By Kent R. Kroeger (Source: NuQum.com, October 17, 2017)
Our Unitarian-Universalist (UU) minister was midway through a touching and powerful Sunday sermon celebrating National Coming Out Day.
She had shared a story about the pending arrival of her and her spouse’s second child and how, when telling a stranger about the new arrival, the person assumed her spouse was a man, when, in fact, she is not.
It was a funny, well-told story about a same-sex couple having a baby in America today.
Then she told a second story about a married, middle-aged man who decided, after a lifetime of hiding his true identity, to tell his dying mother that he was bisexual. In the minister’s telling of the story, the man felt a personal burden had been lifted — he no longer needed to hide who he was to his mother.
As the congregation members around me nodded their heads in approval, and some even shedding tears, the minister’s sermon moved on to other poignant ‘coming out’ stories.
But I couldn’t let go of the middle-aged man’s story. I stewed on it as the minister and congregation had moved on. Something just rubbed me wrong about a man telling his mother, in the last days of her life, about his sexual preferences.
“What a self-indulgent sack of shit he is,” I thought.
Perhaps my wife had the same visceral reaction as I had to his story? In private, later, I asked for her reaction. But, no, she thought the story was just fine. “We shouldn’t have to go through life hiding from our family about who we love,” she said.
Yeah, but…I just couldn’t articulate at that time why the story felt so off key to me. So, I kept repeating the story in my head in the drive home…
His mother is on her deathbed and THAT is the time this man decides to inform his poor mother about HIS sexual preferences.
Mother Mary and Joseph! Really? The guy couldn’t let that one resentment towards his mother go unsettled? He HAD to get it off his chest. For whose benefit? Definitely not hers.
The UU minister’s story implied the man’s mother was not so open-minded about LGBTQ issues. For this reason, the man, married with adult children, never felt comfortable sharing his sexual identity with his mother — a not uncommon and often sad story repeated all over this world.
I empathize with his struggle and the need to tell his mother; but, presented as it was by the UU minister, the story did not come across to me like an act of liberation or love. It came across as self-serving and even vengeful.
The story glorified a selfish act. That’s the conclusion I draw from it.
The minister didn’t share the mother’s reaction to her son’s news because that was irrelevant to the story’s purpose. The mother was a stage prop in a man’s vainglorious ‘coming out’ drama.
Cue the congregational choir and their spirited rendition of “Standing on the Side of Love.”
Judge Not, Lest You Be Judged
Why is my judgment so harsh towards this tormented man in my minister’s story?
Insomuch as we are all self-centered, this man’s act felt unusually selfish and senseless; and when presented by the minister as heroic, it became a serious case of rhetorical overreach.
But more upsetting to me was that I could not find anyone else in the congregation, including my wife, that shared my ambivalence with the story. Can someone empathize with this man’s lifelong identity struggle and still question the way in which he brought his dying mother into the ‘coming out’ process? Based on reactions from my wife and other UU congregants, apparently not.
“When is it a good time to come out?” was one representative response.
Maybe if the minister had brought the mother into the story more I would have reacted better? I would like to think the mother gave her son a hug and told him, “Son, I always knew and I love you no matter what.” I need closure, even if it has to be Disney-fied.
But, apparently, other Unitarians don’t.
From listening to the post-church service chatter, I realized that most in the congregation thought the ‘coming out’ story was a potent representation of the sermon’s central narrative: We should not need to hide who we really are.
What could I have possibly misinterpreted in the story to think it was a tale of self-absorption, cruelty and heartlessness? I do not rule out that the problem is with me, and not the story.
Yet, I don’t think so in this case. Something bigger is going on. Something I’ve seen developing within liberal religious communities over thirty years. Something that widens my disconnect from what I hear more frequently from the pews at my UU church.
Identity issues are an unhealthy obsession with liberals. I’m saying nothing new in that statement. We hear it all the time now, post the 2016 elections. But I’ve never felt, until now, that how my religious community was doing harm to themselves in using identity — be it race, ethnicity, sexual preferences or gender — to turn otherwise empathetic people into self-absorbed…bigots.
Ouch! That hurts just to type the word. I’ve grown up in the Unitarian tradition. I refrain from calling anyone a bigot or a racist or sexist or whatever –ist you use. Because I am a Unitarian, I look to context and root causes when trying to understand other people’s behavior and attitudes. I would like to think I am empathetic, in part, because of my liberal religious upbringing.
Sadly, times have changed…and not for the better.
Partisan Religions are a Bad Idea
Two forces are drawing Unitarians away from their better angels. One is their growing acceptance of using identity issues to label entire groups as sharing one homogeneous, subconscious mindset. This is called stereotyping. It used to be a bad thing for anyone to do. Now it is acceptable for liberals and Unitarians to do it.
People are now assumed guilty of thought crimes based on the color of their skin or their sex organs, or whatever the out-of-favor personal characteristic at the moment. That is what Unitarians used to call bigotry.
Social critic, Reni Eddo-Lodge, gives voice to this new, socially acceptable form of bigotry in her article: “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race.”
It’s not just their race that disqualifies some people from being welcomed participants in the social dialogue. It could also be their ethnic category, or their sex category, or their gender category, or their sexual preferences…or some identity category we haven’t politicized yet.
The identity-centered parables delivered from the UU pulpits today no longer just strive to present the liberal religious ideals of exploration, inquiry and inclusion — they now also serve to exclude and shutdown certain groups and ideas as well.
Today’s UUs now like to identify their enemies.
The UU Church may reject the Christian concept of original sin, but have replaced it with their own original sins called racism, sexism and bigotry. Self-aware or not, we are all sinners in this regard, or so we are told from the UU pulpits.
All this dovetails into the second negative force infecting today’s liberal religious thinking: the partisan politicization of identity issues.
Much of what you hear from the UU pulpits today are also dominating conversations at the Democratic Party’s state conventions and monthly county committee meetings.
This new assumption of original sin is now part of the Democratic Party’s core orthodoxy, even if it is dishonest and ultimately harmful to the Party’s attempt to regain majority status in the state and national legislatures.
It is important to acknowledge the importance of politics in fighting for, and extending rights to, disenfranchised and disadvantaged groups in America. Without politics, slavery doesn’t end, women don’t get the right to vote, Social Security doesn’t exist, and same-sex couples don’t have the right to marry.
Politics is central to addressing social grievances.
But it is the level (and assumption) of partisanship driving social and civil rights projects today that is different. Martin Luther King met frequently with a wide range of Democratic and Republican leaders, and often non-sympathizers to the civil rights cause.
U2 frontman, Bono, tells a great story about how he persuaded North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, a conservative Republican, to advocate increasing U.S. aid to Africa to combat AIDS.
“The great old cold warrior himself, after going through this with him and explaining that there was 2,103 verses of Scriptures pertaining to poverty, and that second to redemption, this is the second most important theme, and that sexual behavior, even misbehavior, doesn’t seem to be there that much — it’s mentioned a couple of times in the Old Testament — he was amazing,” Bono said during a PBS “Frontline” interview in 2015. “Not only was (he) moved by this; he was moved to do something. And he had a press conference where he publicly repented for the way he thought about the AIDS virus.”
Those kind of stories are not happening anymore. Not consistently. Not in a way that is changing U.S. political outcomes.
Today, once you’ve politicized an issue, you’ve guaranteed it won’t be solved anytime soon.
Increasingly, Unitarian sermons and Democratic candidates merely lecture us on how our ascribed characteristics (e.g., sex and race), gender identities and sexual preferences define us. Today’s liberal Democrats frenzy feed on the notion that our identities go a long way in explaining all aspects of our lives, including how we vote. The new business school religion called Big Data is built on this deeply flawed, error-prone supposition.
To Unitarians and Democrats, we are captives to our identities (though we have the latitude to change our gender self-identification) and, therefore, not solely responsible for our personal outcomes. Social norms and institutions — built by others in positions of privilege — are the problem.
Unitarians and Democrats take the lead in the drumbeat against privileged groups within mainstream society. In their worldview, ‘mainstream’ equates to ‘oppressor.’ To think of the social dynamic any other way is to condone and reinforce its inherent biases, excesses, and dysfunctions.
Misery Loves Company
The irony, of course, is that most Unitarians, and increasingly Democrats, are from the most privileged segments in our society. If you are looking for wealthy and/or highly-educated white people, I’d start with any local UU church congregation. Looking for African-Americans, Hispanics, working-class Americans or Muslims? They are as rare in a UU congregation as ‘shit is from a rocking horse,’ as my grandmother might say.
No, it is hard to find undocumented Dreamers or victims of police violence in a UU congregation. But you will nonetheless find lots of suffering, miserable people.
Many religious theologies are founded on guilt and suffering — the Unitarians are not exceptional in that regard. But having spent a few years attending Catholic services (during my first marriage), there is something qualitatively different about how Unitarian theology treats suffering. For Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, it is an intermutual phenomenon. For Unitarians, it is personal. Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists accept it (mash’ Allah, says the Koran). Unitarians soak in it.
In market research we would say, Unitarians over-index in their miserableness quotient.
We UUs do not adhere to fixed dogmas — so we renamed them principles and covenants.
Fixed dogmas. This is where the UU Church and religious liberals, in general, go off course. Their foundational assertion that they are in a constant search for truth, and that their principles and covenants are evolving ‘works-in-progress,’ is merely a pretense.
The first of the UU Church’s Seven Principles emphasizes “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Yet, as so often happens with core religious principles, a simple dictum like this becomes neutered over time.
My UU religious community, while embracing the rights and dignity of all individuals from the pulpit, in fact, acts to enforce the exact opposite approach on a societal level. To UUs, your individuality is subsumed under, not above, your identity. What you think, how you interact with others, and even how you vote is largely determined by your identity.
If this sounds like the national Democratic Party’s approach to election campaigns, it is not a coincidence. The religious Left is the conscience of the political Left. They go to the same universities, vacation in the same locations, read the same books, and invest their 401ks in the same socially responsible mutual funds.
You may think you are enlightened or open-minded or broadly accepting of others, but to religious liberals, you are a category and, in that inviolable assignment, gain the institutional advantages (or disadvantages) inherent to all people in your category. You may have the approved attitudes, but that doesn’t change who you are.
“Oh, you’re a typical white male,” my wife chides. “Sounds like a Sean Hannity-level analysis to me.” She knows how to hit with words.
I did basically steal this rant from Tucker Carlson, but still, I ask her, “What would happen if I stood up one Sunday at our local UU Church and declared that my interpretation of the UU’s First Principle — the inherent worth and dignity of every person — must include the unborn.”
Most UU congregations do not have Tiki torches readily available, but there are usually enough unclaimed potluck dinner bowls and pans in the church kitchen to cause some real damage if thrown in the general direction of someone uttering a heretical statement like that.
The religious Left has zero tolerance for opinion diversity. Zero tolerance.
Ask former Omaha, Nebraska mayoral candidate, Heath Mello, a Catholic Democrat who is marginally pro-life, about the national Democratic Party’s tolerance for opinion diversity.
The Republican candidate ended up winning the race (53 vs. 47 percent) after Democratic National Committee chairman, Tom Perez, withdrew his unqualified support for the Mello candidacy due to the abortion issue. Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential vote in Douglas County (which includes Omaha) by 52 percent to 47 percent, and lost it by a similar margin in 2012. Omaha is a winnable constituency for Democrats.
Mello’s loss is natural product of a fixed dogma.
As Ohio congressman, Tim Ryan (Democrat), puts it: “Requiring everybody to fit some purity test is a recipe for disaster.”
And its not just abortion.
Do you oppose raising the minimum wage to $15-an-hour on the basis that the empirical evidence shows such policies generally have a negative impact on employment levels for unskilled labor? If this is your opinion, do not utter it on UU Church grounds or within earshot of your county Democratic Party headquarters.
What happened to their search for truth? Some might call this hypocrisy.
Yes, but the religious and political Right are no less rigid, you may retort. Maybe. But is that the benchmark the UUs want for their church or the Democrats want for their party?
And, for those that prefer empirical data, the evidentiary case actually suggests the political Right’s voters have more opinion diversity than voters on the Left. I recommend Lee Drutman’s analysis of the 2016 election which makes this observation — though he draws from it some terribly misguided strategic recommendations for the Democrats, such as: The Democrats do not need working-class whites anymore, so let them go.
A really bad idea, Democrats.
Cradle Unitarians of the World, Unite!
I need to be clear on this point. There is no other church for me outside the UU Church. It is my spiritual home port.
I was born into a UU family, which makes me a cradle Unitarian. My parents joined the UU Church in the late 1950s in direct reaction to the McCarthy-era and the rise of an odious form of religion-sourced bigotry that settled into places like Iowa (my birth state).
Religious bigotry was not invented in the 1950s, nor was its politicization. What was different was the prosperity spreading across the U.S. at this time. My parents were both college-educated; with the exception of my maternal grandmother, their parents didn’t even complete high school.
My parents openly questioned the religious dogmas of their Midwestern upbringing and soon realized many others in their age and social group felt similarly disconnected to their traditional religious roots.
My religious journey to the UU Church was second-hand, but I still share my parents’ reasons for choosing this religious community.
Once I moved away from Iowa for work and school, I didn’t attend UU services very often, but I reconnected when needed, particularly after the end of my first marriage and the death of my father. The UU religious community never failed to be there for me at those moments.
I met my second wife at the Unitarian Church of Montclair (New Jersey) and we have raised our 11-year-old son in the Unitarian Church. There is no other church for us.
So why do I now find Unitarians so frustrating? So intolerant? So close-minded?
I fear it reflects our times. We are all more polarized and less open to new ideas. Like dark matter accelerates the expansion of distant galaxies from our own, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter seem to serve that same function here on earth. We are all moving away from each other faster than ever. Sadly, my own church is part of the problem, not yet the solution.
Unitarians are ‘canaries in the mine’ for American liberals. If liberals are on the verge of collective over-reach, this will first manifest itself, often in extreme form, among Unitarians.
In the mid-70s, when I was entering my teen years, a small but significant number of Unitarians in our congregation embraced (or, literally, flirted with) the idea of open marriages. My parents thankfully resisted the concept. Yet, even as bystanders, their marriage suffered damage.
Open marriage was an awful idea in 1970s and the broken families and psychological carnage this minor movement left in its wake quickly ended its limited popularity. The Unitarians, always willing to question social norms, paid a disproportionate price.
But Unitarians have always loved being the vanguard for any movement that rams a stick up conservative America’s ass.
Fast forward to the present, a similar dynamic exists among Unitarians with respect to identity politics, particularly transgender issues. Empathy for the bias transgender individuals experience on a daily basis is one of the admirable features of the UU Church. There is no religious tradition more supportive to those who outside mainstream norms.
However, for most Americans, the transgender issue is relatively new and it draws out many complex attitudes and deeply-held prejudices. It does not surprise me that a Public Religion Research Institute poll in February 2017 found that 53 percent of Americans oppose bathroom laws that disallow transgender individuals from using the bathroom of their choice.
It also doesn’t surprise me that 72 percent of Americans, according to a Rasmussen Poll in February 2017, don’t believe this is an issue for the federal government to address.
Unitarians have the luxury, even an expectation, to stand against mainstream opinion when it stands on the wrong side of an issue. The Democratic Party, however, does not have that freedom.
UUs would rather shame others for not supporting the bathroom rights of transgender Americans (who are about 0.6 percent of the U.S. population), than understand why 47 percent Americans have a problem with transgender individuals with male genitals going into women’s bathrooms.
Unitarians and Democrats share one unfortunate trait: their intellectual arrogance and intolerance for opinion diversity. They speak of empathy for some, but for those holding opinions outside their “green zone,” it is aggressively withheld.
There is someone else many think lacks empathy, to go along with his probable narcissistic personality disorder. Yes, that’s an provocative comparison to make, but I regret that it fits.
Donald Trump’s personal flaws are well-documented. He is ill-informed. He is dangerously inarticulate. He also appears incapable of understanding and soothing other’s pain — but isn’t identity politics just a group level manifestation of this same pathology? If you are outside an approved group, you are shunned. There is no attempt at finding common ground. That would require listening, constructive dialogue, and…well, empathy.
Dialogue? Empathy? Why bother? Its much easier just to get your people to turn out and vote.
Donald Trump is a symptom of a sickness within society-at-large, not a cause. And it infects all political persuasions. The illness doesn’t discriminate.
There are other Unitarians and Democrats that lament the current emphasis on identity theology and politics. We see its divisiveness and know that it may cause as much harm as it relieves.
We also know from experience that the tight correlations between group identities and attitudes are not permanent and can shift rapidly.
Those of us that doubt the efficacy of identity theology and politics are not all white or uneducated. Some of us may be rich, but most of us are not.
We lurk in the shadows like a secret society and exchange approving winks and nods every now and then. We exist, but we are quiet. We regret the increasingly narrow path we see our religious community going down and fear our preferred political party is not far behind.
But we are not leaving our progressive faith community and still lean towards staying in the Democratic Party, even as both make it increasingly clear that people that think like us are not welcome.
About the author: Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY). He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.