How to disestablish your congregation

If you’re part of any liberal religious community, your congregation is no longer a part of established power structure of the United States. We religious liberals are so far out of the establishment that the majority of U.S. residents don’t even know who we are. This is why so many people in the U.S. believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim — he’s actually a religious liberal (of the mainline Protestant variety), but more U.S. residents know what Islam is than know what liberal religion is, so since Obama is not a born-again Christian they assume he’s a Muslim. As for you, they probably think you belong to a cult.

Your liberal congregation has already been disestablished in pragmatic terms, so now it’s time to disestablish your congregation in terms of self-perception, and in terms of the way you organize. Here’s a handy checklist to help you accomplish this goal:

(1) Re-focus your energy on the core mission of liberal religious congregations: holding common worship services where we focus on that which is larger than our individual selves; raising our children in religious community; holding appropriate rites of passage when people are born, when they marry, and when they die.

(2) Recognize that what we stand for as religious liberals is extremely countercultural in today’s society: we distrust consumerism because it weakens and shrivels our best selves; we distrust the current economic system (which is supported by both liberals and conservatives) both because it is founded on consumerism, and because at present it is increasing the number of poor people in the U.S.; we reject the idea that born-again Christianity is the norm against which all other religion is judged; etc. These countercultural stands mean that we will never be fully accepted in the halls of established power.

(3) Remember to avoid both protest politics, and the cause-of-the-month syndrome. Protest politics only works if the people in power cannot safely ignore you. Taking on a new cause each month only works if a substantial portion of the population is paying attention to you, and will follow up after you bring a new cause to their attention. But religious liberals can be safely ignored by people in power, and the wider populace doesn’t even know we exist.

(4) Realize that the most radical political act that we can engage in — a political act that has the greatest hope of actually changing the world — is making sure our local congregations are institutionally and organizationally robust. It is in local voluntary associations (like congregations) where people learn the skills to participate in democracy. When people learn the skills of democracy in a congregation, those skills are coupled with moral and ethical values. Local congregations should be places that produce highly ethical people equipped to participate in democracy. This means that we have to promote leadership development, and we all have to volunteer.

(5) Finally, on an individual level, remember that your congregation receives no money from the government, and that it is up to the members of the local congregation to fund it fully. More to the point these days, once your congregation starts selling something (e.g., selling rental space), you are suddenly more beholden to the free market, and less focused on your core religious values. Accepting full financial responsibility for your congregation means maintaining the independence to fully live out your values. So to remain free, you got to pony up — about 5% of your gross income for middle class households; more for those with substantial wealth. (Obviously, if you can’t afford dental care, are on full disability, live in Section 8 housing, and/or sometimes have to miss meals because you don’t have money, give only when you can really afford it.)

I would suggest that when you manage to finally disestablish your local congregation — or, more to the point, realize that you are already disestablished, and start acting that way — you will experience a sense of relief, renewed energy, and a stronger sense of your mission in the world.

6 thoughts on “How to disestablish your congregation

  1. Bill Baar

    I blogged once on estrangement among UUs.

    It’s a theme I see over and over again among UUs. I saw in in the Peace Making list. I came to realize after a while that the talk was much less about the science and skills of Peace Making (and it Peace can be built with some social engineering…it can be science) and a whole lot more about Empire and just what it means to be American… it hits you when you read the posts and wonder who the “we” is in the messages, and you realize the “We” is usually US Americans to the extent no one even bothers to consider anyone out side the US or that a UUism and it’s principles could exist outside the US.

    And perhapes it can’t.

    Anyways, your post a nice start at beginning a task of examination few UUs realize needs to be done for what I think is the most USAmerican of Religous practices.

  2. Bill Baar

    PS I also believe way too many UUs made way too much an investment in Obama that’s coming to a profound crash. I suspect your call for estrangment from the establishment may well turn into the path-to-refuge for some deeply disappointmented folks.

    Obama by the way claimed as spiritual mentors Illinois State Sen Jerimaih Meeks, Rev Wright, and Louis Farrahkan. None of these fellows fit the mold of a religous Liberal… and Obama sadly skipped over our UU All Souls First Universalist Free Religous Fellowships only a few blocks away from Trinity UCC but with a far less establishement-politically-connected congregation.

    Obama would have been a lot better off coming home to us, but maybe that was not path to President either…not the establishement on Chicago’s Southside.

  3. Dan

    Bill @ 3 — You write: “…Jerimaih Meeks, Rev Wright, and Louis Farrahkan. None of these fellows fit the mold of a religous Liberal…”

    Wait, I think Wright looks a lot like a religious liberal! Let’s go down the check list:
    Kinda likes liberation theology but doesn’t want to rock the boat too much? Check.
    Ego the size of a house? Check.
    Thinks he’s the center of the world but isn’t? Check.
    Heads up a small ineffectual congregation? Oops, nope, Wright built his congregation to 8,000 members, no way could he be a religious liberal.

    Bill @ 2 — You write: “…no one even bothers to consider anyone out side the US or that a UUism and its principles could exist outside the US.”

    Yes, it’s incredibly annoying. No wonder the Canadian UUs split from us a few years ago — it must have been excruciating for them.

  4. Elz Curtiss

    Excellent, Dan — I second the request that it be published in UU World.

    Bill, for what seems like the millionth time, I must point out that we are NOT home for people whose spiritual life — not their political life, but their language of comfort, their relationship to suffering, their hope of the world to come — centers on Jesus and His Scriptures. I would have liked to see Obama take up the UCC, but obviously, he doesn’t have the stones for a religious community which has made strident progress on GLBTQQ equality, inclusion and dignity in the last few years.

    Dan’s point about the hubris and self-delusions of our political folks is only underscored by this foolish notion that a clearly Christian spirit like Obama could find a home among us. Those in power strongly need of a place to pray and celebrate the personal, as well as a framework to reflect on the ultimate accountability a political power faces. That’s why A. Powell Davies had influence, and our cause-of-the-month club gets not even a nod from the media and outside world.

    The saddest part of the cause-of-the-month syndrome is that they cry wolf so often that when they have a genuine point to make — as does happen more than once– nobody gives them the time of day.

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