Contemporary Unitarian Universalism was formed during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Some of the very eldest UU’s still remember those days. It was during these decades that Unitarianism shifted from thinking of itself as “the most enlightened wing of the Protestant Establishment” to staking out an identity as religious non-conformists at odds with the religious mainstream. Come here Rev. Schade explore the history of our faith in those times.
Part 1: Marching to the Beat of A Different Drummer
Let’s turn Unitarian Universalist history on its head.
We’ve heard UU history before: our founding stories, our ancient roots, the stories of the Unitarian and Universalists who are the heroes of our movement — the firsts and the “greatests”. We lift up those people who were prominent in our history AND in the history of the world. The version of Unitarian Universalist history we know is the story of how we made history.
Let’s turn that on its head, and ask: how did history make us?
Let’s start here.
Think about the typical successful Protestant church in the late 1940’s and 1950’s. That church has a healthy membership by our standards. The minister is a white male, and he has a study. That minister has a secretary, a real secretary, not an church administrator, and she manages the great man’s schedule, and even types his letters, and answers the church phone. But the rest of that church staff is, by our standard, quite small. Because that church doesn’t actually do very much. Weekdays, the small staff is around during the daytime, but on many nights, the building is empty. There are not a lot of small groups, support groups, or book clubs. The Sunday School program is, by our standards, rudimentary — just simple indoctrination into the faith.
Protestant churches in the 40’s and 50’s were about the Sunday service; and the Sunday service was about the sermon; and the mission of the church was to spread its particular message. The message was some variation of the Christian doctrine. Sunday morning was not “a celebration of community.” it was the proclamation of the church’s understanding of the truth. The ministry was the message. The message was the ministry. The church was an institution to support the message.
This is the Religious environment out of which contemporary U/Uism grew. The eldest among us remember it as the church of their childhood.
The leading churches of our denominations were that kind of church, but with one key difference. Our message was different. We were skeptics about the traditional doctrines of Christianity. And, we were committed to an individual’s freedom of belief. How our message had evolved to that point is a longer story, but by the 40’s and 50’s, that was where we were.
We were non-creedal. We were non-dogmatic. Many of our churches still called themselves Christian, but many UU’s didn’t believe in God at all, and the ones that did, did not believe in a “personal” God. Many of our churches, especially outside of New England were humanist.
Our hymnal was the red hymnal. It was published first in 1937 and lasted until the early 1960’s. It contains complete orders of services; some of those orders of service are completely humanist and others are theistic and Liberal Christian. Readings those days were from a variety of sources — a little pair of volumes from Robert French Leavens was popular, published in 1927 and published again and again. Other popular sources were the Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore and Kahlil Gibran, of Lebanon.
That was us in the postwar period: the most Liberal and broad-minded of the Protestants religiously, and in the public sphere, Unitarians thought they were the most enlightened wing of the establishment. In many cities and town, the Unitarian church was one of the elite churches.
But let’s widen the view a little. There were three historical trends that were to re-shape those Unitarian and Universalist Churches.
One: the Cold War.
As part of the Cold War, powerful business and political leaders sought to “Christianize” the United States of America — as an ideological counter to “Godless Communism.”
Kevin Kruse, a professor of History at Princeton, has written a very interesting book, called “Under God” and it is the story of how powerful elite corporate forces in the USA sought to promote religiosity and public piety in the late 40’s and 50’s.
Here are some highlights of that effort: in the early 1950’s, the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and “In God We Trust” was inscribed on our currency. Political and Business leaders met in well-publicized prayer breakfasts, not only at the national level, but in every major city. The National Advertising Council ran radio, TV and billboards urging everyone to attend a worship service at the house of worship of their choice every week. President Eisenhower publicly allied himself with Billy Graham. By the way, Eisenhower twice beat the last Unitarian to run for President, Adlai Stevenson. Weekly church attendance peaked in 1959.
At the same time, because of the Cold War, the government promoted scientific knowledge and technical education. Both undercut the growing public piety of the day.
The First big trend was the Cold War; The Second was Suburbanization.
After World War 2, there was a housing shortage. Very little new housing had been built since the 1920’s. The Great Migration of African Americans from the South and the movement of rural people to the cities for wartime jobs, meant that a lot of new housing had to be built, especially for returning veterans.
Suburbanization was the chosen solution, implemented by the housing industry, but enabled by government policy.
Cheap farm land near the cities was developed into mass produced housing. The new houses were offered for sale on credit; an expanding mortgage market was guaranteed by the government. Governments invested in the infrastructure of the new suburbs: building the roads and sanitation systems, establishing schools, standing up suburban governments to administer new towns and cities. Vast wealth was created, much of that wealth accumulated as real estate equity held by the residents of the new suburbs.
Throughout most of the country, and less so here in New England, Unitarianism was centered in the cities. Many urban Unitarian and Universalist churches participated in the process of suburbanization.
But through a series of interlocking policies and practices, including unlawful violence, these new suburbs were effectively closed off for African Americans.
The result was the white working class left the cities and became a white home-owning (and indebted) middle class in the suburbs. Another outcome was the disparity in family wealth between whites and African Americans, which continues to this day.
The cities, of the other hand, were neglected, their tax base dwindling, cut off from credit for investment in housing, setting off a cycle of decay and despair. We now call that process “white flight,” a term that implies that it was just individual prejudices that drove the process. But exploiting and reinforcing those prejudices was a system of interlocking institutions and policies that drove it, for profits. If you want to understand what people mean by institutional racism, investigate how the present residential geography developed.
One: The Cold War
Three: The Civil Rights Movement.
The African American resistance to racism began to unsettle the thought world of the United States. The idea of “freedom” entered into public consciousness, especially for the liberals who were the majority of Unitarian Universalists.
So how did these three forces affect our liberal churches in the 1940’s and 50’s?
The Cold War fueled campaign to Christianize the country offended and threatened many religious liberals. It made us value religious non-conformity even more. U/U churches became the place where you went if you were a skeptic, or a more non-orthodox Christian. In a culture that felt coercive about religion, Individual Freedom in religion became our highest value. We were those who marched to the beat of a different drummer, to use the phrase of Henry David Thoreau.
Unitarians no longer saw themselves as The Establishment, although objectively speaking, U/U’s were pretty close. We thought that the Establishment was religiously orthodox, But we were not.
The commitment to individual religious freedom against an orthodox Establishment was a germ of counter-cultural attitudes in liberal religion. It may also be the genesis of persistent underestimation of U/U privilege and power. But, it eventually became the bridge to other social movements, especially the southern Civil Rights movement. It developed into what would become in the 1960’s a broad commitment to anti-establishment and rebellious movements in the United States.
One of the most important gaps in our UU self-understanding is this: how did a group of religious people who have such privilege and prosperity come to see themselves as powerless outsiders? Our experience of feeling religiously marginalized in the 1940’s and 1950’s may begin to explain this misperception, which may be important to our self-story.
But suburbanization also began to transform Unitarianism and Universalism in the 40’s and 50’s. This story has been told less.
Our largest churches had been urban churches. Congregation members lived closer together, often in a few (and usually the better) neighborhoods. They voted for the same mayor and city council reps, their children went to a relatively small number of public and private schools.
But, our congregation members were moving to the suburbs, as were the many white Americans. Even the churches that stayed in the city were suburbanized because the people they served had moved to the suburbs.
Suburbanization fractures and atomizes communities. Whatever cohesive community existed in the city, people scattered to different suburbs where no cohesive communities existed.
This was true in general, and also true in congregations. In the city, in that older urban congregation, the church and its congregation existed as one strand in a much larger network of relationships. In the suburb, community connections were much weaker, and the church became much more important to the congregant. In many cases, suburbanization made the congregation the community that mattered most for its people.
Suburbanization was also part of the process of the racial segregation of the USA that continues to this day. The suburbs were for white people by policy, and as our churches became filled with suburban dwellers, our congregations became whiter and whiter spaces, spaces where just being black creates a series of discomforts and unfamiliarities.
In sum, three historical forces reshaped Unitarianism and Universalism in the 40’s and 50’s: the Cold War push for religious conformity, the emergence of the Civil Rights movement and suburbanization.
Unitarians and Universalists responded defiantly to the push for religious conformity. We lifted up individual religious freedom and the separation of church and state in opposition to prevailing culture. We evolved from a church with a somewhat heretical message to being a new non-conforming community that comprised a congregation.
Unitarian and Universalist congregation conformed to and participated in the suburbanization of America’s housing. Our mission became creating community in a culture that was fragmenting as a result of suburbanization. We adapted to it, and adapted our self-understanding. We began the process of making our congregations the center of community for suburbanized people. Who we were became more important than the message we proclaimed. Our church’s implicit missions were moving from being “We are the voice of liberal religion” to “We are a warm and friendly community.”
But something new was also developing in the culture as a whole, throughout the 1950’s. The beats of the different drummers were getting louder. The sound of the freedom songs from the South and from African Americans everywhere were getting louder. A broader spirit of change, renewal and rebellion was emerging in the country. Change and struggle was in the air.
As part of that wider move toward progressiveness and liberalism, the Unitarians and the Universalists were going to merge to create something that could have a greater impact of the society which seemed to be moving our way.
That is where our journey takes us next: Unitarian and Universalists join the Revolution, whatever the heck that means. As Bette Davis says in “All About Eve”, “Hang on to your skirts; its going to be bumpy ride.”