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Monday, March 26, 2007

This week at Power to the churches.

Don Skinner writes that more than 100 Unitarian Universalist congregations are now part of interfaith community organizing groups, which harness churches' power to press for affordable housing, health care, and other local needs. (Don wrote about faith-based community organizing five years ago, too; Rosemary Bray McNatt reviewed books on community organizing in 2003.)

From the archives, in concert with the UUA's push today for comprehensive sexuality education reform in Congress: UUA President William Sinkford argues that sexuality education is a liberal religious issue (Fall 2006) and Cynthia Kuhn, who teaches human biology to medical students, explains why "just say no" sex ed doesn't work (Fall 2005).

In the news this week, Jane Greer profiles a Rochester, N.Y., couple whose peace activism has inspired their UU congregation. Jane also reports that the Belmont, Mass., UU youth service project trip to San Antonio, Tex., went on longer than expected when 49 teens and 9 chaperones ended up stranded in Chicago by a blizzard; members of the UU church in Palatine, Ill., came to their aid. And Sonja Cohen tracks Unitarian Universalists in the media with her weekly roundup of UUs in the news.

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 26 March 2007 at 7:18 AM

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March 26, 2007 07:42 AM | Permalink for this comment

Yes, this is an all-purpose cue for critics of social-action churches. Let the wild rumpus start!

Those of you who get the Harvard Divinity Bulletin might look especially at page 68 in the latest issue for an incredibly illuminating review of "God's Politics" by Jim Wallis and "The Left Hand of God" by Michael Lerner. The review gets right to the heart of the problem with the "religious left":

Wallis acknowledges that personal piety is the basis for moral commitment and admits that conservatives cultivate this more effectively: "liberal religion has lost the experience of a personal God, and that is the primary reason why liberal Christianity is not growing." But he sets the questions aside as if that were the obvious and easy part. It is not. If what liberal politics needs is an injection of spirituality, Wallis needs to show how that is cultivated, as well as what, politically, it leads to. Instead, he calls liberals to action. . . . Wallis knows what we need to stand for — the vision is already there, he tells us, in the biblical prophets — we just need to get going. But a moral vision must do more. It needs to earn our attention and tap our "unconscious assumptions," especially in the wake of [Walter] Lippmann's "acids of modernity." It must instruct our actual instincts and shape what we really love.

("The Democratic Dilemma," Todd Shy, Harvard Divinity Bulletin 35:1, Winter 2007: 68-74)


March 26, 2007 11:42 AM | Permalink for this comment

I have been reading Wallis' magazine Sojourners off and on since the early 90's--about twice as long as I've been reading UU World--and have heard him speak. I think he is doing good work and fills a much needed void in the political dialogue, but is certainly open to critique. I think the comment registered here would be a great way to begin a "UU's respond to the Religious Left" discussion or even a "UU's respond to Jim Wallis/Rabbi Lerner" discussion.

By the way, I saw no mention in this blog of the media story/non-story about Rep. Pete Stark's "admission" that he doesn't believe in a supreme being. Much was made of the fact that he is also a UU. Is this a story worth acknowledging, or is it a non-story that was rightly ignored by this blog (and if so, sorry for breaking the silence), or should the blog have made reference to the story and pronounced it a non-story?


March 26, 2007 12:29 PM | Permalink for this comment

I subscribe to Sojourner's, too, and admire Jim Wallis a great deal. I simply think that the liberal *churches* are paying inadequate attention to the religious (rather than political) foundations of their work. Before a meaningful religious left can reemerge, the liberal churches have to get more serious about the faith development work that only they can do. Personally, I'm not among the UUs who believes that churches should "get out" of politics; I just think we do it shallowly, untheologically, and without much attention to the deeper reasons people are religious.

As for Pete Stark: The story looked to me like a publicity stunt by an atheist-advocacy organization. Good for Stark for being candid when asked about what he believes. The story did get picked up by the UU World news blog here and here.

Please note that I am calling attention to almost nothing on this blog these days simply because I'm so busy. My silence doesn't mean a story isn't relevant or important; it just means I don't have the time!


March 26, 2007 12:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

Well, if the Pope thinks that the use of condoms is a religious issue, I guess that UUs can also say that sexuality education is a religious issue.


March 26, 2007 06:13 PM | Permalink for this comment

A big problem for any "religious left" is people like me. I work full time in the political world, am very involved in church, and am quite left-wing, although maybe not by UU standards. I have no desire to be part of a "religious left".

1) After doing politics all week I want a break on Sunday.

2) I believe in the separation of church and state. I do not look to the church for political guidance or to the government for religious guidance.

3) Sectarian politics is ineffective for such a small sect as UUs. If you have Lexis-Nexis you can see that press interest in UUA press releases is exactly zero.


March 27, 2007 12:05 PM | Permalink for this comment

I can definitely relate to Philocrites' belief that liberal churches need to nurture the spiritual dimensions of people's lives and that any political involvement needs to be part of a more relgious/spiritual whole. And like UU Wonk, I also work in the policy world all week and would rather my church experience be something more than just one more political meeting or policy discussion. I think it is possible for churches to support social justice activity without necessarily being "political" and that this is just one of the many balancing challenges that a liberal church, and especially a creedless church like the UU, faces. One way some congregations deal with this is to allow people to set up tables with petitions, political information, etc. while keeping the "politics from the pulpit" very low-key. The main comfort I get from such activity in the church is not so much participating in its political activities myself(which I usually don't) but knowing that many of my fellow parishioners share my passion for social justice and knowing that it is a part of their acting out their faith. But again, if the church does not nurture that faith, then alas, Sunday church becomes just another organizing meeting albeit with hymns.


March 28, 2007 05:35 AM | Permalink for this comment

I think the point that Chris is making is that there isn't much of a point of having tables of pamphlets at the coffee hour if there isn't some soul food during the worship hour. UU has done a very good job of articulating what it is against. It needs to work on what it is for.


March 28, 2007 07:33 AM | Permalink for this comment

My sense is that many UU congregations have found the balance Peter describes, at least to the extent that the worship life of the church isn't overwhelmed with talking points from the social justice committee. But at a broader level, Unitarian Universalism has come to be defined by the social justice outcomes advocated by the General Assembly — and not by our distinctive religious or theological tradition. I don't see these as opposed, but unless our social life and our political theology are rooted deeply in our religious life, they won't be compelling to a broad range of people.


March 28, 2007 03:35 PM | Permalink for this comment

Our congregation strikes a good balance. Our minister occasionally makes political statements, but mostly they are left to guest speakers and the coffee hour table.

I find the GA resolutions embarassing. Their length, sloppiness and sanctimony don't reflect the thoughtful way our minister and most of our congregation approach political issues. Clearly the UUA-GA believes that religious authority should be used to resolve all manner of scientific and political questions. I don't think this is consistent with UU values as I understand them.

Cee Jay:

March 29, 2007 04:42 PM | Permalink for this comment

Being one of the social action co-chairs and the UUSC rep. for our congregation, you might guess that I would believe in social justice activism, but I have often felt uncomfortable with being asked to promote particular political positions at church, and like UUWonk, I am not very impressed with GA statements. I've never been to GA, so the statements on social justice are pretty much what I hear about what goes on there. They do not make me want to attend.

What really bothers me most is that, as a denonmination, we seem to promote political activism more than reaching out to people in need with tangible help. The activities I enjoy most in my congregation include volunteering with the Interfaith Hospitality Network, tutoring in a local urban school, an interfaith Mitzvah day we are working on with two other congregations, etc. While I write letters to the editor and to my representatives, sign petitions, etc. These are activities that are best promoted by other politically based organizations to which I belong. What I want from my religion is the opportunity to put my beliefs into action. Sharing my time with others who can use my friendship and my support is a spiritual act for me.

Unitarian Universalists often cite their history of political activism, but they also have a rich history of providing tangible aid without hooking it to a religious doctrine. Most often the Unitarians and Universalists we proudly claim acted both in activism and in providing aid as individuals and not as part of a congregation.

Unfortunately, the push by some religious conservatives to tie their religious values to political policies and even a political party has encouraged religious liberals to do the same. In my opinion, this is where the problem occurs. We may agree that we value a peaceful world and want an end to war, but we may not agree on a political policy and government action that will accomplish this. That is the line we cross that makes me uncomfortable in promoting social justice causes in our congregation. If we follow our principles, we should recognize that though we may share common values, we may not agree on political actions to support them. We need to have respect for each other and faith that we are all doing the best we can to live our values. Our religious services should inspire us to act on our values, not prescribe the actions we should take.


March 29, 2007 05:10 PM | Permalink for this comment

There's an old saying "If a family wants a piece of legislation passed, send them to the Unitarians. If a family doesn't have enough food, send them to the Methodists. If a family is about to break up, send them to the Baptists." In addition to providing some of the tangible community outreach such as food and tutoring that some UU congregations provide, I would love to see more UU churches offer spiritual help for persons/couples/families suffering from marriage problems, depression, alcoholism or drug addiction, teen pregnancy, childhood sexual abuse, etc. While more conservative churches use the Bible as a basis for addressing these problems, the UU and humanist principles can be used with heartfelt compassion as well. I think limiting ourselves to just taking care of the material needs in our community inadvertently denies the spiritual needs that churches have historically answered.

Cee Jay:

March 29, 2007 08:44 PM | Permalink for this comment

I agree with you. We could do better. I did an internship in counseling at a center sponsored by Catholic Social Services. They never asked me about my religion, and as far as I know, they never asked any of the other counselors or clients. They cooperated with the local state university counseling program. The students in the community and family counseling programs worked there as interns. We were supervised onsite by CSS staff, s LISW and also by our professors during our internship and supervision classes. We were not limited in any way by catholic religious views in the counseling we did with our clients. This agency provides a needed service in our community, especially for those who may not be able to afford counseling with someone in private practice. Payment was on a sliding scale based on income. While I was there, I counseled individuals, was a co-leader of a group for children whose parents were going through divorce and for a group of men found guilty of domestic violence who were court ordered to attend.

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