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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:

Not everything about the sixties was "counterculture." Martin Luther King Jr, for example, wasn't countercultural in Oppenheimer's telling (although in another sense he definitely was); the Black Panthers, however, clearly were countercultural. It's true, Oppenheimer says, that "something happened" in the 1960s that significantly changed American life. He argues that "that something has to do with etiquette, clothes, language, music, and sexual mores" (4). The Yippies and the Hell's Angels were equally countercultural, he says, even though they had completely different attitudes about the war in Vietnam; they both were against the squares.

"What happened from 1968 to 1975 was less a political shift than a visible assertion of counterculture aesthetics," Oppenheimer says (6) — and it was the aesthetic change that lasted, not the politics. Thanks to the sixties, American culture "loosened up." But what about politics? What about the political movements that progressives still celebrate and that some conservatives still deplore? (And what about the rise of modern American conservatism, the other political movement born in the sixties?) Oppenheimer observes that the counterculture style was much more pervasive and influential than any of the political movements we lump together when we talk about the era. At the end of the book, Oppenheimer observes:

[W]hile civil rights was deeply influential on white countercultural movements in America [in the late 1960s through mid-1970s], folk music was somewhat less influential, feminism less still, and gay rights hardly at all. . . .

One might move from feminist activism to gay rights activism, or from civil rights activism to Jewish ethnic particularism; but despite the perception that sixties consciousness was Vietnam consciousness, religious people did not seem to move back and forth as much between antiwar activism and other kinds of activism. The war was an issue unto itself. (217, 218)

And this is where his definition struck me as especially helpful: A style that drew on the moral authority of the civil rights movement connected political movements that were not ideologically or otherwise connected. And it seems not especially surprising that the aesthetics of the sixties have been recycled and packaged and turned into a thousand fads. For those of us who weren't around for the sixties the first time, the reruns are often more funny than provocative. But within that style there was a religious impulse that interests me.

The moral resonance of sixties counterculture also seems to be weakening today. I couldn't help but think as I read that book that one of the places it continues to carry a lot of weight in the UUA is the word "empowerment," which draws on the black power use of the term in the late '60s for all sorts of arguably unrelated issues, like "youth empowerment." (I'll also come back to the intriguing way that Oppenheimer helps us see how youth activists helped the UUA adopt denominational positions that few congregations would have been ready to adopt at the time.)

Finally for today: Although he emphasizes aesthetics, Oppenheimer draws on Umberto Eco's definition of "counter-culture," which points to the countercultural dimensions within religions themselves:

Counter-culture is thus the active critique or transformation of the existing social, scientific or aesthetic paradigm. It is religious reform. It is the heresy of whoever confers a license upon himself and prefigures another church. It is the only cultural manifestation that a dominant culture is unable to acknowledge and accept. . . . Counter-culture comes about when those who transform the culture in which they live become critically conscious of what they are doing and elaborate a theory of their deviation from the dominant model, offering a model that is capable of sustaining itself. (19)

Oppenheimer's claim is that aesthetic changes in mainstream religion — women priests at Episcopal altars, folk music in the Roman Catholic mass, "Jewfros" — are also substantive changes, even when no doctrines or institutional structures have changed. But is Unitarian Universalism really all that countercultural? What do you think?

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 3 April 2006 at 8:34 AM

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Next: Knock, knock, knocking on Mark Oppenheimer.





April 3, 2006 10:44 AM | Permalink for this comment

O Goddess! I think I saw a fluffy bunnie near here...

Jason Pitzl-Waters:

April 3, 2006 10:56 AM | Permalink for this comment

UU "churches" are merely fronts for the real religion of the pagan "circle worship"

Ha! If only. As any Pagan who has gone to many festivals and conventions will say, you can't confuse "fest" reality with "mundane" reality. The author's disconnect from Sunday service and the day to day reality of UU congregations (I say this as someone who works at a UU center) pokes a lot of holes in her arguement.

In regards to your final question, while there are many countercultural UUs, Unitarian-Universalism isn't itself countercultural. I can see how there might be some confusion though. UU is so far "left" on the political spectrum it could be seen (and surely has been described) as a countercultural agent, but in reality, the UUA are more early adopters than countercultural.

The counterculture moves to champion and give a voice to change. A movement builds. The UUA (and society at large to a certain extent) affirms it (or doesn't affirm it). UU is in many ways the ultimate "liberal" faith.

While liberalism may have sympathies with the radical and countercultural, in the end it acts as a political and social filter. If the UUA was "countercultural" today there would be polyamorist marriage in the churches (as there is in many sections of the modern Pagan community). While this may someday happen ( it will only be when it becomes "safe" and accepted enough to do so without major repercussions.

In the end it is about who is "inside" and who is "outside". The UUA is just this side of "inside". This is an important role, but the UUA isn't radical. I'm reminded of that Phil Ochs song...

"I vote for the democtratic party
They want the U.N. to be strong
I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts
He sure gets me singing those songs
I'll send all the money you ask for
But don't ask me to come on along
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal"

That is the UUA all over. I mean that in the nicest way possible.

Kevin M:

April 3, 2006 11:44 AM | Permalink for this comment

The issue I have with Eco's definition of counterculture, and with radical politics in general, is that there's a vast difference between "a model that is capable of sustaining itself" and a viable alternative to the way things are.

On page 20, Oppenheimer points out that Marxism is countercultural by Eco's definition. It presents a "theory of deviation," an all-encompassing, alternative view of life predicated on a radical change in economic relationships, that allows it to function as a self-sustaining model. Marxists have an answer for everything. And while ideological styles come and go it was possible for an American Marxist in the early 20th century to live out an oppositional lifestyle entirely in the company of fellow travellers.

The problem is that, once realized, Marxism was one of the great human tragedies: what was utopia in theory was dystopia in practice. Marxism was a self-sustaining idea (once articulated, it took on a life of its own) but as a political system, it required an abusive, authoritarian state to sustain it.

I think we need to consider this example carefully, because as UUs we often fall prey to the countercultural fallacy that we can achieve anything we can imagine. I often hear UUs advocate radical change (and I mean "radical" in its literal sense, which is to say "at the root level") on the basis of little more than untested ideas and optimism. As a student of history and a true believer in the law of unintended consequences, this countercultural tendency of ours worries me greatly.

So, back to your question: are we countercultural? First, I think it depends on whether you're talking about politics or style. It's undeniably true that mainstream UU political opinion is well to the left of mainstream American political opinion, but mainstream UU political opinion still encompasses a large range. On one end there is an oppositional streak that wants to posit UUism as a radical alternative to mainstream American values. I see this stance most often among the young (who like to toy with intriguing but, to my mind, alarming political ideas like anarchism) and among the proponents of "anti-racism/anti-oppression," who see even our mild, friendly church as actively complicit in a vast structural evil.

On the other end there is a moderate streak that wants to posit UUism as the true, proper expression of mainstream American values. I'd say that this is the dominant streak, and I see it behind our consensus on such issues as gay rights (an expression of the mainstream American values of tolerance and fairness) and environmental stewardship (an expression of the mainstream American values of prudence and concern for the common good).

Both of these streaks want to influence the larger culture, but I'd say that the first is more countercultural than the other: the first wants to challenge American values, while the second wants to see a particular vision of them realized. (I'm a strong advocate of the second approach: it's one that we can pursue effectively as a church, that can have a real positive impact on people's lives, and that spares us the trouble of reeducating ourselves every few years to speak the language of the latest trendy, high-flown, deeply flawed, and, well, offensively stupid leftish ideologies. Not that I feel strongly about this.)

As for style, by which I mean both our manners of speech and dress and our ways of being together, I'd say we're less countercultural than subcultural (a word that, interestingly, Oppenheimer never uses). I'd define a subculture not as an alternative model to the main culture but as a subset of that culture where there are particular expectations that take some getting used to. So, our informal worship culture isn't "unamerican" (or even all that atypical); it's just distinctive. Likewise for our democratic, conversational congregational meetings. We have a way of deciding things that accommodates our structural particularities and expresses our values. It's not what you'd see at the town hall, nor should it be.

Not a simple answer to your question, Philocrites, but those are my thoughts on the matter.

Jeff Wilson:

April 3, 2006 12:25 PM | Permalink for this comment

This comment is going to be, perhaps uselessly, a non-comment. While I was in the libary on Saturday collecting books on American religion for another project, I saw Oppenheimer's book on the shelf and snagged it. I just read the introduction, plus the first several pages of the Unitarian chapter, on the bus on the way to teach in Raleigh.

I was not pleased. Oppenheimer's discussion of religion (and counterculture) was far worse than I imagined it to be based on the discussion here. It was awful, incoherent, and self-contradictory. I am quite seriously considering assigning it to my graduate classes on American religious history as a textbook example of how to not get American religion right. His whole approach is so full of holes that I'm not able to offer a constructive critique here--it would take many hours that I just don't have. Suffice it to say that I now have grave doubts about his project as a whole as I move on into the Unitarian chapter, which I hope to read on the bus home tonight. So far, I'm just not impressed. Sorry.


April 4, 2006 05:19 AM | Permalink for this comment

Kevin's view of UUism as a "subculture" is very interesting. I don't quite see UUism as counter-cultural to what America represents. On the contrary, it seems now and then that some UUs see their religion as the "true America" (if such a thing exists), so that the "Et pluribus unum" motto would be the best slogan for both.

I, not being an American, feel always a bit disappointed and detached when I read stuff about UUism as the "preserver of American values". I aim at a universal religion and not a nationalistic project. But this is something that you UUA-ists have to decide about how you want to define yourselves.


April 4, 2006 08:19 AM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for the comments so far!

One of the things Oppenheimer clearly gets wrong is his suggestion that nothing in Unitarian Universalism effectively resisted the sixties counterculture. He acknowledges one "conservative" movement -- Unitarian Universalist Christian churches -- but quite inaccurately says they declared themselves "Christian" in reaction to the 1960s and 70s (20). When I was a tour guide at King's Chapel, I liked to point out to visiting UUs that the cross in the chancel was added sometime in the 1870s or 80s, during Unitarianism's first "are we Christian anymore?" debate; the Unitarian Christian Fellowship was founded in the 1940s. By the 1970s, the more traditionalist UU churches had largely checked out of denominational affairs. But Oppenheimer does allude to the real check on countercultural change without giving it adequate credit: congregations themselves.

Think about it: The General Assembly (a small gathering of denominational activists) embraced gay rights in 1970, but few congregations actively welcomed gay and lesbian people for at least another decade. And, as Jason and Kevin have already pointed out, UU congregations identify with liberal culture -- something that pops up in Oppenheimer's book without him noticing what he's seeing:

The Rev. Fred Campbell, pastor of a church in Little Rock, Arkansas, from 1967 to 1975, said this about his congregation: "As far as I remember gay issues were still so far out in the bushes that we did not imagine they were to become of importance. The key question in my interview for the job was, 'Would you guarantee us not to grow a beard if we call you as our minister?'" (44)

As he points out in the chapter on Southern Baptists, denominations that celebrate congregational polity enable congregational culture to enforce conformity -- but for UUs, that conformity is liberal in just the way Jason says.

When I have some more time, I'll come back to the way more moderate UUs defer to the moral authority of more radical UUs -- a behavior that dismays me in the General Assembly and in other denominational settings because it masks the values and interests of most UUs, embraces the rhetoric and values of the more ideological, and generates false impressions that the movement as a whole is much farther to the left than it really is. I find it truly bizarre that "moderate" UUs -- the clear majority -- don't speak up more often. My working hypothesis is that they fear being judged "conservative" by the future and therefore defer to whatever sounds more liberal than they themselves are in the present.

Kevin M:

April 4, 2006 11:42 AM | Permalink for this comment

Picking up on what Philocrites just said:

I find it truly bizarre that "moderate" UUs -- the clear majority -- don't speak up more often. My working hypothesis is that they fear being judged "conservative" by the future and therefore defer to whatever sounds more liberal than they themselves are in the present.

I find myself in an interesting position regarding this issue. I grew up UU in the suburban South, where my mainstream liberal opinions stuck out like a sore thumb; I went to a Quaker college in the Northeast in the early '90s where I embraced radical identity politics and moved decisively to the left; I went out to San Francisco after college where I swam for many years in a sea of radical opinion, which provided an excellent schooling in its inadequacies; and in the wake of 9/11, I made a decisive personal break with radical leftism, choosing to embrace moderate liberalism not as a compromise but as what I consider a more authentically moral stance. This last development occurred just as my volunteer work with the UUA put me in a position where, out of political necessity, I had to keep my mouth shut about my deep reservations about "anti-racism/anti-oppression" thinking.

So I'm a moderate UU who is willing -- eager, really -- to challenge the radical UU left, but I may not be a typical case. I haven't always been a moderate UU. I'm actually a radical UU apostate: when I attack radical UU views I'm attacking views I myself once would have held. This both gives me the confidence to take a stand (I understand quite well what I'm taking issue with and why) and makes the whole thing unfortunately personal. I feel the need to speak up, but it's hard to do, especially on blogs, where in the very act of saying these things I fear I come across as an angry crank, and not as the considerate and thoughtful person I am in person. I sometimes sound bitter, but for good reason: I sometimes am bitter.

So, my personal baggage unpacked, I have a few observations of my own about why moderate UUs defer to the "moral authority" of radical UUs. I think your theory that moderate UUs are worried about being on the wrong side of history has some truth to it, Philocrites. We generally see history as a matter of progress toward greater good (yet another place where our quintessentially Enlightenment project betrays its Christian roots!) and we like to champion our historical role on the vanguard of this. Not all Unitarians were abolitionists, but it's the abolitionists we celebrate. I once had an eager young UU vegan suggest to me that history would judge my cheesesteak lunch the way that history has judged Thomas Jefferson's slaveholding. We take these arguments seriously.

As a result, every radical UU cause describes itself in terms of progress against a past injustice. So gay rights is not seen as a condition humanity has never before been able to achieve because we've never before had the modern ideals of autonomy, tolerance and privacy combined with a society in which people have such remarkable freedom as to how, when, why and whether they partner and procreate; it's seen as a triumph over past "oppression." Here, Oppenheimer's insight that the civil rights movement was the template for countercultural politics is right on target.

Once one issue gains this traction, the next wave of radical advocacy (transgender rights, polyamory rights) adopts the same rhetoric. Soon we are debating "oppressions" that are patently absurd. My personal favorite -- you can't make this stuff up, friends -- is "ageism." It's a ridiculous concept, but in UU circles it's effective rhetoric: if you want to advocate for youth programs, you're far better off if you can claim to be working against an ongoing oppression. First, you make it very awkward for other UUs to oppose your agenda. Second, you gain an air of urgency. There will always be youth, so if you argue that youth programs are important because youth are important, you are essentially arguing that youth programs are no more or less important now than they always have been and always will be. On the other hand, if you argue that action is needed to overcome past oppression, you are arguing that the current situation is unjust and must change ("how long must we suffer?") and you're arguing that radical transformation is not only possible but just around the corner.

So it's difficult to take a moderate stand against this kind of excess not just because you fear the judgment of history; you must also worry about the judgment of the people in the room with you. To compound the difficulty (and, I hope, to soften my criticism) I must point out that radical UU reformers are not cynics: so, for example, the youth who talk about "ageism" really believe in it. If there's one thing that we UUs are uncomfortable doing, it's challenging one another's convictions.

There are other factors in the current situation that make moderate UU protest awkward. One is that radical UU ideologies are often very obscure. They're next to impossible to argue against because they're next to impossible to understand. In fact, if you attend a UUA anti-racism/anti-oppression training (I've been to a few), the trainers will respond to critical questions by essentially telling you that even they don't really understand what they're advocating: they appreciate your concerns but you have to get past them; anti-oppression is a "process" that they continue to "wrestle with;" you can't really explain it, but instead you have to "get it," which essentially means swallowing your reservations and going with the flow. It's pretty surreal and quite disturbing if, like me, you believe that skepticism is the vital foundation of liberal religion.

Finally, moderate UU protest is hard because moderate UUs very much want to see the kind of progress that radical UUs say can be achieved. To pick on anti-racism/anti-oppression once more, I believe that this viewpoint has gained traction because race is such an emotional issue for us. We can all see the racial divide in our society and we would all like to see it healed; we recognize that people of color in our churches are often uncomfortable and we naturally find this a cause for concern. Those with a radical ideology are the only ones who claim to see a way to solve the situation; when moderates object to their ideas, the natural response is, "well, what would you have us do?" and the honest answer ("I'd have us continue to do what we can to be welcoming and inclusive; I'd have us continue to support progressive social policies; I'd have us recognize that, ultimately, the question of race in our society is bigger than we are and that there's very little that we can do") is lame and unsatisfying. This is a final reason moderate UUs have trouble resisting the moral authority of radical UUs: they're the ones with a vision.

Jeff Wilson:

April 4, 2006 12:34 PM | Permalink for this comment

I haven't had a chance to read the rest of the chapter, so I'll hold back most comments for now. But I did want to say a little something on this side subject. Kevin's comment is better thought out than mine will be. I agree that there may be a degree of "holding back because history may judge us" among UU moderates unwilling to become especially vocal about their opposition to UU radicals.

But I also think there's another dynamic at work here: UU radicals are just that--radical--and deeply committed to an all-encompassing vision. Whatever the agenda (anti-racism is the obvious but hardly the only one), it provides a lens through which life, society, and UUism are perceived. Radicals (at least the vocal ones) on the whole tend to be young, relatively inexperienced, optimistic about change and naive about the past, and with energy and time to commit to pet causes. And, often but not always, they tend to be confrontational. This is the real key.

UU moderates may have strong reservations about radical UU subcultures/agendas, but they don't have the same visceral religious commitment to moderation that radicals have to radicalism. When a radical and a moderate meet, the radical is more likely to amp up the heat/decibel level of the debate much more quickly, and will eventually push the debate into an attack on the moderate's morals/spirituality/tolerance/commitment to UUism. For the radical, the only way to fulfill the religious vision of UUism is by accepting their radical agenda--thus UU moderates are actually holding back the fruition of "authentic UUism." Moderates tend to find these sorts of discussions distasteful and drop out--UUism has a very clear mainstream culture that avoids many sorts of confrontation. This has the appearance of ceeding the argument to the radicals, and thus radicals become an increasingly prominent voice in the denomination at the same time that they are becoming increasingly less representative of the denomination on the whole (which at this point has become offended and lets the radicals carry on with one another, turning its attention to other matters).

So it isn't necessarily that moderates are deferring to the moral authority of UU radicals. In some cases it seems plausible that they are in fact choosing to ignore UU radicals altogether because they both don't support the radical agenda and don't wish to be involved in shouting matches with people they see as fanatics (and thus impossible to debate with).

Kevin M:

April 4, 2006 02:38 PM | Permalink for this comment

How about a quick post for a change? First, Jeff, when you've got a sec, I'm curious to hear more about your objections to the book. Second, I thought I'd point out that your observation that radicals tend to adopt a confrontational stance dovetails with Oppenheimer's observation that the evolution in countercultural politics was an evolution in style, from the peaceful, suit-and-tie wearing civil rights era to the hip and in-your-face black power era. This trend continues.

Finally, I just wanted to say that I appreciate Jaume's complaint about all of this comparing and contrasting of "UUism" with mainstream American culture. I'm not sure what to say about it other than to apologize; my criticism of UUism past and present is deeply intertwined with my reading of American religious and intellectual history and I don't see how to separate the two. It's a topic for another time, but since J. and I have talked past each other on this issue before here on this blog I wanted to acknowledge the concern.


April 4, 2006 04:00 PM | Permalink for this comment

Taking Eco/Oppenheimer seriously UUism is clearly not counter-cultural. We are a quirky part of the establishment. Pat Robertson is counter-cultural. His ideology is a clear threat to the establishment, which is why we fear it.

I was a little kid in the 1960s and had a good opportunity to observe the reactions of middle-aged UUs like my parents to the events of that period. Most UUs I knew had been strongly commited to racial equality for a long time. In the late 1950s the (white) leader of the local Urban League and the (black) leader of the local NAACP were both members of my parents' Unitarian church. My parents were thrilled by the Civil Rights movement and the 1964 law. They supported women's rights and opposed the Vietnam War. They thought little about gay rights before Stonewall in 1969, but once it became an issue, they were strong supporters. I don't think they saw any of the 60's liberation movements as counter to their culture. They tended to see them as "our side winning".

On the other hand their politics was always rooted in a belief in persuasion and democracy. They placed a lot of value on liberals winning elections. When they saw pictures of young people throwing rocks at police they tended to think, "This is only going to make more people vote for Nixon." I remember my mom, a Duke alumna, proudly commentlng on how nicely dressed some Duke anti-war demonstrators were. They liked Phil Ochs and Arlo Guthrie. Mick Jagger meant nothing to them.

There are a lot of people in my church today who resemble the UUs I fondly remember from the 1960s. So it is hard for me to think of UUism in general being transformed by any counter-culture.

Christine Robinson:

April 4, 2006 04:08 PM | Permalink for this comment

The lack of moderate voices at GA

It seems to me that there are two very different kinds of "moderates". There are those who are moderate because they have not the time or inclination to really study issues and come to firm conclusions. Therefore, they tend to the safer, middle ground. We could call those the "unconcerned" moderates, and I don't mean to denigrate them. Not a one of us has the time and energy to study every possible issue, and only fools jump to extreme conclusions without good reasons. These unconcerned moderates can be swayed, however, by opinions they trust, by passion built up in a group, and by good speaches...all of which are endemic at General Assemblies. And they are unlikely to participate in the debate, as they know they are unprepared, but they will vote with the "radicals".

A second kind of moderate is moderate by conviction, perhaps even out of religious conviction such as a Taoist desire to avoid all extremes. Such moderates are likely to be especially good at seeing the strengths of both sides of the arguement or especially good at empathizing with proponents of both sides.

These folks can not possibly make a good arguement for their complex position in an alotted three minutes or a one page hand out, so they don't speak up, either. And since they are likely to be attacked by at least one, if not both sides, sometimes in quite personal ways ("racist" comes immediately to mind), they don't have much incentive to try, if they even stay for what will seem to them like a simplistic discussion. In the end, neither a yes or no will seem adequate to them, so they won't vote at all.

Signed, an inveterate moderate-by-conviction (could you tell?)

Christine Robinson:

April 4, 2006 07:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

On Counterculture

By these definitions, "Counterculture" is an all encompasing social vision/lifestyle/worldview, (which has to be viable, yet!) That's a very challenging definition, and UU's are much too embeded in the culture to fit it. If there's any organized "counterculture" today, it's the leadership of the radical right.

The word "countercultural" strikes me as much more useful. This adjective describes some aspect of a community's outlook/values/lifestyle which is radically different from that of the prevailing culture. UU communities are countercultural in at least three ways. They are gender-egalitarian, and sexual preference-egalitarian. Gender equality gets lipservice in the mainstream but I don't get very far from my church doors before I feel the pressure. Sexual Preference egalitarianism isn't even given lip service in the mainstream culture, although progress is marching on. It's our communities which have shown the world, especially the church world, how enriching and enlivening it has been to extend rights. welcome and responsibilities to women and gays and lesbians.

Thirdly, I would maintain that UU's are countercultural (although not quite as consistantly) about issues of consumption, caring for the earth, taking the trouble to values. Just walk into the parking lot of your neighborhood Lutheran church on Sunday morning. The cars are huge, expensive, and shiny. Our parking lots have some of those cars, but overall, it's a very different scene. (not to pick on Lutherans, but it happens that I did go to a Lutheran church last month. Since I know the pastor, I know that the overall demographic of my church and his is basically the same. But something else was visibly different)

Embeded in the professional, scholastic, and political culture as we might be, these are three ways in which we're living our values very differently from the mainstream. It doesn't add up to our being "A Counterculture", but it does add up to "being countercultural"


April 5, 2006 03:43 AM | Permalink for this comment

Kevin, I appreciate your mention. I fully understand that your reflection starts with your everyday experience, which is obviously American and with American cultural references and values. That is fully reasonable and even perhaps the proper way to look at things (the global level needs to be based on the local level and first-hand experience, otherwise it is just wishful thinking). I rather meant more elaborate analyses of what UUism stands for in America as the embodiment of "American liberalism", this being the true essence of the nation as delivered by the Pilgrim Fathers/Declaration of Independence or whatever historic moment you prefer. It is this identification that some authors do between UUism and what they see as "authentically American" that makes me wonder. I think that the UUA and its congregations need more international involvement beyond the assistance or humanitarian level, and these theories do not help to open the UUA to the world.


April 5, 2006 06:55 AM | Permalink for this comment

I wonder if Jaume and Kevin's discussion of the Americanness of UU culture is actually getting at something deeper: When I said earlier that Unitarian Universalism seems culture-derivative, I was pointing to the way that modern Unitarian Universalism distills and emphasizes values in its larger culture rather than introducing or creating them. (I also have in mind the fact that our churches can only sometimes take credit for giving us the worldview we call Unitarian Universalist: Those of us who converted are often right when we say that "We were Unitarians without knowing it" because be embraced the worldview before we found the church.) But it's much easier to look around and see those values as national values than it is to realize that they're philosophical values, rooted in modern assumptions about the world.

Those philosophical values have taken deep root in Europe and the United States and have spread to most parts of the rest of the world. But because for us Americans, the story of those values is part of our national myth, we have a hard time separating them out of our own myth and seeing what's more universal -- or, you might say, more Protestant, or more cosmopolitan -- about them.


April 7, 2006 02:21 PM | Permalink for this comment

To continue the side conversation about UUism & America:

I think it's legitimate to say Unitarian Universalism is an American religion. So is Mormonism, even though it has a strong international presence. Just like Anglicanism is British, yet international. Or Taoism and Confucianism being distintively Chinese in spite of their universal appeal.

It seems only the great missionary religions like Islam and Christianity outgrow their origins. And then not completely. Anglicanism seems to be in this transition right now.

Religions have hometowns, even when they're universal. They will continue to embody those hometowns in significant ways, even when they leave home and begin to define themselves beyond them. And they in turn begin to define their hometowns as people begin to identify that hometown with that religion. It's a reciprocal relationship.

To clarify: Suppose for a moment that UUism is authentically American, that saying so is descriptively correct. (I believe that it is.) If this is true, why should we not say this? Who, factually, is being harmed by saying this?

Consider Emerson. He has universal appeal, and yet he is an authentic expression of America. He is an quintessentially American writer. Is saying so harmful? And if not, why is saying the same of UUism harmful?

And if we choose to not say that UUism is American, aren't we depriving ourselves of that reciprocal mutual identification? In other words, wouldn't America and UUism benefit by our saying that UUism is truly, authentically American, as a much needed counterpoint to, say, the Religious Right?

Kevin M:

April 8, 2006 11:18 AM | Permalink for this comment

It's that last agenda that Chutney mentions, the desire to argue for a link between UU values and "true" American values as a rhetorical response to the religious right, that underlies much of my support for the practice. I appreciate why international UUs find this alienating, but I think we need to give ourselves permission to do it. Otherwise we undercut our ability to be effective in certain areas in the name of inclusivity.

(Oh, and to underscore Chutney's observations, I'd point out that there continues to be considerable tension between Arab and non-Arab Islamic countries over the cultural vs. religious content of Islam.)

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