The year in review: Liberal religion

The phrase “liberal religion” continues to provoke unbelieving stares from the many people who believe that religion is, by definition, conservative. And that sums up the state of liberal religion in 2010. Much of the U.S. population still believes that in order to be religious, you must doubt scientific knowledge, believe in things that are difficult to believe in, and at least pay lip service to an ethical system that is at odds with mainstream U.S. culture.

Most U.S. media (including news outlets, movies, television, etc.) continue to portray white Protestant evangelicals as normative when it comes to religion; Catholics, Jews, and Mormons are thrown in as amusingly eccentric variations on white Protestant evangelicalism (the Jews are practically Protestant in U.S. pop culture, except that they don’t believe in Christ). The Black church is rarely noticed, except in media offerings aimed squarely at the African American market; other ethnic Christians, including Hispanics and various Asian Christians, are mostly ignored by the media.

As for liberal Christians, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, and liberal Muslims — U.S. media and U.S. pop culture basically pretend they don’t exist, except when news outlets decide to run yet another story about how mainline Christian churches are declining in membership. Neopagans, many of whom are religious liberals, get even worse treatment by U.S. media — they are portrayed as if they are something out of a Stephen King horror novel. The only religious liberal group that gets some positive mention by U.S. media are liberal Buddhists, probably because the media like the saffron color of the Dalai Lama’s robes.

And Barack Obama is not helping increase understanding of religious liberalism. Here at last we have a liberal Christian occupying the White House, but he doesn’t show much public evidence that he lives his faith; he could at least join a church. And when he calls up a prominent pastor to talk over spiritual matters, he tends to call the same old tired Protestant evangelical types that his white Protestant evangelical predecessors called.

For me, Obama embodies much that is wrong with religious liberalism: he is unwilling to publicly claim his religious liberalism; he seems to think that religion is something you can do in private without being held accountable by a religious community. He went to a Unitarian Universalist Sunday school in the 1960s, when we Unitarian Universalists were mostly teaching kids that religion was private, optional, and not very important — and it looks like he learned his lessons well. Thus it is not surprising that an August Pew poll found that 43 percent of Americans don’t even know that he’s a Christian. Perhaps in response, Obama seems to be fleeing even farther from liberal Christianity towards Protestant evangelicalism by choosing to attend the nondenominational Evergreen Chapel at Camp David, a military church rumored to be steeped in the military version of Protestant evanglicalism.

It’s too bad that mainstream media are ignoring liberal religion, and that Barack Obama seems to be disavowing it. There are some exciting things going on in the liberal branches different religions. Among liberal Christians, I’ve read a couple of interviews of the new president of the United Church of Christ, Geoffrey Black, and have been impressed by his thoughtfulness. I’m interested in what Reform Jews are doing in sh’mirat ha-adamah — their version of religious care for the environment — connecting religion to environmentalism through Torah readings, summer camps for kids, webinars on religious sustainability, etc. I’m also interested in the ways liberal Jews are adapting their religious traditions to the postmodern U.S., and it almost feels as though there’s something of a creative religious renewal going on. Thich Nhat Hanh continues to teach us all about peace from his perspective in engaged Buddhism. I continue to be inspired by the way liberal Neopagans are reaching across class boundaries in their communities.

Religious liberals have gotten pushed so far to the margins of U.S. consciousness that we really can’t go any farther. I’ve begun to wonder if the margins might be a good place for us Unitarian Universalist to be for a while. Acknowledging that we’re in the margins just might jar us out of our complacency and force us to define ourselves more clearly. If we respond by defining ourselves more clearly in religious terms — not in political terms, not in the causes we support — if we can define in a positive way who we are and what it means to be one of us, if we can offer a positive religious alternative to normative Protestant evangelicalism, I think quite a few people will find that our little corner of liberal religion is quite a wonderful place to be.

Tomorrow: Year in review: Unitarian Universalism