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Totally Normal but Extra Special #FoF

Posted by Carey McDonald // October 22nd 2013 // Future of Faith, Issues and Trends // one comment

Are We Moving Beyond Religion?


How have the shifts of the last few decades in the American religious landscape, described in our previous two posts, affected the Unitarian Universalist corner of the world? We are not a Christian faith, but we are culturally similar to Mainline Protestant denominations like the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ, in ways such as the format of Sunday services, the way we ordain ministers, and our governance structures. Indeed, I am always surprised when I talk with my colleagues who work for other denominations that they seem to be facing the exact same challenges in their own context that we do as UU’s. The 1999 UUA Fulfilling the Promise survey also echoed many of the themes that broadly describe American religion: respondents reported that their congregation matches their values, that the community in their church is what would be most missed if it went away, and that they fail to perceive that Unitarian Universalism reflects any specific racial or cultural identity.[1]

We are, in many ways, faced with the same challenges as our peer Mainline Protestant denominations and Jewish brethren, and we all suffer from a little bit of historical amnesia. When discussions around trends in American religion address the changing nature of religious involvement from that of previous generations, what we consider “normal,” or our starting point for the discussion, is actually an historical anomaly. The 1920’s and 30’s saw debate that might seem familiar to our ears about the crumbling of religious institutions, but in the decades following World War II, the United States saw a huge upswing in religiosity and denominational involvement. Led by returning GI’s and their wives who had yet to enter the workforce, middle class Americans were founding congregations left and right in the new suburbia and, in tune with the era’s anti-communism, weekly church attendance surged from 31% to 51% between 1950-1957.[2]

This means that the expectations which individual congregations have about their organization, priorities and available resources, and indeed the construction of many our Unitarian Universalist church buildings themselves (outside of new England), are a product of a particular moment in history that represented a high-water mark of institutional commitment and devotion. I recall one of the elders in my home church in Columbus, Ohio telling me about when the congregation, founded in the 1940’s, built its first building in the 1970’s. The bank representative showed up one Sunday and required each family to sign a $10,000 equity stake in the project!

Another excellent illustration of this phase is the tenure of American Unitarian Association president Frederick May Eliot who, under his leadership from 1937-1958, saw growth of adult membership in the denomination by 75% prior to the 1961 merger with the Universalists.[3] Yet, in retrospect, it would have been unusual to not see dramatic increases in membership and involvement among Unitarians given the trends at the time. Eliot’s leadership helped created the administrative structure and feel that continues to this day in the organization of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the relationships between congregations, and I suspect we wouldn’t have to dig too far to find similar stories in other Protestant faiths. However, we now know that these relationships and expectations reflect a specific past era more than a fixed notion sustained throughout the centuries of American history of how religious institutions behave.

Even as we are subject to the same weather as our neighbors, Unitarian Universalists do also occupy an interesting place in the left bank of the valley. And though we are small, there is actually a wealth of data available about us (it turns out that we love to talk about ourselves). [4] One enduring distinction is that we are a “religion of choice.” A survey in the early 1970’s found that 85-90% of members of UU congregations were converts,[5] and a 2004 member survey by the UU World magazine reported that the average UU had only been a church member for 10 years.[6] A plurality of our converts have come from Protestant denominations, and most UU’s I know can easily recall a story (perhaps our own) of how someone “finally found the UU church and thought ‘where has this been all my life?’”

For decades Unitarian Universalists have found a niche in the religious marketplace that offers a home for those searching a non-dogmatic liberal religious community, seen in our “Uncommon Denomination” and “Is God keeping you from church?” [7] campaigns. However, when we look towards the future we see that the theological liberals or anti-authoritarians who found us comfortably at the end of the Mainline Protestant spectrum in the 1970’s are today going further and leaving religion altogether.[8] It seems that we will not be able to prosper in the future by this same strategy, especially given the progress that most Mainline denominations have made in becoming more welcoming of the spectrum of gender and sexuality and more accommodating of theological questions.

[2] Putnam, R. D. and Cambpell, D. E. (2010) American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY. Pg 84. http://americangrace.org/

[3] Brooks, L.G. (1960) Abridged from The Proceedings of the American Unitarian Historical Society (13, Part 1). http://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/unitarians/eliot_f.html

[4] For a good sampling, check out the Unitarian Universalist Association’s page on demographic and statistical information http://www.uua.org/directory/data/demographics/

[5] Tabb, R. (1973). Religion Among the Unitarian Universalists: Converts in the Stepfathers’ House. Seminar Press: New York, NY. Pg. 12.

[6] Lewis & Clark Research (2005). UU World 2004 Readership Study. Pg. 11.

[8] Putnam, Campbell (2010). Pg. 146.

About the Author

Carey is the Chief Operating Officer for the UUA.
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