Columns Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

Taking the Unitarian Universalist diversity crisis seriously

The Rev. Peter Morales | Photo Credit: Unitarian Universalist Association/YouTube (screenshot)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared in Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Subscribe here to receive Sightings in your inbox on Mondays and Thursdays.

How did the Unitarian Universalist Association, a merger of two most liberal church bodies, escape notice in this column for two decades or so? Since it made big news (given its small size), it has received national attention for the past month, a notice that prompted some research on our part. The conventional research instrument, Google, provides access to many features of UUA life and history. For example, look up “Unitarian Universalist jokes,” and you will find it to be as capable as are far larger bodies of being the butt of jokes, some the subject of mini-feuds with, e.g., humorist Garrison Keillor, who finds them funny. Let’s take them seriously.

At issue recently was the furor over racial policies and practices in this most liberal denomination, sparked by the resignation of its president, the Rev. Peter Morales, in the face of a ruckus over the appointment of what critics see as too many privileged (i.e., white) candidates and leaders. Let it be noted that the UUA’s language and stated intentions are all on the side of changing the image of a denomination that has a very small percentage of minority or marginalized leaders. Morales’s stepping down was followed by two more resignations at the highest level. To no one’s surprise, a variety of caucuses and rights-and-interest groups quickly organized and spoke up. Finger-pointing and soul-searching among members made headlines wherever the UUA has local congregational representation.

The public relations embarrassment has served notice not only to liberal denominations but, at this moment, to them especially. There is no place to hide for a group whose language may be “correct,” its public pronouncements up-front, but whose pews and letterheads down-home continue to embarrass many Unitarians and Universalists. The same is true for the majority of largely white Protestant bodies. What is most obvious is that there are no quick fixes, no matter how much argument, energy, posturing, and reforming is in evidence.

The church bodies with which I am most at home have spent the most recent half-century repenting, revising, and revisiting formerly underserved publics. Their proclamations, preachments, and voting patterns reveal impressive evidences of efforts to bring about change. But what we have learned during these decades is that, even in religious bodies where one seldom hears defenses of racial segregation or snubbing, it is very difficult to see the development of truly interracial—and, truth be told, interclass—congregations. Let it be noted that not all resistance to integrative change is based on hatred, prejudice, or snubbing on the part of the privileged against the marginalized. Reluctance to change can sometimes be read as a tribute to the enduring power of existing religious communities to contribute positively—in the form of art, creativity, pastoral care, etc.—to those who make them up.

On these terms, one asks: must all African-American or Hispanic or Asian or white, Euro-American cohering congregations abandon their cultural trademarks, even as they feed the soul and motivate generosity? And can they, if they try? At their best, many are learning to invest in what they inherited, and to combine that with learning from “the other.” Listen to them: they will confess, spiritually and artistically, that their lives and worship are improved. We can hope that the liberal Unitarian Universalist body, as it patches itself up, can find ways to serve the less privileged and, sometimes, less liberal communities of believers. Let the Unitarian Universalist jokes survive, but we may notice, along the way, that “the joke’s on us” if we don’t learn.

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.


Click here to post a comment

  • Interesting article. It seems like no matter who we are, we define ourselves by our statements, and others define us by our tendencies.

  • “I know my humor is outrageous when it makes the Unitarians so mad they burn a question mark on my front lawn.” – Lenny Bruce

  • Change had to come. The UUA has been white dominated for too long. Electing a black or hispanic President (William Sinkford and then Peter Morales) did not end the racial controversies in it any more than doing so ended them for the USA in general with Barack Obama. Ultimately, reforms must be from the bottom up to be self sustaining and that requires education of the masses. Until our hearts are changed, laws and public statements won’t matter.

  • Here is a comment sure to stir the pot: the recently deceased C. Peter Wagner said that of his 30+ books, “Our Kind of People,” on the Homogeneous Unit Principle was the most important. In Europe and other ethnically-mixed cultures it was accepted without fanfare. In the melting pot of the US is was said to be racially prejudiced. History is proving him right.

  • So are churches, after they have made the appropriate Mea Culpas’, meant to go out and Shanghai, Dragoon, Kidnap, Hijack, and otherwise forcibly bring people into their churches who might for cultural reasons, beyond other reasons, be uncomfortable in that environment? I’m all for a community of the faithful that includes people of every tribe and nation. I have attended both racially diverse congregations and Christian events. But until our communities and municipalities become more mixed, the onus is not necessarily on the church since many people become members of the faith communities nearest them geographically and culturally. If people think the churches need to be more integrated, in the broader sense, then they need to have the courage to do so themselves, and any honest church should be prepared to welcome them.

  • I’m casting back nearly three decades now, but I remember a friend of mine who went to a UU congregation started going to the Baptist church. Why did you do that? I asked. He said, Well, the congregation got a $50,000 bequest and was practically divided in two over what to do with it. He wanted peace, so he went to the church he’d gone to as a child. This sounds kind of like the same thing.

  • Oh, man, that “Homogenous Unit Principle” is just racism, classism and sexism all rolled up into one.

  • “On these terms, one asks: must all African-American or Hispanic or Asian or white, Euro-American cohering congregations abandon their cultural trademarks, even as they feed the soul and motivate generosity? And can they, if they try? At their best, many are learning to invest in what they inherited, and to combine that with learning from “the other.” Listen to them: they will confess, spiritually and artistically, that their lives and worship are improved.”

    I am sure there are many sincere seekers among those attending the Unitarian Universalist Church. The problem with the decline in numbers for denomination has NOTHING to do with the lack of racial and ethnic diversity among its adherents. This ednomination’s growth problem has EVERYTHING to do with the denomination being way too diverse in what it professes to believe!

    I’ve had several friends who were devout UUs–assuming there is such a thing! Based on what they’ve shared with me at various times, their basic belief statement is something on the order of, “We believe in the legitimacy and authenticity of all human belief systems.” That would include every known religion plus witchcraft and shamanism, plus any human belief system that claims to address one’s spiritual quest.

    This simple belief statement is far too broad for most middle and working class Euro-Americans, Asians and people of color. They need a church with a more clearly defined set of beliefs they can believe in and practice. Most ALL these sincere seekers of whatever social and economic class, have found any church preaching and practicing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to feed their souls!

  • “I know my blog posts about U*U clergy sex abuse are outrageous when it makes the U*Us so mad they hire a lawyer to accuse me of the archaic crime of blasphemous libel.” – The Emerson Avenger

    Just Google Unitarians and “blasphemous libel” if you want to know more about how the Rev. Dr. Peter Morales led UUA sought to misuse Canada’s blasphemy law in clergy sex abuse cover-up legal bullying. . .

  • What “masses” do you see in Unitarian churches? They’re nearly as segregated by class as they are by race.
    It’ll just provide a few jobs for non-White humanities/social science grads with degress that are otherwise useless.