Religious revival?

Back in February, I read a short news item in Christian Century titled “Gallup chief sees signs of religious revival.” Reporter Daniel Burke of Religion News Service interviewed Frank Newport, the editor-in-chief of Gallup Poll. Newport challenges several things pundits have been taking for granted about the religious landscape in the U.S.:

The rise of the “nones”: According to Newport, we should be cautious about how we interpret the rise of the “nones,” those who report no religious affiliation. “When Gallup asked the question about religious identity back in the 1950s, almost zero would say they have ‘none’,” Newport says in the interview. “People would say ‘Baptist’ or ‘Catholic’ even if they were not particularly religious.” Newport sees a change in how people “express their religiosity,” not necessarily a decline in religion. Or maybe people are just being more honest than in the past.

Demographic trends may point to an increase in religious identity: Based on demographic trends, Newport sees a possibility for an increase in religious identity in the U.S. “If you look at age, the baby boomers are approaching 65-85 years of age, which we’ve seen as the most religious group for decades,” Newport says, which means that large numbers of Boomers could find religion as they age. Secondly, the Hispanic population is increasing, and Hispanics “tend to be more religious.” Thirdly, “religion has been correlated to health,” and people might start seeking out religion to increase their well-being. Finally, more religious states are seeing in-migrations from other parts of the country, and people are more likely to participate in religion in states where more people around them participate in religion.

Mainline Protestants are unlikely to grow: From a pollster’s point of view, Unitarian Universalists look pretty much like mainline Protestants, so we should be concerned when Newport says that mainline Protestants are unlikely to grow. How do religions grow? Newport says it’s simple: “For any group to grow, you have to have more people coming in than going out.” He outlines three ways religions can grow:

(a) Immigration: We’re seeing lots of Hispanics immigrating into the U.S., so it’s likely that Catholicism (and maybe Pentecostalism) will grow — but, says Newport, “there is no massive in-migration of Protestants,” and certainly no massive in-migration of Unitarian Universalists.

(b) High birth rates: Mormons are doing well because Mormonism encourages big families. Mainline Protestants tend to have lower than average birth rates. And I’d be willing to be that Unitarian Universalists have a birth rate that’s less than the replacement rate.

(c) Evangelize effectively: Mainline Protestants are doing a lousy job of evangelizing. Unitarian Universalists probably do a better job of evangelizing than most mainline Protestant churches — good enough that we make up for our low birth rates and lack of immigrants. But that doesn’t mean we’re good enough at evangelizing to grow.

So there you have it — the rate of religious identification may increase in the coming decade. However, the only way we Unitarian Universalists can take advantage of that possible increase is to evangelize more effectively.

Obscure liberal theologians of North America: Eveline Kroetsch

First in a series.

Eveline Kroetsch, second cousin of the respected Canadian poet Robert Kroetsch, was born in Cessford, Alberta, on May 2, 1936. As the flat landscape of Alberta’s prairies shaped her cousin’s poetry, so the landscape shaped Kroetsch’s theology. The town of Cessford had never been very large, but it had thrived in the 1920s. In the 1930s, the Depression, locusts, and dust storms cause almost half the population to leave, and as the town shrank it felt increasingly isolated.

Cessford had been settled by Swedes, and some of the older residents still spoke Swedish when Kroetsch was young. The elderly proprietors of the Chinese restaurant in town (no one knew why they had settled in such an isolated place though perhaps they had been laborers working for the railroad) spoke Chinese. Her mother’s mother was a Metis and could still speak Blackfoot with the occasional Siksika who wandered up from the Siksika Indian Reserve, which had been much reduced in area after the federal government gave reserve land to the Canadian Pacific Railway. Her father’s mother spoke mostly German and a little broken English.

She was confirmed in the Anglican Church, although there wasn’t a regular congregation in Cessford. About once a month, a priest would make the fifty mile trip via rail from the church in Hanna, and offer communion to the handful of Anglicans in Cessford. The lack of regular and consistent pastoral supervision may explain why Kroetsch developed such unorthodox views later in her life. But she also seems to have been prone to vaguely mystical experiences. Later in life, Kroetsch talked about visiting the Red Deer River, south of Cessford, to see the carved badlands around the river, and how the sight made her feel at one with God.

After learning that Lydia Gruchy, who, in 1936, was the first woman to be ordained by the United Church of Canada, had attended St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon, Kroetsch determined to study there. She was sidetracked by an unhappy marriage, which she remained in until her three children were grown. But in 1976, she was finally able to begin her theological studies at St. Andrews. Continue reading “Obscure liberal theologians of North America: Eveline Kroetsch”

Hurray! New UUA building

According to a post on the UU World Web site, the UUA Board has approved a lease-to-buy agreement for 24 Farnsworth St. in Boston. Ms. M. sent along the posting of the property on, which gives the following information:

“The Barkan Companies and The Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Children and Family already occupy this building. A private courtyard with seating, high ceilings and abundant natural lighting make 24 Farnsworth Street an attractive building. Other amenities include efficient floorplates, handicapped lift, underground parking with 25 covered spaces and card key access.”

From my point of view, this is a much better neighborhood for the UUA than Beacon Hill. You can walk from South Station, and it’s easy to get to from I-90. The Institute of Contemporary Art and Boston Children’s Museum are only a few blocks away, and you can walk to Fort Point Channel and pick up a water taxi (how cool is that?). Admittedly, the neighborhood isn’t quite as cool as it was in the mid-1990s, when it was home to some edgy galleries and artists like the Mobius Artists Group; when I worked as a carpenter, I did a job for an artist in the Mobius building, and it was a more exciting place back then; it was also a lot grungier and less safe. In recent years, rents have been going up and the neighborhood is increasingly respectable, but it’s still interesting. 24 Farnsworth Street will be a much more suitable home for the UUA than stuffy old Beacon Hill.

And what will happen to the UUA’s properties on Beacon Hill? They should sell for a pretty penny. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one of the buildings was bought and converted to a single residence — a decade ago I got invited to an event in a building a few doors down from from 25 Beacon Street, and about the same size — all six floors were a single residence for one couple (and their servants, of course). Bet the UUA turns a tidy profit on this deal.

All in all, this is about as good an outcome as we could hope for.

Why we still need OWL, part II

The school newspaper controversy in nearby Mountain View, which I reported on in this post, got picked up today by the San Jose Mercury News in an article written by Sharon Noguchi: “Mountain View High School newspaper’s sex stories raise parents’ ire”.

The Merc tries to remain objective, but they’re obviously on the side of the student journalists who dared to report on some of the realities of teen life today. In her news article, Noguchi writes: “But the debate also illustrates the gap between adult and teen conversation and mores.” As a columnist, Scott Herhold was able to state his opinion boldly: “A group of parents crawled from their caves to protest that the student journalists had taken things too far — that the stories promoted unprotected sex and imperiled futures. In truth, the articles in the Oracle, the student newspaper, were fairly tame….”

Herhold goes on to point out the heroes of the story, the people who protected the rights of student journalists, and who stood up for what was right instead of caving to intolerant parents and religious views: “The heroes were the administrators and educators who stood up for the paper, led by Superintendent Barry Groves. At the meeting, Groves praised the journalism department and said, ‘There’s nothing I would have taken down.'”

Residents of Los Altos and Mountain View might want to take a moment and write a note of support to Barry Groves. You can find his email address on the school district Web site.

Further reading: You can read the Oracle online here. The Los Altos Town Crier published my letter to the editor on this topic, under the title “Minister supports sex education for teens” (“Look, Mildred, those crazy Unitarians are at it again”), and for the sake of the record I’ll include the full text below the fold.

Continue reading “Why we still need OWL, part II”

Keyboard table

I spend too much time typing, and have been getting little twinges in my hands and fingers. It was past time to pay attention to my typing position. So I made a keyboard table out of salvaged and scrap wood, to hold my keyboard at the correct height for typing:


The top is salvaged Douglas fir that Carol got from one of the building material exchanges in the Bay area. The two side pieces are scraps of #2 common Western pine left over from bookcases I made fifteen years ago, which we have carted across the country two or three times. The spreader bar in the back is a short piece of moulding that I found in the basement of our building.

This is not a fine piece of furniture, nor did I want to hide the fact that it’s made by hand of salvaged materials. So I left nail holes, chips, dents, and rough patches visible on the salvaged Douglas fir top; and the top is screwed onto the base, with the black drywall screws left exposed. All cutting and joinery was done with hand tools, and I didn’t bother eradicating scribe marks or tool marks. I even left the grade marking on one of the uprights — it reads “212 STERLING WWP S-DRY IWP” — as well as a fluorescent orange lumber crayon mark.

This keyboard table might not be suitable for polite company. But it makes a good surface to work on and write on: imperfect, scarred, comfortable, with a wealth of associations you don’t get with something bought at a big-box store.

Below: a closer look:

Continue reading “Keyboard table”

May, 1980

The truck drivers at the lumberyard listened to classic rock, the yard foreman listened to Paul Harvey, and for all we knew the salesmen listened to Frank Sinatra or something. But a couple of us younger guys — me, the hardware stock clerk, the part-time stock clerk who worked in the paint department — we listened to WBCN, the progressive rock station that broadcast from downtown Boston. The morning DJ on WBCN was Charles Laquidara, known for his leftist politics, and one day he announced that there would be a big action to oppose the Seabrook nuclear power plant over Memorial Day weekend. I decided to go.

That day, I ran into John, an old friend from my church youth group, and he said he’d go up with me. I was working six days a week at the lumberyard, but somehow I managed to get that Saturday off. Charles Laquidara had given contact information for getting rides up to Seabrook, and John and I got a ride up. Several hundred of us camped out on an old farm owned by a Seabrook resident who was opposed to power plant. John and I strung a plastic tarp over our sleeping bags, nestled in among all the other tents in the woods on the farm. Continue reading “May, 1980”

Why we still need OWL

Every once in a while, I hear someone say that we Unitarian Universalists don’t need the Our Whole Lives (OWL) comprehensive sexuality education curriculum because “we live in a progressive community, and our kids can get adequate sexuality education in the public schools.”

However, a recent controversy in the relatively progressive communities of Los Altos and Mountain View show that school systems are always subject to the pressure of popular opinion and loud voices in the community. Recently, the student newspaper at Mountain View High School (which also serves Los Altos) ran a spread on sex and relationships that aimed to supplement and fill out what is not taught in health classes — and some very vocal parents objected:

The paper recently ran a two-page feature, “Sex & Relationships,” including the piece “What they teach you in health and what you really need to know.” The article upset many parents, who attended the Feb. 11 Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District board meeting to voice their objections.

Mountain View High parent Nathan Sandland described the article as “too forward” and said it “counteracts parental advice.”…

Daniel Ledesma, whose four children are not yet in high school, said he was concerned with the content being “too explicit” and that he didn’t want his children exposed to it.

“It sends the wrong message,” he said. “It approves sex before marriage.”

Superintendent Barry Groves acknowledged that the article contained content that should not have been published and apologized for it.

“Parents sound off over Mountain View High newspaper content,” Los Altos Crier, 27 Feb. 2013

My read on this is that the opposition is religious in nature — the key quote above is “It approves sex before marriage.” Of course we Unitarian Universalists would like to see sex happen within committed relationships, but since gays and lesbians can’t get married in this state marriage is not an option for them. Those who demand that people have to be married before they have sex is probably against same sex marriage, and that kind of attitude is typically linked with conservative religion.

Since that article, the school board and superintendent have had to backtrack. Fortunately, California has laws in place that protect student journalists:

As objectionable as the articles may have been to some parents, there is little school officials can do to prevent the Oracle from publishing such articles in the future, according Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center.

“Very, very little can be censored in California,” Goldstein said, explaining that while the Supreme Court precedent set in the 1988 case “Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier,” dictates that districts can censor school publications, laws have since been passed in the state which supersede that ruling. The only way a school administration could legally exercise prior restraint on an article in a student newspaper, Goldstein said, would be if that article incited students to act in way that presented a “clear and present danger” to the operations of the school, or if the articles were defamatory, libelous or obscene.

While Robinson and other parents have said that they felt certain articles printed in The Oracle met the criteria for obscenity, Beare pointed out that U.S. courts have had trouble defining exactly what “obscenity” means.

There is a good reason behind California’s strong legal protections for journalists, no matter their age, Goldstein said. “Whenever you have a question to err on the side of fewer rights or more rights,” he mused, “you always produce better citizens by giving them more rights.”

“Calmer heads prevail in aftermath of sex discussion: Support for student journalists who wrote controversial articles,” Mountain View Voice, 1 March 2013.

But in this instance, the dissemination of information on sexuality is allowed by protections for student journalists — not because it’s inherently good to give adolescents comprehensive information and education on sex and sexuality. Those protections would not apply in the classroom, and given their initial response, the school board might well give in to any demands made by religious conservative parents who objected to comprehensive sexuality education in the public schools.

This helps explain why we continue to need OWL programs in our congregations, even in relatively progressive communities like Mountain View and Los Altos. Too much pressure can be brought to bear on school boards for us to certain of comprehensive sexuality education in the public schools. Indeed, I would argue that we need to expand our OWL programs so we can offer them at no charge to people outside our congregations — and doing so might be the most important social justice effort we could take on right now.


I like the contrast between colors that occurs at dusk when the sky turns a deep blue at about the same time that yellow-orange sodium vapor and incandescent lights turn on. I was enjoying this phenomenon a couple of evenings ago when I noticed that a nearby traffic light periodically turned some of the shadows red: