As you doubtlessly recall, the “I’m Goin’ to Praiseland” episode of The Simpsons opens with an ice cream festival at the church.
Lisa, listing the ice creams at Rev. Lovejoy’s table: “Wow, look at all these flavors! Blessed Virgin Berry, Commandmint, Bible Gum…” Rev. Lovejoy, handing her a bowl: “Or, if you prefer, we also have Unitarian ice cream!” Lisa, peering into the bowl: “There’s nothing here.” Rev. Lovejoy, crossing his arms smugly: “Exactly.”
The Unitarian jokes on “The Simpsons” (there are a disproportionate amount; Matt Groening is rumored to be Unitarian Universalist) were always a high point for my family, because it meant that someone noticed us. UUs are everywhere—some of us literally founded the country!—but we tend to hide in plain sight.
Before I regale you with stories of our stealth abilities (Priuses: very quiet), let’s address that age-old question I constantly fielded growing up: are Unitarian Universalists Christians? Short answer: no. Longer answer: well, depends on which one you’re talking to.
In the late fourth century, the Nicene Creed pretty much locked Christianity into the whole Holy Trinity thing. But that didn’t automatically stamp out dissenters; for example, “Unitarians” believed in the oneness of God, not in the Trinity. “Universalists” believed in universal salvation, that a just God would not condemn anyone to Hell. Needless to say, both groups, despite their otherwise generally typical Christian affiliations, were persecuted, with just about everyone else (dark times).
Many centuries passed before these belief systems would regain a toehold. But thanks in part to a long history of dissident sects in Eastern Europe (see Jan Hus and the Hussites) and the influence of the Protestant Reformation, a Unitarian king of eastern Hungary/Transylvania, John Sigismund, issued one of the European world’s first edict of religious tolerance in 1568, and Unitarian congregations sprang up to focus on following the teachings of Jesus as a man, rather than worshipping him as a deity. The ideas spread across the Danube to other areas of Europe, but the rest of the world wasn’t as welcoming. Michael Servetus, the Spanish author of “On the Errors of the Trinity,” was burned at the stake as a heretic. Later, Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen and inventor of soda water (and, thusly, the patron saint of my SodaStream) was run out of England in 1791 after a mob burned down his house and lab, in part for his dissenting Unitarian views .
Around the same time, in the American colonies, the inevitable Calvinist backlash led many people to shed the notion that they were trapped in the hands of an angry God and opted instead for belief in free will and a benevolent God. Unitarianism began to take hold in the Northeast and was a big part of many of the founding fathers’ belief systems. (Thomas Jefferson, late in life, declared, “I trust there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.”) The Universalists got a toehold as well, finding biblical support for a 100% loving, everyone-gets-an-A+ God, and were particularly evangelical with their beliefs.
So the Universalist message was spreading through the United States rapidly, while the Unitarian message had headquartered itself in Boston. (Canada, by the way, also has a thriving UU presence that dates back to the late nineteenth century; they additionally have the delightful honor of preserving the tradition of Icelandic Unitarian churches, though I’m not sure why that isn’t Iceland’s job.) Both the Unitarians and the Universalists were particularly garrulous when it came to social justice and activism, counting among their ranks abolitionists, prison and mental hospital reformers, and, among many others, Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross. Notably, the Universalists were among the first in the U.S. to ordain women, beginning in 1863 (they were beat by the Congregationalists, sometime-bedfellows of the Unitarians, by a decade). One preacher who worked in both churches, Thomas Starr King, made this handy note for us in distinguishing between the two “U” groups: “Universalists believe that God is too good to damn people, and the Unitarians believe that people are too good to be damned by God.” Warm fuzzies all around.
As the years went on, both Unitarians and Universalists looked outward to other world religions for further spiritual guidance (was there some well-intentioned but ill-executed cultural appropriation? Almost certainly), and supported the growth of other movements. The transcendentalists spun out of the Boston Unitarian scene, yearning for a “more intense spiritual experience,” unsatisfied with the typical Unitarian “sobriety, mildness, and calm rationalism“; I shudder to think of the tone of Unitarian services at the time, if building cabins in each other’s backyards and keeping annotated budgets on the materials was deemed a headier experience.
Fast forward to the early 20th century, when a swelling humanist movement in both the Unitarian and Universalist traditions helped set up what would eventually become perhaps the friendliest merger in the history of organized religion; in 1961, seeing the potential for increased impact, the Unitarians and Universalists of the United States officially joined forces. The now-combined Unitarian Universalist church (sometimes shortened to just “the Unitarian church,” sorry, Universalists) immediately turned its sights on the civil rights movement; 20 percent of UU ministers joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his Selma-to-Montgomery marches. Ever since, the UU church has been ahead of the cultural curve on other social and political issues, as well.
In 1961, the UUs began their (still-continuing) call for a moratorium on execution as capital punishment. In 1963, they passed resolutions in support of access to birth control and abortion. In the 1970s, they rewrote their hymnal to erase the masculine bias (“man” to “person,” etc.; in 2009 they published a Spanish language hymnal companion); in 1996, they affirmed marriage equality. The 2012 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, convened in Phoenix, focused on immigration reform.
The steadfastly liberal approach to policy isn’t just church-wide memos; it extends to the congregational level, too. The church I attended growing up used a thorough and matter-of-fact sex education program that included in its curriculum very dated (at the time, I’ve been assured they’ve been updated) slides of interracial and gay couples illustrating pleasant and respectful foreplay (lesbians, never tell me that you don’t always brush one another’s hair before sex, I never want to be disabused of that belief), as well as a visit to a condom store. And UUs’ cutting-edge-ness extends to social practices; if my childhood experiences in the early 1990s were any indication, American UUs got to yoga and veganism before most of the rest of the country. We’d be fantastic hipsters if we weren’t so fastidiously uncool and earnest about everything.
Speaking of! The UU church tends to skew whiter than the rest of the country (which, as of 2012, is at 63 percent non-Hispanic or Latino white and dropping). However, the church’s whiteness ratio does seem to be following the downward trend of the rest of the country; the number of white UUs went down 2.5 percent, 91.5 to 89, from 1997 to 2008). The church also has a higher percentage of those who identify as multiracial than the general population (4 percent to 2.4 percent, respectively).
As I mentioned earlier, UUs are pretty stealthy; we show up all over historical movements and modern culture, but don’t typically make a big fuss about religion specifically. A brief and incomplete list of Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Darwin, Maria Mitchell, Arthur Schlesinger, Paul Newman, Christopher Reeve, Mary Wollstonecraft, Lucy Stone, Gary Gygax, Buckminster Fuller, Barack Obama’s mother and grandparents, Pete Seeger—the halls of Unitarian Universalism are littered with brilliant, concerned, mostly white people.
When I was a kid and people would ask me what Unitarian Universalists believed, I just took to saying that, to me, it felt more like a club than a religion. You can be UU and also identify as Buddhist, Wiccan, Christian, whatever. Play on, player. The church isn’t creed-based and doesn’t dictate what you can believe about God, the afterlife, whether pigs are unclean, etc., as long as you are actively working to not be a dick and you generally adhere to seven basic principles:
The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
While Unitarian Universalism has strong roots in Christianity, unless you are part of one of the old-school northeast congregations with 150-year-old buildings that date to the Unitarian era, you probably won’t see any overt Christian imagery in a UU service. The icon of the UU church is not a cross but a flaming chalice, adapted from the symbol used by Eastern European Unitarians and other religious liberals and minorities trying to escape from Nazism with the help of a Boston-based Unitarian group in the days before World War II. (If you’re into the intersection of art or graphic design and wartime subterfuge, you’ll want to read this story.
Even though I haven’t attended church in more than a decade, I can still recite the weekly chalice lighting like your kid brother speed-saying grace:
We light this chalice to remind ourselves to treat all people kindly, because they are our brothers and sisters; to take good care of the earth, because it is our home; and to try to live lives filled with goodness and love, because that is how we will become the best people we can be.
Presumably Reverend Lovejoy could get behind those ideas.