Why Liberal Religion Will Always Be Behind The 8-Ball On Racial Issues (#FergusonOctober)

There was exactly one person from UUA Headquarters here in St. Louis over the 4 days of Ferguson October. It was not Peter Morales.  In fact, institutional Unitarian Universalism has been almost deathly silent over the events that have happened since July 17th–the day that Eric Garner was chokeholded to death by the NYPD. (one statement a month later–on Michael Brown– and a video shown on Friday evening do not really mean much in the grand scheme of things and doesn’t constitute speaking on the subject) Never mind that there has been no mention from Headquarters about the facts in a report that came out recently which showed how racist BOSTON policing practice is.

Last month I wrote a post on how I thought (and continue to think) that the UUA is haunted by the Black Empowerment Controversy. That however only looks at part of the issue. This post will broaden this out to look at liberal religion (not just Unitarian Universalism) as a group.

Did you know that there are four times as many Quakers in Kenya as there are in the U.S.? Keep that little factoid in mind while I continue.

Those of you who are familiar with 19th-century U.S. religious history know that certain religious groups–mainly the Baptists and Methodists, but the Lutherans and Presbyterians were also in the mix–were very good at founding ethnic congregations. In the case of the Baptists and the Methodists, African Americans created entirely new denominations; that’s why there’s the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. and all of its offspring along with the A.M.E., A.M.E. Zion, C.M.E. and their offspring.

Homegrown religious groups such as the Restorationists (any church/denomination that comes out of the Stone-Campbell movement), Mormons, New Thought (Christian Science and the like), Spiritualists (while they are new thought, there are differences), Adventists and the like have a mixed history when it comes to minority members and congregations.

But there is one group of religious people who studiously avoided starting ethnic/minority congregations or truly letting in those who didn’t fit a very narrow type; the liberal religionists (or the dissenting end of the dissenting tradition)–the Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Unitarians (and Universalists to a lesser extent), Quakers, Anabaptists and Pietists, and so forth. Yes, I know that there are a smattering of black Episcopal churches and the largest church in the UCC is overwhelmingly black, so don’t write a comment trying to correct me on that. You know what my point is. Yet, if you look at the numbers (with the exception of the UCC and the UUA), all of these denominations have much greater membership in African and Asian countries than they do in the U.S. A big part of the reason for this is that most of these denominations sent missionaries out to those “remote” places around the world in order to “Christianize and civilize the natives.” But there has to be something more.

Why has liberal religion always had a hard time with race and racial issues in this country, yet had no problem going on overseas mission trips to countries where they would be confronted with the very same people they studiously avoided at home? What is it in liberal religion’s DNA that makes this cognitive dissonance possible?

Because until this is resolved, liberal religion is going to be flailing around and being irrelevant.

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6 thoughts on “Why Liberal Religion Will Always Be Behind The 8-Ball On Racial Issues (#FergusonOctober)

  1. What concerns me about this post is that there has always been a strong tension, almost conflict, between the congregations and the denominational authority structure. Whatever our views, UUs like myself, who are strongly congregationalist, object furiously when Boston tries to speak for us, as if we have a single reality and a single voice. Much more relevant than the Black Empowerment debacle would be the more recent anti-racism effort

    • Journey Toward Wholeness, with a strong confessional bias that offended many UUs simply because we are not a confessional religion. Now I see we have a new thing about understanding our whiteness.
      But these are not what counts. The strength of congregationalism is that it allows people to apply some general principles to their local immediate situations. Thus, in relation to Ferguson, the question is what are St. Louis congregations doing to stand in those streets at this time? Again, it is the role of Boston area congregation and clergy to address that city’s issues, and I personally know some folks who have made this their life’s calling and do it well. Up here in Burlington, Vermont — which isn’t as purely white as stereotype would have it — my wife and I have attended open meetings of the Police Commission when it seemed important a few years ago. Our local police now all wear cameras, and we look forward to finding out what they will show.

      It would be helpful to know what you are looking for when you bemoan the anti-racism silence of UU officialdom. The feeling I get is that our lack of a pope or bishops — someone who can stand up and deliver a strong position without fear of push-back — has been mistaken for silence and lack of concern.

      • I recently read Mark Morrison-Reed’s The Selma Awakening. I don’t expect a response of that magnitude to Ferguson–Selma was a culmination–but I’d like something in the same general ballpark.

  2. Having just read Tom Schade’s report that the St. Louis UUs had asked for denominational support — and gotten only this one official rep, not a general call to the rest of us — I return, Kim, to apologize for this shameful neglect. It had not occurred to me that the on-the-ground leaders would be so clearly rebuffed and abandoned.

    • oh my God Elz! You NEVER need to apologize for what you wrote.
      I am always thankful for the time that you take to write replies to my posts. They make me think…hard. And many times, they make me temper (and go back to edit) to my posts.

  3. I think that class and economic interests must play a significant part in this story- with the partial exception of Universalism these have all historically been denominations of the affluent upper-middle and upper classes, who had a vested interest in the racial caste system. Think of the notorious lukewarrness of antebellum Unitarians toward abolitionism, which was highly connected to the fact that many prominent (i.e. big donor) laymen were textile mill owners. Remember also that until very recently too many UUs were anxious to keep UUism “comfortable” for conservatives and libertarians i.e. apologists for economic injustice.

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