To all my progressive friends and compatriots

Conservative lawyer David French is now writing a column for the New York Times. Yoicks. A conservative writing for the bastion of liberalism in the U.S.?

Well, according to this opinion piece, French had the temerity to stand up for his “commitment to the classical liberal ideal of government as neutral guarantor of free expression and association that the new conservative intellectuals have abandoned.” Beyond that, he got hated on by conservatives in social media when he, a white man, adopted a Black child. It sounds like he kind of got kicked out of the conservative club.

In his first column in the Times, French wrote:

“Any time my tribe or my allies are under fire, before I yield to the temptation of a reflexive defense, I should apply my principles and carefully consider the most uncomfortable of thoughts: My opponents might be right, my allies might be wrong and justice may require that I change my mind. And it may, in all likelihood, require that I do this again and again.”

Presumably French is actually talking about himself. But he might as well be talking about us liberals and progressives and leftists.

You know what, sometimes we’re wrong. I won’t talk about liberals and progressives, but I can talk about my people, the leftists. Before my day, leftists in the 1930s were wrong about Stalin and the Soviet Union; we had to change our minds, which forced us to rethink what we meant by socialism and communism: we had to be reminded by conservatives that totalitarianism is always wrong, even when it masquerades as socialism or communism. In my day, leftists in the 1970s and 1980s veered from freedom of expression into hyperindividualism, and we mocked the conservatives who held on to values of community. We were wrong, and we began to realize individual expression had to be balanced against community. (By the way, this became even more clear when some leftists veered into libertarianism, went to Silicon Valley, and started creating a new kind of totalitarianism.)

And today? Hmm…some leftists are veering away from a commitment to the ideal of government as neutral guarantor of free expression and free association…in other words, some leftists are also veering towards totalitarianism.

We all need to listen to one another, without yielding to the temptation of reflexive defensiveness — liberals and conservatives, progressives and right-wing libertarians, leftists and today’s hyperindividualistic right wingers. We don’t have to agree — but if we listen, we might find we have to clarify our ideas or even change our minds.

“Religious people tend to look like pretty good neighbors”

Several sociologists have found a characteristic that seems to predict with some accuracy who will flout social distancing restrictions designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19: Christian nationalists.

“Samuel Perry (associate professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma) and his colleagues, such as Andrew Whitehead of Indiana University and Joshua Grubbs of Bowling Green State University, argue in a series of new papers that Christian nationalism is either the single best predictor or a top predictor of whether a person will flout social distancing recommendations, be skeptical of science, find nothing racist about calling COVID-19 the ‘China virus’ or argue that lockdown orders threaten the economy and liberty — all while de-prioritizing the threat to the vulnerable.” — as reported by Religion News Service.

At the same time, the ideology of Christian nationalism apparently has only a weak connection to the Christian religion:

“In fact, religious devotion of any kind often had the opposite effect to Christian nationalism, and was the leading predictor of whether someone would take precautionary measures. ‘We found religious people were more likely to wash their hands, to use hand sanitizer and to avoid touching their face — all the things that were recommended,’ [Perry] said. ‘We find religious people are more likely to say, “If we have the decision between individual liberty and protecting the vulnerable, we’re going to protect the vulnerable”.’…He added: ‘In other words, (religious people) tend to look like pretty good neighbors.'”

Perry explains the trend as an “emerging crisis of authority.” Not surprisingly, Christian nationalists believe in conspiracy theories and distrust both scientists and the media. Christian nationalists feel that their country is being taken away from them; not surprising, then, that they are more likely to trust people like Donald Trump, who they think is going to save their country for them.

I wonder if the rise of Christian nationalism correlates in any way to the rise of the “Nones,” people who have no affiliation to organized religion. I’ve often thought that what really underlies the rise of the “Nones” is a rise of hyper-individualism and a distrust of authority; the Christian nationalists would certainly match that description. And we know from surveys that most of the “Nones” believe in God; might some of the “Nones” in fact be Christian nationalists? But this is entirely speculation on my part.

Remember that neither Trump nor most Christian nationalists actually belong to a church: they are too individualistic to want to submit to the demands that organized religion makes.

Whereas those of us who do participate in organized religion tend to make “pretty good neighbors.”

The evolving state of religious education

I am increasingly convinced that the pandemic is accelerating a number of trends that are going to change the way we do religious education in our local congregations fairly quickly. However, I don’t these trends should lead us to proclaim either the “post Sunday school era” or “the death os Sunday school.”

And before you get too excited (“Yay, the death of Sunday school!”) or too sad (“Nooo, I miss Sunday school!”), let’s look at a couple of the trends that affect religious education, trends that are being accelerated by the pandemic…..

1. Current trends affecting religious education
2. Where we came from, 1781 to the present
3. Why the “post Sunday school” advocates are right
4. Why the “post Sunday school” advocates are wrong
5. Expanding our religious education possibilities
6. The whole church as curriculum
7. New models for funding
8. Final thoughts


1. Current trends affecting religious education

First and foremost among current trends, most American congregations face looming financial difficulties. Staff costs continue to outpace inflation, driven in part by health insurance costs. Staff costs in Unitarian Universalist congregations are also under pressure because we expect our professional staff — both ordained ministers and lay religious educators — to have at least a four year college degree, and often three or more years of graduate study; staffers have to pay off their college debts, and that means they need relatively high salaries. Finally, there’s always Baumol’s Cost Disease: American congregations represent an “technologically stagnant sector” which means congregations experience “above average cost and price increases.” The amount each person gives to a congregation has to increase faster than inflation, just so the congregation can provide the same amount of services.

Continue reading “The evolving state of religious education”

P. G. Wodehouse on individualism

P. G. Wodehouse, a novelist of ideas? How absurd!

And it is true that most of his dozens of novels are bits of fluff, with no more intellectual content than the brain of Bertie Wooster, one of his most famous characters. But in some of his earlier novels, Wodehouse occasionally gets philosophical — as in this passage from the 1918 novel Picadilly Jim, where Jimmy, the wealthy twenty-something protagonist, comes to the sudden and unpleasant realization that he has been pretty self-centered for much of his adult life:

“…Life had suddenly taken on a less simple aspect. Dimly, for he was not accustomed to thinking along these lines, he perceived the numbing truth that we human beings are merely as many pieces in a jig-saw puzzle, and that our every movement affects the fortunes of some other piece. Just so, faintly at first and taking shape by degrees, must the germ of a civic spirit have come to prehistoric man. We are all individualists till we wake up.” [chapter 6]

Of course, Wodehouse was writing nearly a century ago. We have progressed further in the development of civic spirit since then: the jig-saw puzzles of the wealthy and the rest of the world are no longer connected to one another. If he were alive today, Jimmy could enjoy his wealth without having ever to wake up.

Emerson and race

A couple of weeks ago on the Christian Century Web site, Edwin Blum reviewed a new book, The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter (Norton, March, 2010). In the review, Blum says:

“In the United States, slavery helped define whiteness. In this case, the white race was linked to freedom, whereas blackness was tied to enslavement. Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson gravitated to the idea that Anglo-Saxons were at the top of the human pyramid. Jefferson admired the myth of Saxon love for liberty and of Americans as the true heirs of the Saxons’ political virtue. He admired it so much, in fact, that his University of Virginia had classes in the Anglo-Saxon language. Emerson, according to Painter, became the ‘philosopher king of American white race theory’ because of his undying love for Anglo-Saxonism. Emerson saluted the Saxons for embodying manliness, beauty, liberty and individualism.”

Now Unitarian Universalists claim both Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson as our co-religionists, and we tend to claim them as thinkers who continue to inspire us, and who are central to our Unitarian intellectual heritage. Some of us have been critical of Jefferson’s actions as a slaveholder, but in general we have been content to adopt both Jefferson’s and Emerson’s theories of individual liberty and freedom without much in the way of critical reflection about what, exactly, they meant by liberty and freedom for individuals.

This is analogous to what happened in the House of Representatives recently. House Republicans, under the influence of a theory that we should follow the U.S. Constitution exactly as it was originally written, decided that they would read the U.S. Constitution in its entirety at the opening of the current session. Except that they left out all the bits about slavery and slaves being equivalent to three fifths of a human being. This is disingenuous of them, because when you read the original U.S. Constitution, you become quite clear that uncritical acceptance is not an option.

I’m not particularly well-read in Emerson, and can’t comment intelligently on his racial attitudes. But I am pretty well-read in his disciple Henry David Thoreau, and Thoreau is quite sure that white people like him are superior to, e.g., Irish, French Canadians, and working class people of the same narrow ethnic background as himself. If you indulge in an uncritical acceptance of Thoreau’s individualistic mystic theology and his philosophy of government, which is also highly individualistic, you’re going to indulge in a tendency to cover over how both his theology and philosophy are grounded in a hierarchical theory of race. And I’m pretty sure that I’d find similar problems in Emerson’s philosophy and theology.

I don’t mean to imply that we should discard Emerson and Jefferson; they are too central to our intellectual heritage to discard. But I do want to suggest that it’s past time for a serious revision of our understanding of Emersonian and Jeffersonian individualism within a Unitarian Universalist context.