Moment of Truth: Our Next Four Hundred Years

I found this book tucked away in the church library.  It was published–by the authors, I think–in 1968.  I started reading it out of curiosity. Josiah and Laile Bartlett are giants in the history of Starr King, known for envisioning and implementing a new model of “student-centered” learning with roots deep in Unitarian and Universalist theology.  I kept reading because the book is amazingly relevant to many of the things going on in Unitarian Universalism today.  Here are some brilliant excerpts. [I subsequently broke this into multiple posts–revsean] You’ll see that I started to put “(sic)” after any language that I knew would be problematic nowadays, but eventually gave up. Please, just remember this was written in 1968.

First, an honest reflection on class:

Richard Niebuhr…declared, “The division of churches closely follows the division of men (sic) into castes of national, racial, and economic groups.”  Niebuhr was right, of course.  Churches are class groups. Unitarian (sic) churches among them.  Indeed, the coincidence of early Boston Unitarianism with the actual families (not simply classes) who dominated finance and respectable society is, on close examination, appalling.  It is particularly so when one notes also their rejection, or patronization, fo the farm boys and immigrants who came to work in the mills and mill-towns they built.

What is more, Unitarians (sic) tend to be even more narrow and delimited than other churchfolk: probably the most homogenous of any established denomination.

…Week after week we listen to sermons by our clergy, and  mail letters to the editor of our magazine, deploring our upper-middle classness and calling for a change in our appeal, or broadening of our scope. Hardly a conference or evaluation session goes by without the suggestion that we reach out to the blue-collar worker and to members of minority groups.

…It hardly takes a sociologist to establish the fact–people have a natural and unconscious inclination to associate with their own “kind.”  But even on the conscious level and when we are trying to expand, what do we do?  We use the same tried and true, but class-oriented, tactics we’ve used in the past.

We place our ads in the “broad and varied range” of media–like the Saturday Review and The New York TImes. …Then there are the places we pick to plant our churches, places where we are sure they will take hold by attracting the kind of people we are used to attracting.

…If we did succeed in hooking an itinerant longshoreman or bracero, what would we do with him (sic) or he with us?  What would a person schooled in the liturgy of the mass or used to uninhibited store-front religion make of our brand of religion?

…Unitarians who insist they have no creed, aim rather to furnish a socially-unifying framework and approach for developing individual beliefs, i.e. personal creeds, by which attitudes and behaviors are measured.  Now a person of any race or minority group may choose the Unitarian alternative, but he almost has to be of a certain class, or at any rate exposed to the perspective a particular class.

…But to choose and assume the responsibility, with its burden of personal authority, for building an individual creed, implies exposure to a point of view. This is the Enlightenment–scientific-democratic syndrome of values with which we work: faith in the human enterprise and in man himself, his reason and his potential.

Such exposure and outlook is strongly, almost inevitably associated with class and class-related variables, such as income, opportunity, and education….So our non-white Unitarians tend to follow the same class lines and have the same socio-economic characteristics as the rest.  White or black, this does not necessarily mean formal education.

Now, I don’t agree with everything the Bartletts are saying here and I certainly don’t agree that we just need to accept who we are and get on with it.  But I’m impressed that they were doing this kind of class analysis forty years ago!  We can barely talk about class now.   “We cannot miss the truth that their religion stressed self-reliance, optimism, and the “capitalist virtues.” Unitarianism was, and still is, and entrepeneur’s religion.” Wow.

This may excite me more than most because much of what we did in the class I taught at Starr King was try to unpack and uncover the ways Enlightenment ideals are at work in our theology and even in our anti-oppression and anti-racism work.  And, frankly, those Enlightenment ideals are rooted in assumptions that are racist, sexist and classist.  Audre Lorde taught us that “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” So what tools will we use? Or will we simply admit that we like living in the master’s house?  Or maybe, just maybe–we will open a new discussion about–to borrow a phrase from Theodore Parker–what is permanent and what is transient in our faith.

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