A Faith for the Few? (text & audio)

I am learning that I need to be careful of the topics I choose for worship, lest I be given lessons I’d just as soon not have. This week is a good example.

As I began mulling over how I would address the topic of class this Sunday, I promptly lost my wallet. Actually, it turned out it wasn’t lost – thanks to a reminder from my wife, Debbie, I discovered it eventually in a coat pocket. But for a good hour or so Monday morning I was tearing around frantically, convinced that it was gone. What would I do now?

It took a while to calm down after I found it, but when I did, I reflected on the experience and how I had reacted to it. Why was this such a big deal to me? I don’t carry much cash in my wallet, so I wouldn’t have lost much money, and just about everything in it of any importance can be replaced, even if it is a pain to do so. No, there was something more than that, and the more I thought about it, I realized that it has something to do with class.

Open my wallet and you can learn a good bit about my class status. Prominently displayed is a driver’s license: no big deal, right? A matter of course for most of us here, but a credential that already puts me in an echelon above many other people in Asheville, and as accepted identification gives me access to everything from an airline seat to a bottle of wine.

Then, you’ll find a credit card and debit card, evidence that I have sufficient income and assets to persuade at least a couple of banks to take a chance on giving me credit. Again, not especially uncommon, but a credential that puts me in even more exclusive company.

And then, ah, a health insurance card, evidence that either I or my spouse are employed – probably full-time or nearly – at a company large and bountiful enough to provide this coverage.

And then you’ll find a random collection of cards that round out the picture – from a library card, not especially exclusive, to a triple A membership, a little less common – and then cards for things like Ingles, the Biltmore, the North Carolina Arboretum, 12 Bones, Ultimate Ice Cream, and more.

OK, all this may be interesting at some level. But it doesn’t really address what had been the source of my distress. When I thought about it, I realized that all those things in my wallet speak not only to whatever my class status may be; they also remind me of my privilege. They give me access and entrée that make my way in the world easier, more enjoyable and less stressful. And they command some level of respect among other people.

What’s tricky, of course, is that the respect is tied to the credential, not to me. Without the credential, where would I be, who would I be? If I couldn’t get someone to vouch for me, if I didn’t have some record that I was who I said I was and was deserving of that privilege, what would I do? That’s part of what I found myself thinking about as I mulled over having to replace the contents of my wallet.

These were not the sorts of things I spent must time thinking about when I was growing up. I was raised the oldest son of a psychiatrist, lived in a nice house, took vacations, had my way paid to college, and lived with the expectation that my adult life would follow suit.

And, why not? That was the script that my social circle followed, and an important part of that circle was the Unitarian Universalist church my family attended. This was Princeton, New Jersey, in the 1960s and early ‘70s and the baby boom was booming. The church was growing quickly with many families like ours – young professionals or people associated with the university. It appealed to people looking for alternatives to their childhood churches, and the UU dedication to freedom of belief and religion responsive to reason felt right to them.

This trend was repeated across the association. Indeed, it was the heart of its growth strategy. As early the 1950s Unitarians had made a point of targeting growing suburbs near universities as the most promising sites for new congregations. Princeton was one of a number of the places where that strategy proved right.

Yet as Mark Harris, one of our eminent historians and minister of the UU congregation in Watertown, Massachusetts, points out, as suburban churches grew, urban and rural churches declined and with them the hope of cultivating the kind of diversity in our movement that we said we sought. Congregations still insisted they wanted to appeal to people of all races, classes and ethnicities, but as a rule it was white, middle- to upper-middle-class whites who found a home there.

In his book, Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History, Mark notes that the two strains of our movement followed different paths to this place. Our Unitarian forebears succeeded in the theological debates in early 19th century Boston, and for years they occupied many of the high pulpits there that drew the elite. While there were reformers among them, as a rule, Mark says, “Unitarians tended to sacrifice social justice for the need for harmony.”

Leading families of Boston joined Unitarian congregations as did the educated elite. In the 1850s, he says, two-thirds of the wealthiest Bostonians were Unitarian, as were 80% of the faculty at Harvard University and three-quarters of its student body.

After the Civil War, though, their numbers began to decline, so the Unitarians began a campaign to expand. Once again, they targeted the educated elite, seeking to found churches in college towns. They had some success before the program ended at the turn of the century.

Universalism followed a different path. It first took root among farmers and tradespeople in the hill country of northern New England in the early 19th century and then spread mostly to small towns in the Northeast and Midwest. Intellectual rigor mattered, but educational achievement didn’t as much. And this had its roots as much in theology as the social situation of its people. Unlike the Unitarians, who saw religion as a matter of self-culture, Universalists had the goal, as Mark Harris puts it, of drawing the entire human family in “one moral community.”

Both denominations struggled in the early 20th century, and many churches closed. In the post-war boom, it was the Unitarians who put a priority on starting new congregations, and like their forebears a century before they targeted college or university towns. The “fellowship movement,” as it was called, was a huge success, resulting in the founding of dozens of congregations, including this one.

But unlike their predecessors a century before who sought to cultivate congregations of the elite, planners of the fellowship movement projected a vision of their new starts as egalitarian centers, drawing people from many backgrounds and making a religious home for all. In an early report, Lon Ray Call, who led the Unitarian extension work, argued that the faith was “now growing most rapidly among those without college training or any religious background.”

And yet, it is hardly surprising that these congregations started in college towns, led by college faculty or other professionals, attracted people of similar backgrounds. And, again, hardly surprising: they were less welcoming to and generally rarely recruited into membership people of other educational or cultural backgrounds. And so it remains in many of our congregations. A national survey of religious identification 20 years ago found that of all religious identifiers Unitarian Universalists had the highest level of what was called “socioeconomic attainment,” essentially education, employment, income, and property ownership.

Now, on one level this is hardly anything to complain about. That people of means and educational achievement find a home in our congregations is a good thing. But another aspect of that survey is worth taking note of. Of all the religions asked about in the survey, ours was by far the smallest in size. And not only that, but since then our numbers have continued to dwindle.  So, the question arises, are we just a boutique religion, a convenient gathering place for some progressive folks of privilege? Is that our vision of ourselves? Are we, as Mark Harris puts it, a faith of the few?

Well, clearly not if we take seriously how we describe ourselves and our aspirations, not if we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; and acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth – to quote just the first three of our seven principles.

We know that the appeal of this religious movement is broader than those demographics would suggest because many people who don’t fit them are coming to us now and have been for many years. The problem is that some have a hard time finding a home here, and we lose when they leave.

Successes in life – wealth, education, professional achievement – are to be celebrated – Ph.D.’s and Priuses are grand things – but they only get us so far. The famous passage in the Book of Mark in the Bible where Jesus declares, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” speaks to this.

The point I take from it is not that there is anything wrong with riches. It is that riches get you only so much, and a couple of things they won’t give you is peace of mind and heart.

My experience losing my wallet was a good reminder of this. As I was scrambling to find it, I was suddenly aware in an almost existential way of how vulnerable I was.  I depend on the privileges represented by the cards stuffed in my wallet to ease my way through the world, to expand my options when opportunity presents itself and to shelter me when the storms come. Without it, the world was suddenly a scarier place. And it reminded me of how for so many people, that scarier place is where they live. By dint of luck or circumstance they lack the privileges I carry in my back pocket.

For those of us who carry such privileges, it’s easy to make them a lens through which we view the world. But they give us a distorted picture, one that overlooks how fragile our hold on such things is.

There are those among you, I know, who have first-hand experience of this. Job loss, illness, divorce – you name it – can unhinge your life and with it all the assumptions you held about how you would make your way in the world. But more important, they separate us from each other.

This takes us back to an important gift from our Universalist forebears – the understanding that our hopes, our values, our very identities are realized in relationship, and all that we do to divide the world into sheep and goats only serves to estrange us from ourselves.

Our congregations, then, if they are to be successful, must become places where we are invited to imagine a different way of being, a way of being that begins with our ultimate commonality, the truth of our unity. It can be a hard place to get to, and sometimes we run up against each other’s sharp edges along the way. But we are called from that deep source within us that we name in many ways – hope, love, God – to return and reengage.

The work that this religious movement, this faith calls us to needs all of us – as I say each Sunday, whatever our heritage, whatever our history, whomever we love – if we have our hope of making an impact on the world. And none of us brings a privileged perspective to that work because we are all of us, however we make our way in the world, fragile and fallible beings with our own struggles and our own fears.

In the end, as Annie Dillard reminds us, that will have to do. There is no one of purer heart or cleaner hand who can do this for us, no one who won’t stumble or get their tongues tied with awkward faux pas. We have only the simple balm of humility and gratitude to offer each other in the hope that in our fitful ways we can find healing and a way forward toward the promise of peace.

photo credit: http://theseattlesalmon.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/prius-stickers.jpg