The religion section in Saturday's Washington Post spotlighted a Daniel Burke story from the Religion News Service. While reports on orthodox religions often wonder whether followers won't leave "in droves" because a church won't bend to the popular will, Burke explores why the Unitarian Universalists can't keep adherents when it tries not to have any identifiable creed at all.
That's intriguing, except Burke seems to accept that the UUs don't have a "dogmatic" faith, when it appears that its inability to actually talk about God for fear of offending people might be a dogma all its own, an anti-dogmatic dogma. Here's how Burke began:
A recent Sunday service at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore ended with an apology.
Laurel Mendes, a neo-pagan lay member who led the service, feared that a reference to God in the hymn “Once to Every Soul and Nation” might have upset the humanists in the pews. So, Mendes explained to the congregation that religious doctrine had been duly scrubbed from hymns in the Sunday program.
“I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable by reciting something that might be considered a profession of faith,” Mendes, 52, said after the service. “We did say ‘God,’ which you don’t often hear in our most politically correct hymns.”
Welcome to a typical Sunday in the anything-but-typical Unitarian Universalist Association, a liberal religious movement with a proud history of welcoming all seekers of truth — as long as it’s spelled with a lowercase “t.”
Dramatic readings from the biography of 20th-century labor leader John L. Lewis? Sure. An altar crowded with Christian, Buddhist, Islamic and Jewish symbols? Absolutely. God-talk? Umm, well . . .
The other question a religion reporter might ask is: Can you call it a "religion" if the "religion" shuns "God talk"? Isn't that just a large discussion group with an avoidance strategy? The failure of the Unitarian Universalist Association to grow is a serious challenge to the liberal-media notion that orthodoxy and popularity should be opposites in the modern world. Why aren't people rushing to the no-God-talk pews?
For 50 years, the UUA has conducted a virtually unprecedented experiment: advancing a religion without doctrine and hoping that welcoming communities and shared political causes, not creeds, will draw people to its pews.
Leaders say its no-religious-questions-asked style positions the UUA to capitalize on liberalizing trends in American religion. But as the UUA turns 50 this year, some members say a “midlife” identity crisis — trying to be all things to everyone — is hampering outreach and hindering growth.
Nearly 4,000 Unitarian Universalists gathered in Charlotte on June 22-26 for the association’s annual assembly, during which they celebrated their golden anniversary. But membership in the UUA dipped in 2011 for the third consecutive year, to 162,800, a loss of about 1,400 members. The number of congregations fell by two, to 1,046.
Many UUA members say they find meaning and purpose in the familial bonds forged in congregations, regardless of religious beliefs. But some say the UUA is held back by members’ reluctance to proclaim religious tenets — a tricky situation for an association that includes Christians, Buddhists, Jews, pagans, humanists and spiritual refugees from a host of more dogmatic faiths.
See? Burke thinks it's "less dogmatic" to shun any mention of God lest anyone get up and leave. Burke, like other reporters and pundits, cites a poll showing 65 percent will say yes to the UU proposition that "multiple religious paths can lead to eternal life," but can't grasp that perhaps that's people expressing a politeness or an American-sounding freedom-of-religion note. But saying yes to that pollster doesn't mean that's how you'd schedule your Sunday, shunning the God talk:
The Rev. Peter Morales, the UUA’s current president, calls those trends, as well as the exodus of Americans from most Christian denominations, “an amazing opportunity.”
“Millions of people are actively seeking a progressive, nondogmatic spiritual community,” he said. “Our challenge is to be the religious community that embraces those people.”
The Unitarians have a YouTube video called "Voices of a Liberal Faith" that manages to claim three of the first six presidents as theirs, and a reverend claims their faith is "ingrained in the values that American Constitution was put together with. It's about acceptance, and tolerance, and liberty and freedom to believe."