Current issues in liberal religion: race

Talk given during a class on the topic of race and liberal religion. I co-taught the class with Amy Zucker Morgenstern at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto on 17 January 2012.


I want to begin by telling you a little story. A couple of years ago, I was at a Unitarian Universalist social gathering, and I was standing around chatting informally with three other people, two of whom were white like me, and one of whom was black. I forget what topic came up, but it was some political topic in which I felt race played a part. I do have a clear memory of what I said. I said, “And of course, what was really going on was sheer racism.” The black person said something like, “Well, obviously.” Upon hearing the word “racism,” the other two white people suddenly found something else to do — they melted away from our little conversational group the way snow melts away when it falls on a Palo Alto lawn. The black person watched them go, looked back at me, and said, “Well. I guess they didn’t want to talk about that.” And I replied, “Well, I don’t care.” And the two of us kept on talking.

But I did care. This happens to me a lot. I spend a lot of time thinking about race and racism, partly because from a moral standpoint I’m outraged by racism, and partly because from an intellectual and theological viewpoint the intertwined issues of race and racism provide a major impetus to rethinking the Enlightenment emphasis on individualism and the primacy of reason. I’m someone committed to social justice, and I’m an unashamed intellectual who is trying to rethink hyper-individualism, so I think about race and racism a lot. But all too often when I bring up the topic of race or racism, all the white people find something better to do; either that, or they act overly outraged, to the point where I can’t actually have a serious discussion with them about the nuances and fine distinctions and uncertain implications of trying to better define race and racism. So what happens? If I want to talk seriously and deeply about race and racism, I have to seek out my non-white friends. And my non-white friends must find this awkward, because on the one hand they have to know what’s going on — the one white guy who actually wants to talk seriously about race and racism can’t talk with his white friends about it — and on the other hand they must find it tiresome because I have this backlog of thoughts on the subject and so I talk about it too much when I’m around my non-white friends.

And it’s really important for us religious liberals to spend time talking seriously about race and racism and the implications for our religious movement, a religious movement that is based so heavily on assumptions of the supreme worth of the individual, and the primacy of reason. I’m hoping that we can have some fun with the topic tonight, and that it proves engaging enough and interesting enough that more people in our congregation will be more willing to have open and honest conversations about race and racism — conversations that don’t degenerate into hackneyed expressions of moral outrage on the one hand, nor on the other hand disintegrate because most of the white people find the topic too uncomfortable to stick around.


Let me begin by addressing the topic of individualism as it relates to race and theology. One of my intellectual mentors was a philosopher named Lucius Outlaw. In his 1996 book On Race and Philosophy, he specifically addresses the issue of race and individualism in an essay titled “Against the Grain of Modernity.” In this essay, he talks about how modern societies founded on the use of reason and the primacy of the individual are not entirely successful. For some people, he writes, “struggles involving raciality and ethnicity are an eruption in public spaces of long simmering tensions barely contained under a facade of harmony, unity, and order, though not always with justice.” And he goes on to say that “in many respects … tensions and struggles over raciality and ethnicity have a great deal to do with inadequacies and failures involving the principles undergirding modern societies, and with substantially failed or inappropriate practices that have been rationalized by them.” [p. 149] When I read this, I can think of an obvious example: the founding of the United States, which was founded on the principle of the supreme worth of individuals as summed up in that phrase “all men are created equal,” yet at the same time enshrined slavery in the Constitution. I’m sure you can think of many more examples.

Lou Outlaw goes on to write that “the inadequacy — some would say the failure — of the universalist principles of modern liberalism is not just that they have not been fully applied, but that the conception of the human being as an autonomous individual that serves as the normative anchor of the principles is insufficient since this conception deliberately excludes such aspects of the person as race and ethnicity (and gender).” [p. 149] Let me give you a specific example of how this works. I’m a New England Yankee, born and bred; I lived in the same town in eastern Massachusetts for the first forty-two years of my life. I speak a dialect different from most of the people in this room; linguists call my dialect “Eastern New England dialect.” While I can also speak American Standard English pretty well, it occasionally takes some effort on my part. Here in California, I am very aware that most of you do not speak my dialect, because people here do not always fully understand what I’m saying, and I regularly miss social cues that are transmitted through speech. I am also very aware that what is considered normative is the dialect spoken by white people with a college education. Because of this, I often feel more comfortable talking with people who have what people would call an accent — if you have an accent, too, you’re much more likely to be forgiving if I say something you don’t understand; and you won’t assume that just because you speak in your dialect, everyone else should understand you. And that means I feel a constant low level of discomfort speaking with American-born white people with a college education, because if I don’t understand them, the way the rules work, it’s my fault.

Now if we look at this very low-level instance of ethnocentrism, we will see that there are all kinds of good reasons why American-born educated white Americans think their kind of speech is normative. Modern society assumes that individuals are of supreme importance. And when we talk about individuals, we’re separating out what is essential to individuality from what is inessential. In our modern society, things like human rights, and self-worth, and freedom are essential to human individuals. By contrast, things like the color of your skin, your ethnic culture, or the dialect you speak are inessential — at least, that’s what we say in modern societies. But when we start talking about race and ethnicity, we begin to challenge our notions of what is essential to an individual human. I find I cannot separate myself from my ethnic identity. Partly, I can’t separate myself from my ethnic identity because speakers of American Standard English won’t let me separate myself from my dialect! But after long and careful reflection, I also find that knowing who my people are, knowing that I come from a specific culture and place, continue to define a large part of who I am. I cannot separate my human individuality from my ethnicity; that is, I cannot separate my individuality from the social network that made me who I am. So when I can’t speak American Standard English, I’m actually offering a direct challenge to one of the foundations of modern society — the assumption that the human individual is of utmost importance. And I’m also offering an indirect challenge to one of the so-called “seven principles” of Unitarian Universalism, as it is commonly understood, the principle that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every human individual — because what I’m saying is that society and social networks are just as important as, or even more important than, human individuals.


To tell you better what I mean by this, let me turn to some theology. Let me read you a passage from a talk given by the theologian Bernard Loomer. Loomer was both a Presbyterian and a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley — a talk he gave at the Berkeley Unitarian Universalist church circa 1984:

Jesus has been accorded many titles. He has been called Savior, Leader, Shepherd, Counselor, Son of God, Messiah. But his intellectual gifts have not been recognized (even when the term “intellectual” has been more carefully defined). It was he who discovered what he called the Kingdom of God — what I call the Web of Life — surely one of the great intellectual and religious ideas of the western world.

As I define it, the web is the world conceived of as an indefinitely extended complex of interrelated, inter-dependent events or units of reality. This includes the human and the non-human, the organic and inorganic levels of life and existence. [“Unfoldings,” Berkeley, California: First Unitarian Church, 1985]

Loomer is saying that we actually exist not as discrete individuals that can easily be separated from each other, but rather as beings that are integral parts of a larger web of existence. When I say this, I’m not saying anything you haven’t already heard a million times before. But this time, please be attentive to how this idea that we are an integral part of the Web of Life stands opposed to the idea that we are discrete and autonomous individuals. If we are part of a Web, freedom is not freedom for me alone. Loomer puts it this way: “In all cases we are trapped with an inescapable web of connectedness.”

I find this very interesting, and very challenging. The Web of Life is inescapable: that statement is a direct challenge to our notions of freedom and individuality. And that web of connectedness is not just our connection with the poor old polar bears whose ice floes are melting under them. That web of connectedness includes our racial and ethnic groups. As a New England Yankee, I am trapped within an inescapable web of connectedness to my racial and ethnic background.

If you’re white, you really are a white person; that’s your racial identity. If you commit a crime, and someone calls the cops on you, the first thing the cops are going to say is, “Was this person white, black, or Hispanic?” Yes, I’d like to believe in the fairy tale of a racially colorblind society, but let’s face it, we’re not there yet. So let’s face it, everyone in this room is part of a racial and ethnic group.

At the same time, I also want to affirm one of the essential insights of Universalist theology: that every human being is of value. The old-time Universalists would say: God is love, God loves all human beings. Some Universalists took this theological principle so seriously that I can point to at least one Universalist congregation that became deliberately interracial in the 1830s because of their belief in their Universalist principles. This kind of Universalist theology is very similar to Bernard Loomer’s idea of the Web of Life. In both cases, we individual human beings are part of something larger than ourselves whether we want to be or not: in one case, you’re part of the Web of Life whether you want to be or not; in the other case, God loves you and will send you to heaven when you die whether you like it or not. Both these theological positions challenge extreme individualism, and ultimate individual freedom. And I think both these theological positions open up the possibility of addressing racism and living in a certain degree of racial harmony.

If we start thinking this way, other things begin to open up as well. Both these theological positions open up the possibility that our human freedom is far more limited than we’d like to think. We Unitarian Universalists like to think that we are rational individuals who can reason our way to the truth — but if we are bound by our social backgrounds, by our race and ethnicities, then maybe sometimes we confuse our social biases with reason or rationality — just like you speakers of American Standard English do when you confuse your dialect with the one true way of speaking English. Furthermore, although we’d like to think that we have the capability of knowing “The Truth,” all by ourselves — maybe we don’t have that capability. Maybe we can only know truth (with a small “t”) through our social networks, through the Web of Life, through the Kingdom of God.

When you first start thinking this way, it can be very disconcerting. And it never stops being disconcerting, as far as I’m concerned. We all want to think we’re the center of the universe, and it’s disconcerting to discover that we’re not. We all take in some unquestioned assumptions with our social beings, and we assume that our experience is completely normative, and it’s disconcerting when someone tells us that they have a very different experience of the world.

When the theologian Anthony Pinn disproved the assumption of many black theologians that all black people in the United States were Christians (an assumption shared by many white theologians as well) — this was in his book Varieties of African American Experience — people found that disconcerting. Black Christians wanted to believe that all black people were Christians, just like them. White Unitarian Universalists wanted to believe that all black people were Christians, too, but for a different reason — if there are lots of black humanists, as Anthony Pinn documents, why aren’t they in our Unitarian Universalist congregations? It was disconcerting to think that maybe Unitarian Universalist congregation can function as a kind of white ethnic group that sets up barriers to black humanists — by, for example, neglecting the wonderful humanist writings by Frederick Douglass and James Weldon Johnson, and by forgetting that a good part of the blues reflects a humanist theology.

And when my friend Kok Heong McNaughton gave a talk titled “Why I Am a UU — An Asian Immigrant Perspective,” pointing out that the syncretic tendencies of Unitarian Universalism were compatible with the syncretic religion she experienced as an ethnic Chinese growing up in Malaysia, I discovered that this was disconcerting to some people. Kok Heong was very comfortable in Unitarian Universalism, but in her talk she said that when she became a Unitarian Universalist:

I didn’t have to check a part of me at the door and to pretend to be who I wasn’t. My ethnic differences were not only accepted, but they were affirmed and upheld. People were interested in what I had to share: I teach Taiji and Qigong, I taught Chinese cooking classes, I bring ethnic foods to our potlucks, I even share my language with those who were interested. I am often consulted about Taoist and Buddhist practices and readings, and asked if I thought the translations were accurate.

This can be a little disconcerting to bedrock humanists, or to those who emphasize the Christian roots of Unitarian Universalism, or to any Unitarian Universalist who assumes that their experience is normative for all people. But speaking as someone who is not a speaker of standard American English, I find all this very freeing. If Kok Heong’s ethnic differences were accepted by her Unitarian Universalist congregation, that means that I don’t have to worry so much that sometimes I don’t understand you white educated people when you speak American Standard English. And if not all black Unitarian Universalists have to be Christians, then maybe it’s OK that I’m a Unitarian Universalist religious naturalist who’s also a follower of Jesus and reads the Bible regularly.

And if we can do all this, I think we can create the kind of ideal community Kok Heong encountered when she became a Unitarian Universalist. Speaking of her Unitarian Universalist congregation, she writes,

My opinion mattered. This not only gives me pride in my culture, but it also encourages me to dig deeper into my own heritage, to find out more in areas where my knowledge and expertise are lacking. It helps me to look at my heritage with fresh eyes.

In other words, if we can accept each other, if we can learn to live in community and talk openly about things like race and ethnicity without fleeing the room and without automatically assuming that our ethnic assumptions apply to all people, then we can in turn live out the Delphic injunction to “Know thyself,” we can learn to know ourselves better. And this question, the question “Who am I?”, is one of the most important religious questions we can possibly address.

5 thoughts on “Current issues in liberal religion: race”

  1. What a wonderful posting! As an African-American man, I have always found it strange how awkwardly European-Americans behave when the subject of race comes up in a discussion. I just don’t get it! This reaction contributes to the perennial sense of disconnect people of color feel in the presence of many white people. Perhaps it has to do with the extreme categories/expectations about race that are pervasive in the American subconscious . There are non-Christian blacks and there are LGBTQ blacks who are in tension with Evangelical/Baptist/Methodist/Pentecostal Black faith communities. Yet many who are non-Christian long for the rich emotionally laden liturgy of the Black church or African traditional religions. It is all very complicated and not readily reducible to simple categories. There is also the whole issue of biracial identity that almost never gets broached in conversation among black or white or racially mixed groups. In my opinion, discussion about race should be both nuanced and openly expressed under the clarifying sun of emotional and intuitive reflection.

  2. Roy — Yes to everything you say. Especially this: “discussion about race should be both nuanced and openly expressed under the clarifying sun of emotional and intuitive reflection.”

    If we can’t talk openly about this, and with nuance, we’re not going to get anywhere. Us white people just have to get over this strange aversion many of us have to talking about race.

  3. Having come of age in the late 60s on the south side of Atlanta, having earned 3 degrees in metro-Atlanta and lived much of that time in suburb of Atlanta that transitioned from a white majority to black majority at the same time Atlanta did the same, I can say that I would have been eager to leave the conversation just as the other white folks did in opening paragraph.

    I have no desire today to discuss something that I lived day in and day out for decades. I am simply no longer willing to invest intellectual effort on that particular matter. At this point in my life, it’s fruitless, been there, done that, and unworthy of effort. I don’t wake up each morning, look in the mirror and say, “Hey, I’m white.” “Obviously” would have been a sufficient respone upon which I could have politely moved on.

    But, since you don’t recall the political context, let me suggest that had the instance of “racism” being described had to do with affirmative action, or set asides or quotas, your thesis here gets turned on its head.

    I remain unconvinced that the “Kingdom of God” can be compared to a human “Web of Existence” based simply on the long history of that phrase’s interpretation by Christians. Furthermore, Jesus said that this “Kingdom was within onself – not out in the community at large.

    You then go on to contradict yourself by offering the Delphic “Know thyself” as being integral to one’s spiritual growth instead of the “web” of existence.

    In your effort to qualify the first principle that recognizes the “inherent worth and dignity of every person,” you have neglected the last principle: “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

  4. Leo, I’m sorry that you seem to have such a strongly negative reaction to this essay. I’m particularly sorry that you were so affected by your experience as a white person living in the metro-Atlanta area. You certainly have every right to leave any conversation at any time. I still find it worth noting that so many white people have the same reaction; obviously conversations about race are extremely difficult for many white people; which means that it’s going to be extremely difficult to make any progress on the issue of race, since so many white people leave the room (literally or figuratively) as soon as the topic is raised. In any case, I continue to lament the fact that I can’t talk about racism to most of my white friends.

    Regarding “Kingdom of God” and “Web of Life” — unfortunately for your argument, there is no “long history of that phrase’s interpretation by Christians.” The phrase “web of life” entered Unitarian Universalist discourse through the work of Bernard Loomer, who equated it with the Kingdom of God. Loomer was part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation when he made this statement. Thus this is actually our theology — and like most of our UU theology, it would be regarded with extreme skepticism by most Christians. As for your interpretation that Jesus was saying the kingdom was inside the self, that’s just one possible interpretation of the relevant texts; other valid interpretations are possible, depending on your interpretive framework. This is what makes theology so challenging for so many people — theology is an evolving conversation, it is not a set of absolute answers that can be proved or disproved once and for all.

    Regarding the Delphic injunction to know thyself — in my interpretation, part of knowing oneself must be knowing one’s place in the web of life. This is part of my critique of hyper-individualism. Thus from my point of view, spiritual growth involves both knowing oneself and knowing one’s place within the web of life. My guess is that you operate from a worldview that tends to privilege individualism more than do I; thus from your vantage point, what I say seems like a contradiction.

    Regarding the so-called first principle and the so-called seventh principle, the people in the class raised exactly this point; obviously I did not express myself with sufficient clarity in the original lecture. What I said to the people in the class was that while it’s true that one can reconcile the first and seventh principles, in real life most Unitarian Universalists tend to privilege the first principle over the seventh principle; e.g., most Unitarian Universalists respond positively to statements that support their individual rights (to believe what they want, for example), while by contrast most Unitarian Universalists are less willing to accept the notion that they are constrained in any way by their ties to other people. I believe this is why many white UUs prefer to maintain that they have an individual right to not speak about race and racism with black UUs, rather than maintaining that they have a social duty, because of their place in the web of life, to engage with black and other nonwhite UUs about issues of race and racism.

  5. Sadly Dr. William R. Jones passed away July 17, 2012 and will be commemorated on August 19th. His life’s work and research will be continued through a new website –

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