Category Archives: Political culture

Preaching on July 4

This morning, I got to preach in First Parish of Concord, Massachusetts, the church of the Minutemen. Imagine preaching to that historic congregation on Independence Day! It was great fun, and I feel lucky to be invited to preach there on July 4th.

I wrote a kind of historical sermon on evolving notions of liberty, and since it’s Independence Day, I thought I’d share it with you — the sermon’s posted over on my sermon blog.

Racial wealth gap increases fourfold

Thomas M. Shapiro, Tatjana Meschede, and Laura Sullivan of the Institute on Assets and Social Policy (affiliated with the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University) have released a new Research and Policy Brief, “The Racial Wealth Gap Increases Fourfold”. Shapiro et al. summarize their findings in the opening paragraph of the brief:

“New evidence reveals that the wealth gap between white and African American families has more than quadrupled over the course of a generation. Using economic data collected from the same set of families over 23 years (1984 2007), we find that the real wealth gains and losses of families over that time period demonstrate the stampede toward an escalating racial wealth gap.”

In their coverage of this, the BBC quote Shapiro as saying, “There continues to be a persistence of racial segregation.” Later, they quote him as saying, “I was shocked by how large the number was…. I’ve been in this research business, and looking at similar kinds of issues, for a long period of time, but even in my cynical and jaded moments I didn’t expect that outcome over one generation.”

I was going to offer some theological commentary, but I’m too pissed off by this news. This is about the only time I’ve wished I were a hellfire and brimstone preacher.

Network of Spiritual Progressives conference

I wish I could attend the conference held by the Network of Spiritual Progressives June 11-14, “Strategies for Liberals and Progressives for the Obama Years.” It looks like it will be an educational opportunity, a time to worship with spiritual progressives from many faiths, and an opportunity to work on regional strategies (and yes even an chance to demonstrate in front of the White House for those who need it).

This conference has a truly ugly Web page, but I’m impressed by the list of people who will be speaking or leading workshops: Rev. Brian McLaren, Bill McKibben, Rabbi Michael Lerner, Sharon Welch, David Korten, Rev. James Forbes, Gary Dorrien, and other prominent spiritual progressives (Sharon Welch is the only Unitarian Unviersalist whom I recognized). Good grief, even Marianne Williamson will speak. Some of the workshops sound pretty good: “The Legacy of Racism and How It Continues in Obama’s America”; “The Growth of an Indigenous American Fascism”; “America’s Endless Wars: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, North Korea, and What’s Next?” (Pacifist that I am, I would love to attend that last workshop.)

I can’t attend — I’ll be on a service trip with our church’s youth group — but I’m wondering if there are any Unitarian Universalists besides Sharon Welch who will be there. Are you going to this conference?

Another desperate phone call

I got another phone call today from someone whose family is on the financial edge, making enough money so they don’t qualify for any assistance, but not making enough money to live on. I had basically no money to give away; no agency has much money to give away right now; there are too many people in the same situation.

When you get phone calls like that, it is difficult to hear about the huge sums of money Wall Street bankers get. It is difficult to watch as the news media pay too little attention to the fact that tons of people are out of work, underemployed, or otherwise financially desperate. And it is difficult to listen to the selfish rhetoric that passes for politics in this country.

2009 in review: Liberal religion in the news

In 2009, the mainline Christian denominations continued to be drawn into conflicts around wedge issues such as same-sex marriage and ordination of women. These conflicts over wedge issues may be exacerbated by religious conservative activists, including the misnamed “Institute on Religion and Democracy” (IRD), and overseas groups such as the conservative Anglican bishops in Africa who continue to intervene in the U.S. Episcopal Church. Indeed, according to some observers, groupslike the IRD use wedge issues to deliberately sabotage mainline and liberal Christian denominations.

2009 saw growing rifts in the Episcopal Church, and ongoing conflict in the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), etc. I was unable to determine if the United Church of Christ continued to face the problem of conservative individuals funded by outside groups taking over local congregations. Back in 2006, in an interview with Dan Wakefield, theologian Harvey Cox said, “The energy of mainline Protestant churches has been absorbed by the battles over abortion, and over gay rights and gay marriage that’s divided entire denominations in recent years. There’s nothing left over for the kind of battles that were fought in the past for peace and justice in the nation and the world.” (The Hijacking of Jesus, p. 102) Three years later, the situation has not changed.

Unitarian Universalism, closely related as we are theologically and historically to the mainline churches, has been affected in different ways by the continuing conflicts over wedge issues. Because we embrace same-sex marriage, women’s right to choice, and ordination of women, Unitarian Universalism has become marginal in U.S. political culture; it is difficult to believe that any Unitarian Universalist could become president of the United States. We Unitarian Universalists seem to have embraced our politically marginal status to the point where many Unitarian Universalists automatically stake out politically liberal positions — without ever determining if political liberalism and the Democratic party can be equated with religious liberalism. This peculiar politico-religious orthodoxy continued to hamper open conversations about, and honest critiques of: second-wave feminist theology; identity politics; and the way we are beholden to consumer capitalism. Yet second-wave feminism primarily benefits upper middle class white women; identity politics forces the kind of binary identity choices that we say we deplore in theology; and consumer capitalism directly contradicts several of those “seven principles” that we tout.

In another part of the region where liberal religion and politics intersect, the religious right has been doing a very good job or helping liberal Christians (and, to the extent they bother with us, helping Unitarian Universalists) stay on the margins. A very public example of this marginalization is Barack Obama. Religious conservatives forced Obama to repudiate his liberal Christian UCC church during the campaign, and since then the Obama family has not settled on a regular church to attend — I suspect that the Obamas can’t stand the theology of the politically acceptable churches, while Barack Obama can’t stand the political consequences of attending another UCC church, or any liberal Christian church for that matter. The situation has gotten bad enough that, to the best of my knowledge, the Obamas did not attend church on Christmas eve. (A BBC commentator has suggested that the Obamas would best fit in with Florida Street Friends Meeting [Quaker] in D.C., and I suspect he’s right — but such a church choice would be political suicide.) Obama is but one prominent example of the marginalization of liberal Christianity in U.S. political life.

As a religious educator, I can’t help adding that this is not good for the religious education of the Obama children. Their children need exposure to a living religious community in addition to whatever home-based religious education the Obamas may provide. Michelle, forget the political cost to Barack — take the kids to Florida Street Meeting!


One can only hope that in 2010 we religious liberals — especially we Unitarian Universalists — learn to start from liberal theology, rather than starting from liberal politics. Instead of toeing the politically liberal party line, let’s clearly articulate the religiously liberal party line: that individual salvation is not good enough because we have to save the whole world; that it’s most important to help those who are poor, those who are suffering, and those who have been pushed to the margins of society; that women are just as good as men; that consumer capitalism treats human beings as mere consumers, and falsely states that the highest good in life is buying more stuff. From a pragmatic point of view, maybe we’ll be doing many of the same things — but we’ll have religious, not political, reasons for doing them.

And if we can do that, we’ll really be newsworthy.

2009 in review: Graduating from college in a bad economy

2009 will probably be best remembered for the “Great Recession.” And for those who graduate from college this year, the recession may continue for many years.

Lisa Kahn, an economist at the Yale School of Management, believes that graduating from college in the middle of an economic downturn has serious long-term effects. In her paper, “The Long-Term Labor Market Consequences of Graduating from College in a Bad Economy,” she takes data from a longitudinal study of white males who graduated from college between 1979 and 1989, and analyzes the data to see what effect, if any, the serious recession of the early 1980s had on the job prospects of these people. Not surprisingly, she found immediate “negative wage effects” for those who graduated in the worst years of the recession — common sense dictates that when you enter the job market for the first time during a recession, you’re lucky to find a job at all, let alone find a job that pays well.

Kahn also found that those negative wage effects persisted through the entire period of the longitudinal study. The people who graduated from college during a recession never made as much money as those who graduated during better economic times. This does not augur well for those who just graduated from college — or for anyone just entering the job market for the first time during the Great Recession.

I worry about those entering the job market right now, because I was one of those who graduated from college during the recession of the early 80s. [Update: But see Jean’s comment below for another view.] To a large extent I fit that pattern that Kahn describes in her paper. I had great difficulty finding a job right after graduation, and I wound up spending more than a dozen years working in jobs that did not require a college diploma. For a few years during that time I had a decent salary, but at another time I could have qualified for food stamps. If my experience was at all representative, those who are graduating from college during the current recession may struggle financially, may experience feelings of personal failure, and may find it difficult to find a job related to their education or training.

If there’s one thing we remember about the Great Recession in the years to come, I hope we remember that those who entered the job market in these years may need extra moral and financial support from all of us.

UU minister gets Scrooged by U.S. immigration authorities

Rev. George Buchanan, minister of religious education at First Unitarian Church of Cleveland, is stuck in Canada thanks to Scrooge-like U.S. immigration officials. George, a Canadian citizen, has been living and working in the United States since 2006. He tried to renew his R-1 religious workers visa this summer, only to find that suddenly the government required far more paperwork.

Apparently, the U.S. government has stiffened the requirements for religious workers. As WKYC reported on December 12:

In June, Buchanan applied to have his religious worker visa renewed. But Carrie Buchanan said the process dragged on into the fall with requests for additional paperwork. “They (even) had to have a picture of the fire code certificate for the church could hold,” Carrie Buchanan said. “It was if they thought we were a cult.”…

Immigration attorney Margaret Wong said immigration officals have recently tightened up the requirements for obtaining a religious work visa. “Nowadays, they do a site visit,” Wong said. “(Immigration workers) will come to your temple or church. And if you say that you are a choir director or a minister, they will see if you could actually perform that ministry.”

The Ottowa Citizen, in a December 16 story on George’s situation, was less sympathetic towards U.S. government officials:

Some of the questions suggested the authorities doubted the authenticity of Buchanan’s denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, even though the Cleveland congregation has been around since 1867.

If George had stayed in the United States, he probably would have been fine. But his dying father asked George to travel back to Canada. George’s lawyer applied for an expedited process for the visa on compassionate grounds, but U.S. immigration officials said it would take 45 days. George went back to Canada anyway — his father died three days after he arrived — and now he is stuck there. Immigration officials won’t let him return to work. He can’t be at church to help officiate at Christmas Eve services.

Update 12/24/09: Immigration officials have moved things along, and George should be coming home soon — not in time for Christmas, but probably within a few days.

What Mexico City and Washington D.C. have in common…

…both cities have voted to legalize same-sex marriage. The BBC reports on the Mexico City vote… and UU World magazine reports that Washington’s mayor signed the bill at All Souls Unitarian Universalist church. (And yes, the Washington vote has to be approved by Congress, so don’t go counting any chickens. In a comment, Scott Wells says I’ve got the process wrong — and Scott sounds hopeful that this might go through!)

He’s another Unitarian Universalist

In an article dated December 11, with a Raleigh, N.C., dateline, the Associated Press reported on a ruckus surrounding a local election: “Asheville City Councilman Cecil Bothwell believes in ending the death penalty, conserving water and reforming government — but he doesn’t believe in God. His political opponents say that’s a sin that makes him unworthy of serving in office, and they’ve got the North Carolina Constitution on their side.”

Opponents are threatening a lawsuit, saying that the North Carolina state constitution requires political office holders to believe in God. Of course, the U.S. Constitution does not permit religious tests of any kind for elected officials. As is so often the case, it seems that there is very little religion in this political battle:– “Bothwell said a legal challenge to his appointment would be ‘fun,’ but believes his opponents’ efforts have more to do with politics than religious beliefs.”

You will not be surprised to learn that Bothwell is a Unitarian Universalist. Bothwell’s home town newspaper, the Asheville [N.C.] Citizen-Times provides more details about Bothwell’s precise theological position than the Associate Press report. As it turns out, Bothwell is not exactly an atheist…. Continue reading