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Sunday, April 30, 2006

Bush never met a law he couldn't sign. And ignore.

At last we know why President Bush hasn't vetoed a single piece of legislation. As the top story in today's Boston Globe reports, Bush "has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution." Using "signing statements" — which most of us learned about for the first time earlier this year when newspapers reported that Bush claimed the new anti-torture legislation imposes absolutely no restrictions on him at all — the White House has claimed a constitutional privilege to disregard a broad range of legislation. This is not a picture of the American system of checks and balances, nor is it a picture of an accountable representative democracy:

Bush is the first president in modern history who has never vetoed a bill, giving Congress no chance to override his judgments. Instead, he has signed every bill that reached his desk, often inviting the legislation's sponsors to signing ceremonies at which he lavishes praise upon their work.

Then, after the media and the lawmakers have left the White House, Bush quietly files "signing statements" — official documents in which a president lays out his legal interpretation of a bill for the federal bureaucracy to follow when implementing the new law. The statements are recorded in the federal register.

In his signing statements, Bush has repeatedly asserted that the Constitution gives him the right to ignore numerous sections of the bills — sometimes including provisions that were the subject of negotiations with Congress in order to get lawmakers to pass the bill. He has appended such statements to more than one of every 10 bills he has signed.

"He agrees to a compromise with members of Congress, and all of them are there for a public bill-signing ceremony, but then he takes back those compromises — and more often than not, without the Congress or the press or the public knowing what has happened," said Christopher Kelley, a Miami University of Ohio political science professor who studies executive power. (emphasis mine)

Bush's court philosophers wave off this behavior by pointing out that his predecessors also issued signing statements. Reagan's attorney general introduced using a signing statement to opt out of some of the provisions of a law in the 1980s (with intellectual justification by then-counsel Samuel Alito Jr). Bush's father held the previous record for signing statements, challenging 232 laws in his four years as president. Clinton, the only Democrat in the stealth-veto era, challenged 140 laws in eight years — a considerable drop. Our pro-"democracy" president, however, has challenged 750 laws in only five years. The Globe's Charlie Savage observes: "Still, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton used the presidential veto instead of the signing statement if they had a serious problem with a bill, giving Congress a chance to override their decisions. But the current President Bush has abandoned the veto entirely." That's a problem because Congress can't even tell which of the laws it passed — and for which lawmakers are accountable to the people — are actually being followed by the government.

Bush's intellectual cheerleaders also say that the signing statements don't really count. Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith, who oversaw the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel in Bush's first term, dismisses the signing statements as relatively trivial:

"Nobody reads them," said Goldsmith. "They have no significance. Nothing in the world changes by the publication of a signing statement. The statements merely serve as public notice about how the administration is interpreting the law. Criticism of this practice is surprising, since the usual complaint is that the administration is too secretive in its legal interpretations."

After reading Savage's roundup of the kinds of legal requirements Bush is disregarding, however, it looks to me like Goldsmith is blowing smoke. Savage writes that law professor Phillip Cooper, who studies Bush's claims about executive power, has concluded that the signing statements do make a difference because "the documents are being read closely by one key group of people: the bureaucrats who are charged with implementing new laws."

Lower-level officials will follow the president's instructions even when his understanding of a law conflicts with the clear intent of Congress, crafting policies that may endure long after Bush leaves office, Cooper said.

"Years down the road, people will not understand why the policy doesn't look like the legislation," he said.

In other words, Bush is dangerously muddying the meaning of the rule of law. We're not really subject to the laws passed by our elected representatives; we're subject to the obscure legal theories of appointed courtesans. Almost as alarming as the White House theory of unchecked executive power is the fact that Congress, according to Savage and the experts he quotes, is the only institution in a position to challenge Bush. But doesn't it seem that the ruling party has stumbled onto an incredibly convenient charade? Congress can pass laws designed to appeal either to the public in general or at least to the Republican base — generating good publicity — while the government as a whole can neglect to enact any parts of those laws that the president dislikes, without any political cost to the president. That's profoundly dangerous. Congress should be ashamed.

I hope you'll write to your representatives to protest this abuse of power.

(Charlie Savage, "Bush challenges hundreds of laws: President cites power of his office," Boston Globe 4.30.06, reg req'd)

Update 5.3.06: Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, announced that he will hold hearings on the administration's use of signing statements in June. ("Hearing vowed on Bush's powers: Senator questions bypassing of laws," Charlie Savage, Boston Globe 5.3.06, reg req'd)

Update 4.16.07: Charlie Savage and the Boston Globe won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting today for the series of stories discussed here.

Posted by Philocrites, April 30, 2006, at 03:15 PM | 13 comments

Philocrites in the pulpit.

Next Sunday I'm the guest preacher at the First Unitarian Universalist Society in Middleborough, Mass. The service is at 10:30. Later in May, I'm leading the weekly chapel service for the UUA staff on Tuesday, May 16, at 11:30, and I'm preaching at the midweek service at King's Chapel on Wednesday, May 24, at 12:15.

Posted by Philocrites, April 30, 2006, at 09:23 AM | 0 comments

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Inherent goodness got you down?

I've never been a fan of the quasi-normative UU belief that human beings are "inherently good." The inherent dignity of the human being is not, as I understand it, a doctrine about our goodness; instead, it's a doctrine of moral limits. It gives us a clue about what we can and cannot do to each other by asserting reverence for individual human lives: We cannot degrade, demean, abuse, or violate the personhood of other human beings. They have inherent worth and dignity. Even when they're evil.

I mention this distinction between "inherent goodness" and "inherent worth and dignity" because my friend Peacebang is wondering whether acknowledging the reality of evil means that she's turning into a Calvinist and rejecting the liberal Arminian tradition celebrated by Unitarians. She writes: "Left to our own conscience without the instructive influence of authority and tradition, and a sense of obedience to a Moral Reality beyond our own conscience, [we human beings are] just too prone to delusions and justified cruelty, and insanity." She adds: "I'm not proposing a religious solution to humankind's innate depravity, I'm just saying that more and more, I believe we are innately depraved." (She has written a followup post, too.)

Here's an expanded version of the response I left to her post:

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, April 25, 2006, at 08:02 AM | 8 comments

Want a banner to promote Unitarian Universalism?

The UUA announced last week that it is making a handful of banners available to webmasters and bloggers who would like to host an ad promoting Unitarian Universalism. Most of the banners were developed for the Houston-area "Uncommon Denomination" marketing campaign in late 2004 and early 2005 and ran on the Houston Chronicle website, but one was developed more recently for use at

After the jump I'll explain how to place the ad developed for on your site. You can use the same approach if you prefer the other designs or sizes. Here's the ad:

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, April 25, 2006, at 07:15 AM | 12 comments

Monday, April 24, 2006

Who are your theological influences?

Here's a question for my readers: Whose ideas have exerted a shaping influence on your basic religious views? Who are your chief theological influences? Please, no thorough bibliographies or lengthy intellectual histories; don't worry about whether your list sounds high-falutin' enough; just three or four names of the people you think have been most influential for you. If you're a minister, please note that — and which denomination or tradition you serve.

Posted by Philocrites, April 24, 2006, at 08:37 PM | 34 comments

This week at

Big news this week: The UUA will launch a process to reexamine the Principles and Purposes. Don Skinner reports on the announcement of a review process by the UUA board of trustees and the independently elected Commission on Appraisal. Also featured in the web magazine this week: Jason Shelton describes an encounter with Pentecostals in a hotel lobby during the UU Musicians Network conference. (Did you know that this is the 100th anniversary of Pentecostalism in America?) UU sculptor Constance Demuth Berg reflects on the Holocaust in a work called "Children of Shoah." And, in the news blog, Sonja Cohen finds a UU church that insists on paying taxes and another UU church that held an Easter can hunt.

Posted by Philocrites, April 24, 2006, at 07:23 AM | 1 comments

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

My first podcast.

The sermon I preached last month to the First Parish in Concord, Mass., "What More Do You Want?," has now been distributed through the church's podcast. If you've ever wanted to hear me preach, here's your chance.

Posted by Philocrites, April 19, 2006, at 10:12 PM | 8 comments

How the UU Blogs promotional campaign is going.

As I announced two weeks ago, I've launched a micromarketing campaign to promote Unitarian Universalist blogs using Google AdWords. Thanks to several generous donors, this is turning into a collaborative project with enough juice to run for a little while. I'm hoping you'll be interested in supporting it, too.

Here's some data about the campaign so far:

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, April 19, 2006, at 10:06 PM | 3 comments

Diverse Unitarian Universalist Easters.

There's so much good Easter reflection on the UU blogs this week I can't keep up. Among the notable posts I've read: Jess is all too happy to celebrate sunshine; she's had enough crucifixion. Dance of the Mind opted to celebrate Easter with the Methodists. Jehovah's Fitness started off with an Easter rant but attended and enjoyed the UU service. Jason Pitzl-Waters rounds up pagan-Christian convergences. Peacebang puts in a good word for bodily resurrection and offers part of her Easter sermon. And Fausto writes a great post defending Christian syncretism and the "Wow, Things Are Growing Again!" celebration of spring.

Did you know that you can search UU blogs by keyword? At UUpdates, the excellent blog aggregator, you can enter a keyword in the "Filter Updates" sidebar. Here's every "Easter" post, for example.

If you haven't had enough, here are a few Easter highlights from the Philocrites archives: How does Jesus' story help us? (1996); The gospel according to Doubting Thomas (1998); and Does the New Testament teach physical or spiritual resurrection? (2002).

Posted by Philocrites, April 19, 2006, at 07:55 AM | 2 comments

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Principles and Purposes redux.

Late last week, a somewhat surprising and very interesting announcement was made by the UUA Board of Trustees and the independent Commission on Appraisal:

Article XV of the Bylaws of the UUA mandates a periodic review of Article II, the Principles and Purposes. This obligatory review is now overdue, and, at the request of the UUA's Board of Trustees, the UUA's Commission on Appraisal has decided to undertake the review. It must be stressed that the Commission on Appraisal is independent of both the UUA's Board of Trustees and Administration. The role of the Commission is described in section 5.8 of the UUA bylaws. In short, the Commission on Appraisal shall "review any function or activity of the Association which in its judgment will benefit from an independent review and report its conclusions to a regular General Assembly."

The Commission has been doing serious thinking about the Principles and their place in the life of our Association for several years and has discussed their relationship to the theological diversity of our movement in its last report, Engaging Our Theological Diversity [pdf]. The members of the Commission are excited about undertaking the important work of this review.

The early stages of the Commission's work will be focused on establishing a process that will maximize the input of Unitarian Universalists from across the continent. The Commission is profoundly sensitive to the implications of this review for Unitarian Universalists and is committed to carrying out this review in a way that will allow the members of our congregations to feel confident that their opinions are heard. While the timetable is not yet determined, recommendations resulting from the Commission on Appraisal review will be brought forward for consideration at a future General Assembly.

The Commission's first review hearing will be held at the Ohio-Meadville District meeting in Columbus, OH, on April 22nd. The Commission's workshop at the General Assembly in St. Louis will also be devoted to this issue. In addition to these in-person events, the Commission will be developing mechanisms by which all Unitarian Universalists can provide input to the Commission during the course of its work. Information on how to provide input will be distributed by the various electronic and print resources of the UUA, including the Commission on Appraisal's website at

This is turning out to be quite the interesting General Assembly. I was aware that the Board had been discussing the Bylaws requirement that the Association review its governing document every 15 years — a process that has never been acted on before, since it was only introduced to the Bylaws in 1985 [see correction below]; there's no exact precedent for what the Commission is setting out to do. Very interesting indeed!

For some back story on the Principles, here's Warren Ross's 15-year retrospective for UU World. See also the letters from Shirley Ann Ranck and Lucile Schuck Longview challenging his depiction of the role of the Women and Religion Resolution in generating the revision process that eventually yielded the 1985 Principles, Sources, and Purposes ("Feminist Genesis," Letters, halfway down).

Correction: I misremembered the year the current Principles and Purposes were adopted, and originally said "1986" in this post. They were in fact adopted in 1985. I have not yet learned when the Article XV requirement that Article II be reviewed every 15 years really was added to the Bylaws; my hunch is that this requirement was added fairly recently. (4.26.06)

Posted by Philocrites, April 18, 2006, at 07:39 AM | 19 comments

Monday, April 17, 2006

The gospel of forgiveness.

The Boston Globe has been telling a story that goes right to the heart of Jesus' good news. When five-year-old Kai Leigh Harriott spoke in a sentencing hearing last week to the man who shot and paralyzed her in 2004, she said: "What you done to me was wrong. But I still forgive him." The Globe reported:

[I]n emotionally wrenching victim-impact statements that left many spectators in tears, Kai and four members of her family told a Suffolk Superior Court judge that the shooting had changed their lives forever, but had also shown them the value of forgiveness.

"We're not victims here; we're victors," said Kai's mother, Tonya David, addressing the court.

Moments later, [Anthony] Warren, 29, a convicted felon who pleaded guilty yesterday to avoid a trial, approached Kai and her family and, in barely audible tones, apologized.

[The girl's mother] recalled his words later. "I'm sorry for what I've done to you and your family," she said Warren told her. "I was known in the street for all the wrong reasons, and now I want to be known for the right reasons."

David shook his handcuffed right hand and embraced him.

Can you imagine? The little girl and her mother forgave the man who shot her even before he had acknowledged his wrongdoing. Saturday's paper followed up with a story about people's amazement and incredulousness about the very idea of forgiveness. One woman saw the little girl's statement on TV. "I was sobbing," she said, "not just because of what happened to her, but because a mother, in the year 2006, was able to raise that type of child." Others were less impressed:

"The mother of the little girl might have forgiven him, and the little girl might have forgiven him, but I don't forgive him," said Johnny Calderon, a mechanic at the shop, arguing in Spanish and English with co-workers who praised the forgiveness. "I have no forgiveness for anyone who shoots a child. I say, an eye for an eye. He took her life; now she can't walk forever. Someone should take his life."

The disbelief many people expressed makes sense: Vengeance has an innate appeal; it's as human as love. Violence and misery and hatred and cruelty and selfishness devastate lives every minute of every day. It's a cruel world; why not give up all fantasies of peace and reconciliation? An idiot showing off shot a little girl. That's how the world is. I can't recall reading a news story that so directly conveys the personal challenge of the Christian moral life, nor a story that so clearly names the point of adopting such a difficult life. The mother said:

"We live in a world today that seems to want people to be bitter, angry," David said. "But I don't want bitterness and anger in my life, and I don't want that for Kai Leigh. We are Christians. I tried very hard from the depths of my soul to hate Anthony, but it wouldn't come out."

Television footage being replayed nationwide yesterday showed David hugging Warren, 29, after he apologized for shooting her daughter and just before he was sentenced to 13 to 15 years in state prison. She only intended to shake his hand, she said, but he surprised her when he pulled her in for an embrace. Inspired by her daughter's strength, David said she couldn't let the man go.

"I whispered in his ear: 'Here is your chance for a new beginning. Don't let God down,'" said David, a devoted member of Jubilee Christian Church in Mattapan.

Was Anthony Warren's heart truly broken when the people he hurt forgave him? I have no idea whether he's a changed man. I hope he is. But what's so striking to me is that this family had been strengthened — through their Christian community — to find a way past vengeance, not in some abstract or sentimental way but in the midst of a child's paralysis and in a direct confrontation with the man who shot her. Few of us could say what those family members said; even fewer of us could mean it. But that's where this story helped shape my observance of the resurrection this year.

The story says that as he was dying Jesus forgave the men who crucified him. I find this incomprehensible. I can just barely begin to comprehend that a little girl, through grace and the example of her mother and her church, might learn to forgive her assailant. (The mother obviously understands the situation in ways the girl cannot.) But there it is, the astonishing fact, right there in the news: These women and this little girl had the strength of character to forgive rather than seek vengeance. They even reached out to the man in an act of fellowship. Could I? Not yet. But when I made the decision eight years ago to renew my baptismal vows in an Easter vigil at King's Chapel, I did it because I wanted to learn the discipline of living the resurrection. Jesus did not teach an easy path: His is a gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation, a witness to the grace that can take a vengeful world and a bitter heart and make it new.

At the Easter vigil early yesterday morning at the Episcopal monastery, Br Curtis Almquist preached a marvelous, heart-breaking sermon based on the parallel resurrections of Lazarus and Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. He focused on the attention both stories give to the linen wrappings. When Jesus comes to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, he says:

"Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go." (John 11:43-44 NRSV)

Br Curtis observed that the story of Jesus' resurrection lingers on the cloths, too:

[The other disciple] bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. (John 20:5-7 NRSV)

Why all this attention to the wrappings? Br Curtis said he was struck by a difference in the two stories: In the story of Lazarus Jesus says, "Unbind him," and the astonished witnesses unwrap the resurrected man. But who unbinds Jesus after he is resurrected? He couldn't unbind himself. Who unbinds him?

We unbind Jesus, Br Curtis said — we unbind the dead, cooperating with God's resurrection power and living in the resurrection (which is what baptism symbolizes), when we feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit the captive, when we practice the disciplines of compassion and forgiveness. Kai Leigh's family is unbound. That's what astonished people in Boston last week. Their lives haven't become easier, they haven't become free of trouble or grief, but they are living in the resurrection. And they reached out to the criminal and unbound him, too. Thanks be to God!

("'I still forgive him': Paralyzed at 3 by a stray gunshot, Hub girl faces the man who fired it," Jonathan Saltzman, Boston Globe 4.14.06, reg req'd; "A child's message of grace amazes her city," Megan Tench, Boston Globe 4.15.06, reg req'd)

[Update 4.30.08: Anthony Warren publicly apologized and thanked Kai Leigh Harriott for her forgiveness in a videotaped statement from the prison: "To be blessed with the opportunity to be forgiven by a beautiful person like Kai, it made me want to change," Warren said. "It made me want to be less colder and harder. It made me really want to take a look at myself and take a look at my duties and responsibilities as black man in my community."]

Posted by Philocrites, April 17, 2006, at 03:31 PM | 3 comments

This week at

Pardon me while I indulge in the sin of pride: has been named the Best Faith-Based Online Campaign in the 2006 Internet Advertising Competition. (Award here; UUA announcement here.) Congratulations to my colleagues Kenneth Sutton and Kathy Todd, who are named with me on the award, and to my colleagues Tom Stites, Jane Greer, Don Skinner, Sonja Cohen, and Teri Schwartz. They're a great team. (Want to join us? The magazine is hiring a business manager and a part-time design production assistant.)

Wait: an advertising award? Yes, was nominated for a marketing award by the firm that helped design and build the site. The marketing goal of the magazine is fairly straightforward: We designed the site to appeal to people who aren't UUs or who are not yet members of congregations. The online magazine is a journalistic vehicle to carry UU voices and values beyond the membership of UU congregations. I think of it as a continuation of the publications the early Unitarians and Universalists sent all over the country to spread their liberal gospel. Now we're doing it online.

Featured this week is Brent Haglund's essay, "Hands-on environmentalism," which describes the approach to conservation he promotes through the Sand County Foundation. In the news, the Main Line Unitarian Church in Dover, Penn., has taken on an ambitious conservation program of its own — and has received a "Creation Care" award from the National Council of Churches in recognition. And Sonja Cohen highlights the hospitality of religious liberals in my homeland in this week's edition of UUs in the media as UUs, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists welcomed Soulforce to Provo, Utah.

Posted by Philocrites, April 17, 2006, at 11:09 AM | 4 comments

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Holy week hiatus.

Bitter Journey - Multimedia from BeliefnetThe events Christians commemorate this week are deeply personal to me. They also happen to be the parts of my religious life that have never felt integrated — or perhaps integratable — into my being a Unitarian Universalist. (This is a sociological claim, not a theological one.) And because my wife is Episcopalian, I have largely taken to celebrating Holy Week with her. Tonight I'll attend the Maundy Thursday service at King's Chapel; tomorrow Mrs Philocrites and I will attend the Veneration of the Cross liturgy at the chapel of the Society of St John the Evangelist (the Episcopal monastery in Harvard Square); and early Sunday morning we'll be back at SSJE (if we're not absolutely exhausted) for the pre-dawn Easter vigil. Later Sunday morning, I'll attend her congregation's festival eucharist and then help out with the Sunday school's Easter egg hunt. Then dinner, which we'll have spent much of Saturday preparing.

Which is to say that you shouldn't expect to hear much from me until Monday.

Posted by Philocrites, April 13, 2006, at 07:45 AM | 5 comments

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Imagine all the Statements of Conscience...

Chalicechick offers some trenchant comments on the one and only proposed "study/action issue" before this year's UUA General Assembly (pdf; see page 8/4): "Should the Unitarian Universalist Association reject the use of any and all kinds of violence and war to resolve disputes between peoples and nations and adopt a principle of seeking just peace through nonviolent means?"

This appears to be the year former UUA President John Buehrens predicted not long after 9/11:

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, April 11, 2006, at 07:50 AM | 33 comments

Why I'm mad at the Red Sox on opening day.

For the record, Mrs Philocrites and I are mad about the Red Sox' exile from broadcast TV this season. We've never had cable, so we always looked forward to the Friday night games on Channel 38 and anything Fox picked up. I resent having to look for a cable package. I'm with the angry fan who wrote to the Globe yesterday: "With the high cost of tickets, attending games with my family is difficult enough; now we can't even watch them on TV. It doesn't seem like a great way to cultivate the next generation of fans or to honor people who have been watching this team for years."

I was surprised to learn, however, that only 6 to 7 percent of us in the Boston area don't have cable. That probably explains PBS affiliate WGBH's virtually inaccessible signal (on both 2 and 44) in Cambridge: After all, who needs "public" TV in the city?

("For unlucky ones, Sox out of sight," Dan Shaugnessy, Boston Globe 1.29.06, reg req'd; "Sox fan's TV lament," letter, Katrina Munichiello, Boston Globe 4.10.06, reg req'd)

Posted by Philocrites, April 11, 2006, at 07:28 AM | 5 comments

Monday, April 10, 2006

Scenes from a march.

Immigrants march

Here are a handful of scenes from today's march for immigrants' rights in Boston. When I left Copley Square shortly after six and headed back to the Common, a steady stream of people was still heading from the Common to the plaza.

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, April 10, 2006, at 10:50 PM | 0 comments

Immigrant rights march in Boston today.

Today's Boston Globe says:

In Boston, immigrant rights advocates will march from Boston Common to Copley Plaza at 4 p.m. today, and take part in a three-hour program including music.

Update: Here's the website for the organization sponsoring the march, Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Network. Statements by religious organizations can be found on this page.

Update, May 1: Here's a roundup of today's events around Massachusetts. reports the following schedule for Boston:

1 p.m. March in support of immigrant workers sponsored by Service Employees International Union Local 615. Departs from Post Office Square and ends with 3 p.m. press conference at State House.

4 p.m. Rally on Boston Common, 4-7 p.m., sponsored by Boston May Day Coalition, Chelsea Uniendose en Contra de la Guerra, Latinos for Social Change, Latinos Unidos de Massachusetts, Socialist Alternative, Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia, Greater Boston Stop the Wars Coalition, International Socialist Organization, July 26th Coalition.

6:30 p.m. Vigil and reflection at Stony Brook Station, Jamaica Plain.

Posted by Philocrites, April 10, 2006, at 08:29 AM | 0 comments

This week at

To mark Passover and Easter, Jane Rzepka asks, are great stories necessarily good for you? Karen Lee Shelley offers a meditation on the birth of ritual in her Unitarian Universalist congregation. In the news, Don Skinner summarizes the findings from the UUA's survey of 14- to 20-year-olds about their congregations' ministry to and with youth. Skinner also writes about an additional $180,000 in grants for Gulf Coast relief. Jane Greer interviews UUA moderator Gini Courter about her invitation to congregations to set the agenda for this year's General Assembly plenary sessions. And Sonja Cohen rounds up the UU news from around the Web — including an interview with (blogger) Doug Muder about his Quincy, Ill., sermon on what atheists and theists can learn from each other.

Posted by Philocrites, April 10, 2006, at 07:26 AM | 3 comments

How about a May 13 bloggers picnic?

Okay, Boston-area readers, how about Saturday, May 13, for our second annual bloggers picnic? And does anyone have a facility to offer? (If we end up in a private home, I think I'll ask people to write offline for an invite with directions rather than broadcast it.)

Posted by Philocrites, April 10, 2006, at 07:11 AM | 3 comments

Sunday, April 9, 2006

William R. Hutchison's memorial service, April 28.

I was dismayed to learn in early January that William R. Hutchison, the eminent historian of liberal and modernist movements in American Protestantism and one of my teachers at Harvard Divinity School, had died of stomach cancer in December. When I thought of his work again last week, I was afraid that I might also have missed his memorial service. Happily, I ran into his friend and colleague — and my divinity school advisor — David Hall at the Episcopal church where I celebrated Palm Sunday this morning. Hall said that the memorial service will be April 28 in Harvard's Memorial Church. The Harvard Gazette obituary says the service is at 2:00 p.m. You may also be interested in the Boston Globe obituary. (I linked to several of his books in my Scrapbook entry.)

It was in one of Hutchison's history seminars on twentieth-century American religion that I realized that I probably wasn't cut out for doctoral work: I toiled all semester on a paper examining organizational dynamics that might explain the failure of the Free Religion movement in the late nineteenth century and the relative success of the Humanist movement in the early twentieth century — but I only managed to get a handle on the secondary sources. Hutchison was an extremely generous teacher and a great host. I especially remember the evening he invited his seminar students over to his condo and gave us a glimpse of his interest in the history of slang: He had "translated" the Gettysburg Address into several different period idioms, with the help of several generations of students! I wish I could recall an example.

I thought of Hutchison's work while making my slow way through Gary Dorrien's recent illuminating CrossCurrents essay, which offers a short version of his upcoming book on liberal theology since the 1950s. I haven't finished the essay yet, so I'll hold off on commenting — but it's so interesting that I may suggest we try another discussion group about it in a few weeks. How's this for an intriguing title?: "American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, Decline, Renewal, Ambiguity" (Winter 2005-2006). Print out a copy and set aside time to read it; among the prominent theologians he discusses are several Unitarian Universalists or theological liberals who associated closely with UU congregations, including James Luther Adams, Bernard Loomer, Charles Hartshorne, Thandeka, and Forrest Church.

Posted by Philocrites, April 9, 2006, at 09:48 PM | 1 comments

Where are you most likely to find a UU?

Here's a map showing the population density of Unitarian Universalists in the United States, county by county, based on the 2000 Census and membership statistics from the UUA. I don't know whether members of the Church of the Larger Fellowship are included, but I hope they are. At any rate, the most densely UU-populated parts of the country don't exceed 1.5 percent of the population. For comparison, there are several counties with between 10 and 35.2 percent of the population affiliated with the United Church of Christ, while Episcopalians constitute 0.1 to 1.8 percent of the population almost everywhere. And check out the map of the Jewish-populated parts of the country: the pale yellow counties — which track the 0.1 to 1.5 percent range and are therefore comparable to the most UU-dense counties, are scattered all over the country. Here's the map showing the dominant religious regions of the country; here's the complete guide to maps.

(Via Regions of Mind, pointed out to me by KS 4.5.06)

Posted by Philocrites, April 9, 2006, at 02:33 PM | 13 comments

Saturday, April 8, 2006

Let's try a little collective marketing.

Several of us had a great time planning and carrying out some inexpensive do-it-yourself UU marketing last spring after a San Francisco newspaper columnist launched the "Unitarian Jihad." Noting that thousands of people almost immediately used their blogs and LiveJournals to declare themselves members of that notoriously reasonable and mild-mannered insurgency, we mused, Why not pitch a little Google ad into the maelstrom that could help would-be Unitarian Jihadists find out more about real Unitarian Universalism? So we did.

How would you like to be part of a next round of experimental outreach?

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, April 8, 2006, at 11:28 AM | 4 comments

Friday, April 7, 2006

UCC takes 'pugnacious stance' toward Christian right.

The New York Times reports today on the United Church of Christ's increasingly direct challenge to antiliberal movements within mainline Protestantism. Reporter Neela Banerjee puts a biblical spin on her lede: "After years of turning the other cheek, the United Church of Christ, among the most liberal of the mainline Protestant denominations, has recently staked out a more pugnacious stance toward the Christian right." This is perhaps accurate, but it's fascinating to see how the Institute on Religion and Democracy — which has targeted the UCC and other denominations' "liberalism" for many years — plays the innocent in the story.

Banerjee adopts a frame for the story — who follows Jesus' counsel to "turn the other cheek"? — that makes the UCC look like the Sunday school kid who has neglected the Beatitudes when the IRD has, in fact, been wearing sheep's clothing for decades.

The Times reviews recent highlights: UCC general minister John Thomas's Gettysburg College speech about the IRD's campaign to divide the mainline denominations; the church's pointed TV marketing campaign (but fails to note that the "ejector" ad has now been rejected by Viacom and NBC Universal–owned cable networks); and the General Synod's decision to support same-sex marriage last summer.

The most intriguing statement in the story is from the IRD: "In Thomas's case, I'm seeing an advancing case of paranoia," said Steve Rempe, the content editor for the institute's Web site. "He sees this vast conspiracy centered around conservative political motivations and doesn't seem to see the possibility that these people might have a legitimate pastoral concern for their churches."

But it's not either-or: There are people with legitimate "pastoral concerns" for the theological and political trends in the mainline churches; that's clearly true. It is also true, however, that the funding sources and ideological designs of many of the champions of these disaffected Protestants are closely tied to conservative political movements. The deceptiveness of Rempe's statement is that it dismisses any complaint about political motivations by hiding under the cloak of piety. IRD has successfully figured out how to play "wise as serpents and gentle as doves."

Because Banerjee's story is about two national organizations — the denominational leadership of a famously congregational and non-hierarchical family of churches and a well-funded but small advocacy organization in Virginia — it doesn't touch at all on how either effort is playing out in local churches themselves. Mainline Protestants have not been quick to change, their population is shrinking, and the UCC's aggressive outreach campaign — which involves helping local congregations unlearn old habits and think again about outreach and evangelism and hospitality to strangers just as much as it involves edgy TV ads and cool marketing materials — has been controversial at every level from the beginning. It's expensive. It's challenging. It may fail.

But the conflict between these high-visibility, high-stakes contenders can divert attention from the real story: how local congregations — which have long taken modernism and liberal theology for granted, which have for many decades tried to practice a social gospel, and which have failed to grow in a changing culture — are facing complex, change-or-die choices. The choice isn't about joining the religious right or joining the religious left; it's not about picking "orthodoxy" or "liberalism"; it's not about conflict or quietude. It's about learning to recognize the demands of the gospel in this particular time and place.

("Liberal denomnination fires salvos at right," Neela Banerjee, New York Times 4.7.06, reg req'd)

Posted by Philocrites, April 7, 2006, at 08:26 AM | 2 comments

Thursday, April 6, 2006

UUA trustees meet in Boston, April 21-23.

Via's What's New page, here are the reports and agendas for the Unitarian Universalist Association board meeting in Boston, April 21 through 23. The meetings are open to the public, as are the reports to the board.

Among the many very interesting documents the board will be responding to are the review of the "Pathways" large-church experiment in Texas and the related growth strategies update; the final report of the special review commission about the race-and-youth kerfuffle at last year's General Assembly (I helped write about the preliminary report in February); and a preview of the latest Faith Communities Today study of UU congregations (because I love data). You'll want to browse through the rest.

P.S.: If you care about the social justice resolutions the General Assembly passes each summer, here's your chance to jump in and help shape the UUA's proclamations: There's a vacancy on the Commission on Social Witness, and you can apply to fill it if you act by April 20.

Posted by Philocrites, April 6, 2006, at 10:01 PM | 4 comments

Now cable networks eject the UCC ad, too.

Cable network owners Viacom and NBC Universal have booted the United Church of Christ's "ejector" ad from their cable networks. (See the ad.) Why this can't get on TV when the outrageously offensive promos for Quentin Tarantino's torture flick can? The UCC is especially indignant that these same networks accept ads from Focus on the Family, which is much more an advocacy organization than the UCC is. The denomination's TV ads have been rejected by the broadcast networks in the past (which are owned by the same corporations, naturally) for being "advocacy" ads — and now the quick glimpse of a gay couple getting ejected from a church has upset the owners of such conflict-averse stations as MTV, VH1, Bravo, and Comedy Central. (Over to you, Jon Stewart!) Also turning the ad down: Nick@Night, TV Land, Logo, USA Network, Telemundo, Discovery, and Univison.

Other cable networks are showing the ad, however, including ABC/Disney, A&E, AMC, BET, CNN, CNN Headline, Hallmark, History, TBS, TNT, E!, Lifetime, Si-TV, and Azteca America. Folks, if Hallmark and ABC/Disney didn't throw the ad out, it can't really be that offensive.

It may be that television advertising isn't an effective outreach tool for churches. I know people who take that position. However, any minority religious group is going to be seen as "controversial" when it even mildly offers a bit of comparison and contrast in its promotional materials. The Episcopal Church's TV ads in Utah four years ago did an amazing job of "raising awareness" about the church: During a visit to my parents, Mrs Philocrites (who is Episcopalian) and I got a earful about the ads from my Mormon relatives. Ironically, they thought it was inappropriate for churches to advertise on TV. ("A message from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormons." Remember those? Or the Book of Mormon ads on cable?)

But the ad that amazed Mrs P and me on that trip was the giant billboard above the parking lot next to the teeny, tiny, and entirely wonderful St Mary's Episcopal Church in Provo, Utah. It said: "Welcome to St Mary's Episcopal Church, part of the Anglican Communion, 70 million members worldwide." The billboard was almost as big as the sanctuary, but its point — in the downtown heart of Mormonia's academic capital — was clear.

People don't complain as much about billboards, though: My grandmother was more offended by the ad that asked, "Where do women stand in our church?," and then showed a woman priest celebrating the eucharist. "Right at the altar," the ad said. I said I thought people looking for a religious alternative would like to know that; the ad was answering an important question, not taking a jab at any particular patriarchy.

But back to the United Church of Christ: The networks are being unfair, no matter what you think of the wisdom of the denomination's gamble on TV ads. The church's Accessible Airwaves website can help you contact the networks and relevant regulatory agencies to complain.

("'Sorry, cable trouble'—Viacom, NBC-owned cable channels become next to reject UCC's ads," J. Bennett Guess, United Church News 4.5.06)

Posted by Philocrites, April 6, 2006, at 07:49 AM | 0 comments

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Knock, knock, knocking on Mark Oppenheimer.

A guest review of Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture, by our resident doctoral student in American religious history Jeff Wilson:

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, April 5, 2006, at 07:13 AM | 13 comments

Monday, April 3, 2006

Counterculture in 'Knocking on Heaven's Door.'

Now for the fun part: It seems to me that Mark Oppenheimer uses "counterculture" in three ways in Knocking on Heaven's Door, his illuminating and entertaining history of the influence of counterculture on mainstream American religion in the late 1960s and early '70s. (We've been discussing the book here in a series of posts.) He sometimes uses the term loosely, especially in the introduction, to talk about what we refer to in retrospect as "the sixties" — but when he focuses on definitions, it's clear that he's pointing to specific features of the era. He also notes but doesn't much discuss the fact that religions can in themselves be countercultural. That's a point I want to come back to later this week, because I'm not sure Unitarian Universalism in the U.S. is religiously countercultural. It may be that neopaganism's appeal around the edges of Unitarian Universalism — see, for example, Sharon Hwang Colligan's provocative argument that UU "churches" are merely fronts for the real religion of the pagan "circle worship" — is rooted in the simple fact that many people expect a religion to offer an alternative to mainstream culture, and neopaganism does. My uneasy hunch is that UU values are unusually derivative from our culture, which blunts our ability to do what a counterculture does — "[transform] the existing social, scientific or aesthetic paradigm," to use Umberto Eco's definition.

I'll have more to say about this, and I hope you will, too. But first, Oppenheimer's definition:

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, April 3, 2006, at 08:34 AM | 16 comments

This week at

Dorothy May Emerson reports on the economic opportunities created by community investing. Thirty-five Unitarian Universalist congregations, the New Hampshire-Vermont District, and the UUA invest some of their money in community investing funds; here's how you can get involved, too. Also this week, my review of two new books that help explain the transformation of liberal religion in the twentieth century; we're discussing one of them here.

In the news, Don Skinner reports on UU volunteers heading to the Gulf Coast to help with hurricane recovery efforts (check out the Winchester Unitarian Society Youth Group). Jane Greer writes about a Boston-area interfaith quilting project that brought quilters from a UU church and a Muslim community group together. And Sonja L. Cohen is monitoring UUs in the media; if you missed it, for example, Forrest Church was on Beliefnet's front page last week proclaiming universal salvation.

Posted by Philocrites, April 3, 2006, at 06:56 AM | 0 comments

Sunday, April 2, 2006

A few small site enhancements.

I'm taking advantage of a few more tools from Feedburner, which already makes my feed nice and dandy: At the end of each entry (but not on the home page or monthly indexes) you'll now find links to "Email this" and "Add to"; on entries that other blogs link to, you'll also see a link to Technorati tracking them. I haven't started using yet, but I know that many people find it very useful, so I hope this makes it even easier. The email link starts a new email, plugs in the title of the entry in the subject line, and puts a link in the body of the email; add a recipient, and away it goes!

Also, ads seem to be working out well on individual entry pages, but don't seem to be adding much value to readers (or to me) on the front page, so I've taken them down.

Posted by Philocrites, April 2, 2006, at 07:52 PM | 1 comments

Saturday, April 1, 2006

148 million Americans in 25 largest denominations.

The National Council of Churches' annual report on the membership of 219 denominations is now available. In 2004-2005, the press release says, the fastest growing denominations were the Assemblies of God, up 1.81 percent, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, up 1.74 percent, and the Roman Catholic Church, up 0.83 percent. (The figure for the Orthodox Church in America shows membership up a whopping 6.4 percent, which seems almost certainly erroneous.) Of the 25 largest denominations, the sharpest membership drop in 2004-2005 occurred in the United Church of Christ, which is currently gambling big on a comprehensive publicity campaign; UCC membership is down 2.38 percent.

This year, I'm especially struck by the number of Americans affiliated with the 25 largest denominations: 148,009,649.

Posted by Philocrites, April 1, 2006, at 02:41 PM | 0 comments

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