2016-06-30
One Sunday, the Unitarian Universalist church in Florida that David Burton was attending featured a Sufi Muslim leading a "universal service"--which included passages from the Jewish and Christian Bibles, the Qur'an, and Buddhist and Taoist texts.

To Burton, it was what a UU service should be, drawing meaning from the spiritual wisdom of various faiths. Instead, Burton said, "That was one of the most controversial services ever held in that church."

"Theists and Christians are almost unwelcome in many UU congregations," said Burton, an attorney who lives in northern Virginia. "It's rare to hear a UU minister discuss God from the pulpit. On many occasions, when a minister does discuss God from the pulpit, it leads to division because there's such a strong humanist or atheist representation."

The problem, as he sees it, is that the Unitarian Universalist Association--the denominational organization of UUs--has strayed far from its roots, emphasizing diversity and pluralism and in the process leaving no room for traditional belief. To counter that trend, he has started a new organization seeking to return Unitarianism to its roots as a God-centered liberal religion based on spiritual exploration.

The new Unitarian organization has taken the name American Unitarian Association. To those with knowledge of UU history, that name speaks volumes about the intent of the new organization: Before merging with the Universalists in 1961 to form the UUA, the main Unitarian denomination was called the American Unitarian Association.

And that has the UUA crying foul, and planning to file a lawsuit against the new AUA within the next few weeks.

"The UUA doesn't have any problems with this group's theological and political perspectives," said John Hurley, spokesman for the UUA. "We do have a problem with their use of the name, which is the name of one of the antecedents of the UUA."

But to Burton and Dean Fischer, co-founder with Burton of the new group, adopting the AUA name sends the message that its members want to return to a Unitarianism they think has been abandoned by the UUA.

The UUA is the latest liberal religion to face charges that in the name of tolerance and diversity it has abandoned its core beliefs. A recent Hartford Seminary survey found that the fastest-growing religious groups place the strictest demands on members--which is not what religious liberals tend to do. Meanwhile, across the spectrum, denominations are facing pressure from small but vocal groups to re-emphasize traditional religion over liberal theology and left-leaning politics.

In recent months, several Episcopal parishes have opted to associate with an African Anglican diocese, rather than their local one, claiming they are theologically closer to the more conservative Africans. In 1999, Reform Judaism, after a bitter debate, adopted 10 principles pushing the denomination toward more traditional Jewish ritual. And in the United Methodist Church, the conservative Confessing Movement, launched in 1995, declaring that the UMC "is now incapable of confessing with one voice the orthodox Trinitarian faith."

While conservative movements are particularly strong today, they are an ever-present element of liberal religion, said William Hutchison, a historian of American religion at Harvard.

"It's not only natural, it's a good thing. Liberal movements at some point need corrective measures," Hutchison said, explaining that without them, faith groups can veer too far from where they started.

The new Unitarian organization, which was incorporated in September 2000 but only became public in late December, remains small; its founders declined to discuss how many members it has garnered so far, saying only that membership is growing at 20% per month. Co-founder Dean Fisher said a quarter of the group's members are clergy or have a pastoral care background, and that several UU congregations are considering affiliating with the new group. The organization's first major event will be held April 21-22 in Alexandria, Va.

The UUA bills itself as a "non-creedal" religion, which means members decide for themselves what to believe and how to act. Founded as a Christian faith, the modern Unitarian movement was formed in the early 19th century. Unitarianism, as the name implies, rejected belief in a divine trinity in favor of believing that God is one and indivisible.

As Unitarianism grew during the 1800s, its membership included Ralph Waldo Emerson and U.S. President William Howard Taft. Then, as modernism and secularism developed around the turn of the 20th century, Unitarianism embraced these new ideas and began shedding dogma. With the birth in the1930s of the humanist movement--which rejects any traditional notion of God--Unitarianism's shift away from Christianity became more apparent. To this day, secular humanists remain influential in the movement.

The American Unitarian Association merged in 1961 with the Universalist Church of America, and the AUA name was retired. Secular humanism was a dominant force in the newly formed UUA through the late 1980s, when many UUs began to seek a more spiritual path, Hurley said. Since then, he said, UU humanists have been joined by resurgent UU theistic and Christian movements, along with newly formed UU Buddhist and pagan groups.

"Compared with 20 years ago, theism has clearly made a comeback, in particular with the laity but also with the clergy," said Roger Finke, a religion sociologist at Penn State University and author of "Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion."

In his book, Finke tells of a UUA pastor in New York City who a few years ago was booed in UUA churches when he "concluded services with a benediction that invoked 'God.'" Today, though, that pastor says he can "get away with God language with impunity."

Gila Jones, an active UU member, said the UU's religio-political balance is partly a result of its leadership. As younger people take over, she expects to see an even heavier emphasis on spirituality.

"The group I call the 'pre-boomers' tends to be rather intellectual, suspicious of traditional religion, and very interested in politics," she said. "The boomers and post-boomers, on the other hand, are frequently involved in redefining religion on their own terms and discovering a spirituality that is meaningful to them personally."

She added: "As people of my generation start to have more time to devote to leadership, UUism will turn more towards spirituality and somewhat away from politics. That's already happening. Many of the pre-boomers feel threatened by these changes."

However, she believes the AUA has defined itself too narrowly by focusing on monotheism and rejecting political activism: "The UUs I know who feel UUism is too political are not in favor of removing all politics from our religion," she said. "I know many UUs who want more spirituality in UUism, but few of them are monotheists."

Still, the trend toward greater spiritual emphasis has not accelerated far enough or quick enough to make everyone happy. Even within the UUA, there are some who are dissatisfied with where the denomination stands religiously.

Davidson Loehr, pastor of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, Texas, said he isn't familiar with the new AUA group, but he sounded many of the same themes.

"There isn't the degree of honest and probing religious discussion there should be, mostly because in UUism.the politics is primary, the religion is secondary (or worse)," he wrote in an e-mail correspondence. "I've hardly ever found colleagues who are interested in or able to carry on any informed and significant discussion on religious questions, so I share the frustration of folks who wish there were fewer UU political/social cells, and more UU churches."

He added, though, that he stays with the UUA because "there is still more freedom to pursue what I believe is honest and responsible religion than there is in any other denomination."

To the founders of the new AUA, however, theistic UU groups do not have a strong enough voice in the UUA and are not welcomed or respected nearly enough. And they, too, complain that politics has been given too heavy an emphasis.

"Most people don't get up on Sunday to hear a political rally," Burton said, "but to hear an intelligent discussion on ethics, on religion, on how to live one's life."


Join Beliefnet Today!

more from beliefnet and our partners