New thinking, such as Steve Benen’s new book, “Imposters” about how over the last decades the Republican party has left its original premise as representing a school of political thought in favor of achieving raw power for the Senators, has me thinking about religious institutions. In Christian terms I was originally Presbyterian through family; left that in undergrad years; while living in a village on the Blackfeet rez, casually participated in the Methodist congregation, and finally served as clergy in the Unitarian Universalist; Association, which I left in 1988. Since then, informed by the University of Chicago Divinity School MA in Religious Studies, I’ve been trying to understand the major changes to our lives because of scientific explosion since WWII.
The untenability of the old Christian anthropology — in which a big humanoid in the sky had created little puppets on earth who were controlled until an eventual fate determined by virtue — was replaced by the hominin record; by the awareness of species genomes; the functioning of our bodily identities as interaction in societies; “deep history” about demographics and the vast new “map” of the cosmos; the challenges to biology-based families — all these forces have meant we are in a mental and emotional crisis. Normally, religious institutions such as denominations would have provided stability, but now they seem to be as powerless as the secular organizations like political parties.
My original participation in the Presbyterian church came from my mother’s family, where her father was a strong local participant who became invisible at pledge time because he never did have much economic success as a rural contractor, just enough to keep the family afloat. His wife, a gentle and dependent woman, preferred the Baptist’s emotional warmth and — since that church was next door to the Presbys — she would slip over there sometimes. My mother chose her father’s side.
My mother was hampered by us being a one-car family in those days so she left the rather massive and imposing Westminster Presbyterian church, joining instead Vernon Presbyterian church which was only blocks away. Part of my leaving was the character of the minister, J. Arthur Stevenson, who was an ambitious man in the pattern of the educated and admirable man who drove success. But he was also arrogant and racist, despising the Chinese family next to the building. Their daughter was in my classes. My mother, influenced by missionaries, admired Asian people.
In college I first attended the young Presbyterians, but soon left partly because of classes with Paul Schilpp, a major humanist, and because of the lure of theatre. This latter insisted on the value of all humans and the importance of understanding how their lives shaped them in various vital ways that did not compete except in terms of story. I formally withdrew from my mother’s church which caused J. Arthur to condemn me from the pulpit. My mother rose from the pew, walked out, and joined the other bigger church where she had wanted to be a member earlier. For a big part of her life, she volunteered in their office, and she buried our father from there. The congregation began to have schisms and quarrels, and by the time she died, she no longer attended and would not accept their ministers in her house. We could not discuss “faith” peacefully. She never really made the transition from her original rural and literal beliefs.
She was the only active church-goer in a family secular on both sides, maternal and paternal. My father declared himself to be Atheist in the Progressive and early counter-cultural way, claiming Bertrand Russell and science as more enlightened. He flirted with the UU’s who became hyphenated at a Portland conference in the year I graduated from Northwestern, 1961,
My first job, teaching on a rez, meant that the Methodist church had become the “Protestant” white alternative while the Catholics shepherded the tribal people. Because of my association and then marriage to a white man born in 1914 and committed to the rez, I was marginally included in semi-secret traditional ceremonies and informed anthropologically. It was a vivid and persuasive alternative which the Div School accepted in terms of Comparative Religion, the justification of various forms.
This is all preamble to explain why I left the UU’s, though they had purported to be as tolerant of differences as it was possible to be through education and awareness. The problem as I see it now was the definition and finally domination of the denomination by the socio-economic forces that have also challenged political parties. The Niebuhr brothers have been eloquent about this.
The UUA is more open to the larger society than many denominations, coming out of the Boston educated classes that uneasily joined with the rural mid-America tradition of Jesus Christianity, avoiding the supernatural dimension and the moral rigidity of some denominations. This internal friction has been frank. The stance that the denomination was inclusive and progressive was challenged hard by the war in Vietnam, black empowerment, and the sexual revolution.
When I joined at first in 1975, I was trying to regroup and become respectable after a confusing divorce. It took actual service in churches to reveal my real problem: I was not socioeconomically the same as the leaders. Being female was part of that, being older (forty) was relevant, and I was now challenging my dynamic of attaching to powerful males as a helper rather than a wife so as to preserve my independence. It was very simple: I didn’t know their music, had not participated in their type of gatherings, didn’t cook or eat their way, didn’t read the same books or attend the same movies — little daily stuff that got in the way. They were as devoted to conformity as any other prosperous people, just in a different way. I was not. I was guided by ideas.
The emphasis for clergy was on securing personal prosperity by serving a big church with a major budget and — more than that — making the denomination grow financially and in size. No different than my father’s task of growing rural co-operatives. These goals were unachievable — determined by demographics — but the aura of elitism has remained and has attracted People of Color, as a way for them to acquire status, particularly women. This has pulled the institution to the Universalist side, converted theology to therapy, and challenged the Elite both in leadership and in theological style.
Realizing that entering this vocation was not helped by my excessive idealism and interest in science, which was more culturally approved decades earlier, challenged prosperity as a goal, and pushed social service off to the UU Service Committee (the Quakers did the same), I had to face the likelihood that I would always be at the periphery and in poverty. I was still just enough Presbyterian to reject that. But I wasn’t enough of a hippie to go full-blown counterculture.
Conventional religious denominations are shrinking and I suspect the political parties have been doing the same. Efforts to reinvigorate these structural social forces have had to struggle against the new vision of the world and increasingly intense competition and “re-framing.” Some are probably doomed. Do we need to find new sources of structure or is it possible to morph the old parties and denominations into something that works for a new society? I don’t know. I’m working on it. Can one live like Jesus in a society that sells Hallmark love? Can one think one’s way to safety in a world of sharks and viruses?