
Changes later in the nineteenth century complicated matters, however. The Romantic movement helped change how Americans understood the past. You can see the change vividly in Boston: The "Old South Meetinghouse" from the Revolutionary era is plain red brick with a tall white steeple; the new "Old South Church" built by the congregation in the late-1800s is an ornate Gothic structure influenced by Italian cathedral architecture. Think about that transition: The Puritans' great-great-grandchildren had embraced the architectural style — and the liturgical stagecraft — they had condemned as "popery." You can see the same thing in the rise of gothic architecture among the Unitarians and Universalists right on into the early 20th century. These Protestants had fallen in love with the medieval, although they were still prone to anti-Catholicism.
There were other changes, too. Leigh Eric Schmidt's wonderful new book, Restless Souls, traces the modern meaning of "mysticism" to the Transcendentalists, a group of largely Unitarian thinkers who, Schmidt says, rehabiltated the idea of the hermit, the religious solitary, an idea that had been scorned by Protestants in America for 200 years. They also broke the idea of mysticism — or what we now call "spirituality" — away from the church. (This is part of what Murfin alludes to in saying that the Transcendentalists were not as anti-Catholic as some other Unitarians. One could complicate this claim all over the place, but I'll move on.)
My favorite mid-century Unitarians took things a scandalous step further: Henry Whitney Bellows, in his 1859 "Suspense of Faith" address, used "Catholicism" to typify the unifying and social dimensions of religion and "Protestant" to typify the diversifying and individual dimensions of religion. He argued that Unitarianism had already swung as far to the Protestant pole as it could without detaching itself from history. (Oops!) His thesis wasn't well received, but the broad-church Unitarians like Bellows and Frederic Henry Hedge became keenly interested what we would now call the "living tradition" — the way that a historic tradition grows and changes while maintaining vital connections to its past. For Bellows and Hedge, this meant recognizing that Unitarianism wasn't so much a radical break with Christian tradition as a new development within it. They embraced Catholicism as part of our tradition even as they celebrated their liberal democratic Protestantism.
Quick recap: Unitarian anti-Catholicism, no matter how much it also reflected ethnic or economic bigotry, also often reflected a theological and political principle. We'd be seriously misled to overlook the importance of that principle. And the Romantic movement and the changes it introduced in American intellectual culture gave Unitarians new ways to understand and reappropriate aspects of Catholicism. Do either of these points excuse 19th- or 20th-century Unitarians from charges of anti-Catholic bigotry? No. I'm just saying that intellectual history is still important.
Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 30 January 2006 at 8:45 AM