The name of our denomination, The Unitarian Universalist Association is awkward. It has an embarrassing abundance of syllables—16 (17 with The), way too many for contemporary marketing sensibilities. The customary acronyms or shortened forms don’t do much for me. How about for you: UU or UniUni? To the unitiated, these sound bytes might suggest a cult, while doing no justice to the tradition behind the contractions. They also tend to exclude those not in the inner circle.
And then ciphering out the whole name might seem on first hearing contradictory: Unitarian—One; Universalism—All. One/All! Is one/all oxymoronic, a self-contradiction, like jumbo shrimp?
When each part of the name stands alone there is often confusion with other religions. Unitarian gets confused with Unity (a new-agy Christian offshoot). This congregation was founded in 1886 as the Unity Church of Hinsdale—a mission church of the Unity Men, radical Unitarians of the Midwest whose motto was “the Unity of all things.” Unitarian also gets confused with Unification (the Korean cult of Sun Yung Moon). Universalism conjures up the Universal Life Church of Modesto, California, which since the 1950’s has ordained anyone who applies to be a minister, able to perform marriages. (Whenever I read the marriages chronicled in the Sunday New York Times, I’m astounded/amused by the number of officiants identified as Universal Life Ministers.
Historically Unitarian has social cachet (its roots are Boston Brahmin after all). And it has a certain cultural notoriety and will show up in those lists that circulate now and again, offshoots or variations of the classic “how many so-and-sos does it take to screw in a light bulb.” (I’ll let you figure out the punch line of how many Unitarians it takes—a hint, it involves a committee.) Arguably the best known joke regarding Unitarians involves the proverbial pearly gates and two signs: one sign reads this way to heaven, the second sign reads this way to a discussion about heaven. Recently departed Unitarians invariably head toward the discussion about heaven. The second best known joke, arguably, is Mort Sahl’s rhetorical question, “What do Unitarians burn on a lawn—a question mark?
Unitarians are relatively well known in New England, particularly in Massachusetts and in the Boston orbit, which for many Unitarian Universalists is still the Athens of America. Universalists, though some loyalists still cling to the identity, are hardly known at all, anywhere. I don’t know any popular Universalist joke.
Unitarian Universalism is a merged denomination. Merger was effected in 1961 when the Universalist Church of America joined with the American Unitarian Association. The separate denominations shared some similarities, though there were also differences of substance and style—including significant markers of class. They both had their origins in the American Enlightenment and emerged in New England at the turn of the 18th into the 19th century. At their beginnings, each had a Unitarian Christology—that Jesus was special but not part of Trinitarian Godhead; each extolled freedom of belief and conscience; and most importantly each eschewed the notion of a creed. Each evolved doctrinally throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The famous quip that still goes a long way in discerning the differences between the two traditions claims “the Unitarians thought humankind too good to be damned by God, while the Universalists thought God too good to damn humankind.”
One of the hot trends within our denomination these days involves writing what are called “elevator speeches.” Imagine you’re on an elevator and a fellow rider asks you about being a Unitarian Universalists. What can you say in fifteen or twenty seconds?
American culture, among its many aspects, is a religious marketplace. Some contemporary observers argue that the proliferation and vigor of religion generally, in American culture, is a consequence of competition among the many possibilities—that there is at the very least a product branding that distinguishes religion from religion, and that branding sets denominations apart and appeals to religious seekers/consumers.
A few years ago our Association launched an ad campaign, thoroughly market tested, around the phrase “The Uncommon Denominationsm.” (When I first heard of it a few years ago, I flashed the 7-Up campaign around the notion of the UnCola!)
A famous and effective marketing campaign of the 1950s used the line “Are You a Unitarian and Don’t Know It?” This slogan is the one we used when we placed ads in local papers for our “open-houses.”
I have discerned a yearning among my younger and/or new ministerial colleagues for what is summarized as UU Identity. Toward this end they have elevated the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. No one is yelling, “Let’s make these seven principles a creed,” but many seem to want something to at least hang a hat on. (The Association is a free gathering of a thousandsome kindred liberal religious societies across the country; the Association has no hierarchical power over the independent congregations; yet the Association promotes even as it serves Unitarian Universalism.)
In the larger perspective, then, the problem of ambiguity—what Unitarian Universalism as a denomination stands for as well as identity for individual Unitarian Universalists—has been a result of the defining features of our liberal religious way: freedom for the individual and independence for the local society, that is, congregation. Unitarian Universalism is many things suspended in an ever-progressing context.
A decade ago Jeff Briere, then our intern, and I wrote 101 Reasons I’m a Unitarian Universalist. Jeff and I each wrote 50 one paragraphs sketches about aspects of our liberal religious tradition. It recently has been published as an ebook, and among the niche category of UU books has had success in the UK as well as the States. It is the briefness of the paragraphs and their variety that makes it effective and creates a pointillist portrait of our complex heritage.
Here’s, my elevator speech:
Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal, liberal religious community of kindred spirits. We value reason, freedom of belief and conscience, as well as respect for one another and for other religions. Character—personal integrity—matters, perhaps most of all. We seek a just and equitable society, not for some but for everyone. And we will continue to progress from generation to generation. We’re never finished.