I SOOO enjoy all the blundering around in people’s minds triggered by Obama’s genome and multi-cultural background. Everyone keeps trying to fit him into a pre-existing category, but he’s not a category -- he’s unique. I thought that was supposed to be the idea.
The latest twist in the plot was “accusing” (and that IS the word) Obama of being a secret Unitarian!! Egads! Not THAT!! Aren’t Unitarians those upbeat people who are always intolerably cheerful? “Poor Man’s Christian Science?” Oh, no. That’s Unity. Well, then Unitarians must be some kind of a cult, some kind of weird California hot tub thing, where people just make up any old theology so long as they can keep their sexuality. Um, Church Universal and Triumphant, right? Oh, that’s a Montana thing -- about over now.
Adlai Stevenson? Thomas Jefferson? Emerson and Thoreau? You’re just making it up. Unitarians go around claiming anyone who’s the least bit brainy and liberal. As one of the right-wing-nuts put it, Unitarians are worse than Mormons! At least once we claim them after they’re dead we don’t try to baptize them or marry them. We do look to see whether they signed the local membership book. There are SOME limits to our fantasies. But UU’s rather overreach when it comes to famous people and minorities, so one would expect that they’d make more of a fuss about claiming Obama than they do.
From the inside of UU stuff, there are several things to point out. One is that it is a “double-yolked” denomination and the Universalist part has always been Christian, even when it was a heresy. Their heresy was rejecting Calvinism on grounds that if God was good he would not condemn anyone to eternal hell. The “universal” is universal salvation. This has pretty much mainstreamed by now. It is the idea that “I’m saved but you’re going to hell” that has remained popular in some quarters, mostly among those who believe they are saved, but it is beginning to sound like heresy.
The other observation about UU from the inside is that though the group explicitly wants to include all minorities (so as to show they are not prejudiced) the Unitarian side has been from the outset an elitist point of view. Arguing for monotheism at the expense of the Trinity is for theological hair-splitters, an argument that goes back thousands of years and affects the nature of Whatever-in-the-Sky not at all. The UU’s don’t exactly go looking for stupid downscale people. As one observer put it, “They want people just like them except for being a different color or having a colorful past.” Otherwise, they get pushed into the role of receivers of do-goodism. Clients. Not leaders.
There was a period during the years of anti-segregation when some UU’s became very active and made friends with black people, introducing them into the UU orbit. This turned into an internal confrontation wildly chaotic and emotionally devastating for a lot of people, not to mention expensive. And there was one UU KIA. BACA and BAWA are what you want to look for in the archives. The worst crime -- the one people remember -- is that at a denominational General Assembly the black forces physically captured the microphone, which shows they had a sharp awareness of symbolism. “Speaking Out” is the UU way, isn’t it?
The facts are that Obama’s grandmother was buried from the Honolulu First Unitarian Church, which meets in what is described as a “mansion,” but looks like a nice two-story house to me. The Right Wing Nuts dug around in history (the newspaper) and turned up another big congregation-splitter among the Unitarian Universalists: the Vietnam War. Yes, indeed, they did help young men escape the draft compelling them to serve in what they considered an unjust and illegal war. (Remember the draft?)
Just under the description of Madelyn “Toot” Dunham (“Toot” is short for Tutu, which is Hawaiian for Grandmother) is the implication that she was so wildly liberal that she let her daughter go out into the world and make a shocking marriage to an unstable black Kenyan man which led to divorce in two years. And you know what THAT means! Such marriages produce children who are half-caste, ignorant, ineducable, rebellious -- they will NEVER become the President of the United States and therefore Obama is NOT the President of the United States. He just CAN’T be or my whole world-view is WRONG!
The smoking gun for these people is that in a speech Obama said his mother had a “healthy skepticism of organized religion.” Not to worry. Even Garrison Keillor never accuses UU’s of being organized, even after decades of workshops about how to do it.
But for me the funniest part is trying to pin East Shore Unitarian Church in Bellevue, Washington, on Obama because Stanley and Madelyn Dunham, Obama’s grandparents, in 1955 moved to Mercer Island and attended East Shore while Obama’s mother went to Mercer Island High School. This is before the Universalists came aboard the denomination and during another major controversy, the Cold War transition from Russia as our friend and ally during WWII to our bitter enemy as “Communists.”
I served the congregation that split from East Shore and moved up the lake to Kirkland because they wanted to do more aggressive social action. Bellevue is a money town, with a high per capita income. Kirkland is an “arty” money town, not quite so upscale. East Shore Unitarian Church has as their long-time minister one of my most conservative seminary classmates and housemates , a Princeton grad who fussed at me constantly because I didn’t wear house slippers. (I do now, but in those days I was still young enough to have warm feet.) So what was his reaction to all these accusations against a congregation that defends everyone’s right to free speech? He sent out a letter asking the members not to speak to the media, to let him control the spin.
Well, as Obama knows, it’s one thing to have high principles and it’s another to try to make them work. Since laughter is based on incongruity and contradiction, I find the whole thing hilarious, but the kind of human comedy that makes for warmth and connection. Universalist. And truly, I would loved to have known Obama’s whole family. I did spend an evening in a group with Rosemary Matson and her husband, now gone, founders of Honolulu First Unitarian Church. She and her husband were as close to saints as I ever expect to meet. She is widowed and ancient now, so I’m glad she lives in lovely upscale Carmel where Clint Eastwood was mayor. I won’t accuse her of guilt by association.