Dancing in Rhythm with the Times

In 1961, the Unitarians and the Universalists merged into the present Unitarian Universalist Association. It was also the year that John Kennedy was inaugurated as President of the United States, proclaiming that “the torch has been passed to a new generation.”  The first sit-ins resisting segregation at lunch counters had just begun the previous summer. There was a powerful new spirit in the air, and the new UUA was right in step with it. Rev. Schade will talk about Unitarian Universalism in the 1960’s: our hopes, our loyalties, and our disappointments.

In his Inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy declared that “The torch has passed to a new generation.”


The outgoing President, Dwight D. Eisenhower was born in 1890. In World War 2, Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces, the very highest ranked officer of all the militaries of the Allied nations. He commanded hundreds of thousands of troops. Skipping way down the hierarchy of the Armed Forces, down down down eventually you would find the incoming President, 27 years younger than Ike, commanding a small patrol boat with a crew of 12, in the Pacific, until he was wounded.


The torch had passed to a new generation indeed: from the generation that commanded the fighters of World War 2, to the generation of young men and women who actually did the fighting, the generation we now call “the greatest generation.”


1960 was a moment of generational transfer. Generational Transfers happen every 20 or 30 years and roll across the landscape in waves. And generations overlap. With Kennedy, the greatest generation was coming into its prime, but most of the Congressional leaders that Kennedy dealt with were of Eisenhower’s generation. At the same time, the next generation, the Baby Boomer’s were in middle school, and becoming the primary audience for popular culture. Generations rising, taking power, and fading away.


We are in the midst of a period of generational transfer now. The average age of the outgoing 115th House of Representative was 57 years old. The average age dropped 10 years when the new Congress is sworn in. It’s all about the Millennials now. Even in our own denomination, it’s happening. I’ve reached that age when I know 90% of the ministers who are retiring, and 10% at most, of the new ministers.


And as we look at our history, we need to remember that contemporary Unitarian Universalism was created right a time when “the torch was passing to a new generation.” The final steps of the merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America were completed just four months after John Kennedy was inaugurated.


The UUA merger happened five years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and a year after students began their sit-ins at the Woolworth lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina. The UUA Merger occurred in the midst of major political re-alignment. In the 1960 campaign, 70% of Negro voters had voted for Kennedy, a significant switch from their traditional Republican allegiance.


UUism was born in a period when reformist liberalism was ascendent. Most of us have never lived in a period when reformist liberalism was ascendent; we have lived under a conservative hegemony in politics, religion, and culture.


The UUA was fully enlisted from its beginning in the prevailing racial liberalism of the day.


Let’s stop here and define racial liberalism, because it’s a concept that explains a lot to this day. Racial Liberalism was how white people understood the goals of the early Civil rights movement. Racial Liberalism is integrationist: the goal is to integrate the existing structures of society. Racial Liberalism minimizes racial difference, believing that white and black people are essentially the same, under the skin. Racial liberalism is color-blind in aspiration, (Steven Colbert “doesn’t see color.”) Racial Liberalism assumes that if we just give black people the chance to be with white people, they will advance and become like white people. Racial Liberalism hates racial bigotry and prejudice and sees it as a sickness infecting other people. But it is paternalistic, and white supremacist in that it assumes that white ways are better and that Negroes will want to adopt them.


Racial Liberalism was an essential feature of the powerful, forward-looking, rational and progressive movement reshaping history in the early 1960’s . And the new Unitarian Universalist Association was forever shaped by its sense of itself as the religious expression of that movement. The world was looking for a religious faith that take them boldly into the future and as Rev. Harrington said, “We are that faith.”


But what was that faith? The times they were a changing, and the times were a changing us, as well. The new Unitarian Universalism was not the same as the old Unitarianism and the old Universalism, or really even close.


The old Unitarianism and the old Universalism were formed in response to some very specific questions in systematic Christian doctrine: about the person and work of Jesus, about the nature of sin, and about the extent of the salvation that God extended through the Christ. These were burning hot questions in the 18th and 19th century, and the new Unitarian Universalists answered them with a resounding “whatever.”


They had been shaped by the times, the expansion of scientific and technical knowledge, leading them toward humanism and secularism. The new Unitarian Universalism did not think that the work of the religious community was to educate and convince people about these religious questions or to worship in a particular way.


The new Unitarian Universalists believed that the purpose of the religious community was in its public ministry. That was where the real work was: public ministry, or what they then called “social action.” The church was supposed to a public voice for certain liberal values: tolerance, peace, human rights, democracy, integration. The church and its ministers were to join coalitions with other faith leaders, and issue statements, and preach fiery sermons. We were to be part of a great social movement for great and noble causes.


And, to a large extent, we were. If you put aside the fact that our main work was, and remains, conducting a worship service every week, meeting our budgets, and keeping our buildings from falling down around us, UU churches participated in the great social movements of the age. Our large urban churches attracted many black members. Many white and black Unitarian Universalists  were members and leaders of the Civil Rights organizations, like the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Urban League, on both the local and National level.


Some of our Southern congregations worked with great bravery and sacrifice to support the Civil Rights Movement in the South.


And, of course, we all remember, because it is glorious part of our story, that our ministers responded to Martin Luther King’s call for faith leaders to converge on Selma, AL to push for a Voting Rights Bill. The Rev. James Reeb and Viola Luizzo, a layperson from First Detroit, were martyred in Selma.


Those were heady days for Unitarian Universalists. In those days, UU’s were not as organizationally minded as we became later; we did not create mission and vision statements, and strategic plans. But I think that UU’s had a clear sense of mission, and a vision of what our churches were to be.


Yes, there was much missing. In the 1960’s, we did not have a clear sense of UU worship. Remember this was before there were chalices, and joys and sorrows, and water communions, and flower communions, and times for all ages. Many congregations were still sharply divided about humanism and theism in worship. Lots of congregations had the “book report and a concert” style of worship. Nobody clapped, not even on 1 and 3, much less 2 and 4. Children were never in worship. By and large, there were few pastoral care teams. The ministers were older white men. All those innovations were to come later.


But for the most part, Unitarian Universalism in its first decade of growth was moving to the beat of its times. And there was an enthusiasm that showed in growth and optimism. UU’s had a sense of growing into our destiny. That is our genesis story: that Unitarian Universalism is a faith at the forefront of what Seamus Heaney calls ‘a tidal wave of justice, in which hope and history rhyme.” And that’s still  who we are, just as much as you are still what you have been since childhood, no matter what has happened since.


But, of course, all of that was going to come to an end. The historical situation was changing, and Unitarian Universalism did not deal with the changing situation well.


I want to speak very carefully and precisely about what happened at the end of the 1960’s in the United States, and in the Unitarian Universalist Association.


The most important was the evolution of thinking in the African American community in the United States. While African American people have always had many different political opinions and strategies, the early Civil Rights Movement had advanced the goal of integration and the ideology of racial liberalism during the 50’s and early 60’s. Racial liberalism framed the Black struggle in such a way that it minimized the disruption that the liberation of black people would have on the nation’s institutions. It seemed to promise that things would stay the same, but integrated, instead of segregated.


What white people could not see at the time was that racial liberalism assumed the superiority of white institutions, and white culture. A white person could think of themselves as not a racist if they were willing, even eager, for black people to participate in those better white institutions and culture. Martin Luther King said that Sunday morning was the most segregated time in American life. Racial liberalism thought the solution would be that black people would be welcomed into white churches; certainly not that white people would join black churches.


In the heyday of the early 60’s, racial liberalism was working in many of our urban churches, but black thought was quickly moving beyond it. Was it Stokely Carmichael who said, “why would you want to integrate into a burning house?”


By and large, African American people, especially the activists, stopped giving any support to the illusions of racial liberalism in the late 1960’s. That Civil Rights coalition based on racial liberalism broke apart, and the politics and culture of the whole country became dominated by the so-called White Backlash: Nixon, Wallace. That story has been told many times over. Our Unitarian Universalist part of that story is captured in the story of the Black Empowerment Controversy.


Detrich Bonhoeffer, the German Resistance theologian, is quoted as saying  ‘Those who love their dream of a … community more than the … community itself become destroyers of that … community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.’


Bonhoeffer was talking about Christian communities but the point still is relevant. Many of us have the experience in our younger days of “being in love with the idea of being in love, than we were in love with an actual person.” White UU’s were so in love with the dream of their integrated color-blind UU denomination that they destroyed the actual community that existed with the actual black people already in relationship with them. White UU’s were committed to their abstract ideals than to the actual black people. And so when the black people in the Unitarian Universalist movement caucused separately and demanded power over our social programming, white people freaked out. Eventually, black Unitarian Universalists withdrew from our movement.


The childhood of contemporary Unitarian Universalism was over. The innocence of white UU’s had ended. We were hardly the friends of black people that we thought. Moveover, the great social movement of which we were at the forefront was being defeated politically and culturally. The future was not ours for the taking.  We were not that faith.


There is a grandiosity of late childhood. Perhaps you remember it in your own life. You get good at shooting baskets and you imagine yourself an NBA star. Your little band is going to become rock and roll stars. Your poems will be published someday in the New Yorker. You will become a movie star, or a supermodel. It all seems possible.


But then, life happens and you learn to manage your expectations. It is disappointing, at first, to get a more realistic view of your strengths and talents, and learn that you will probably have an ordinary life. But then, through some magic of development, you learn that your ordinary life is as wonderful as anything you dreamed of. But that grandiose childhood dream is still a fundamental part of your identity, a banked fire within.


The vision voiced by Donald Harrington was our collective grandiose dream of childhood. We would be the faith of a great movement. We would be great because we were good, and, this is part that we didn’t see, we thought we were good because we embodied what was the best of the time: its racial liberalism. That grandiose and heroic view of ourselves is still a part of our fundamental identity, our core of energy.


And when our African American siblings pointed out in 1968, and in every decade since, and still point out, that our racial liberalism is really just another version of white supremacy, we come crashing to Earth.


We should listen to our African American siblings, because ‘down to Earth’ is where a wonderful life can be led. Perhaps now, in this moment of generational transfer, when the torch of liberal religion is being passed to a new generation, it may be finally so.