The Spiritual and Cultural Ethos of Unitarian Universalism

The collective personality of any group reflects both conscious and unconscious patterns that express the group's way of being in the world and its relationship with its members. This section explores how our collective identity-our ethos-and our often unconscious ideas, feelings, and cultural expressions-our mythos-underpin our understanding of congregational polity and hinder our efforts to create a community of autonomous congregations.

If Unitarian Universalists proudly display the axiom "Question Authority," it is because we are genuinely uncomfortable with power. If we acknowledge the legitimacy of power in any venue, we often view it as a negative force or at least suspiciously. This is a core dynamic of our identity as Unitarian Universalists. In this context, how we work together as a voluntary religious movement becomes a very complex question because to quote the Commission on Appraisal's 1983 report, "voluntary consensus is put on a collision course with the needs of the larger organizational structure to exercise democratically achieved forms of power."[1]

How we govern ourselves may represent the most obvious dimension of congregational polity, but if we are to understand polity more fully, we must place it in the context of other aspects of our collective identity-who we are as Unitarian Universalists. Although the principles of democracy and congregational autonomy are central to our identity, there are other key elements. Our group identity-how we see ourselves-affects many key aspects of our congregational life and culture: how we think about mission; how we present ourselves to the world; how we worship and celebrate; how we understand our philosophical, ethical, moral, and theological foundations; the issues that express our interests and highest values; our perceptions of and relationships with others, especially those we perceive as unlike ourselves.

Our Ethos: Who We Are as Unitarian Universalists

Ethos can be understood as our collective identity and personality: how we as Unitarian Universalists present ourselves to each other and the world.

Demographic data is one measure of our ethos. Market research conducted in 1987 from which the UUA collected both demographic and psychographic (or lifestyle) data, as well as the 1990 National Survey of Religious Identification (NSRI), are instructive in understanding our dominant cultural ethos and identity. The NSRI survey[2] ranks Unitarian Universalists highest among 30 religious movements in aggregate social status on "Protestant ethic variables," which include level of education, household income, extent of home ownership, and patterns of employment. (Both these surveys were limited to the United States.) The following profile of Unitarian Universalists emerges from the NSRI survey:

  • Unitarian Universalists are the most highly educated (49.5 percent are college educated and many have earned advanced degrees)
  • Unitarian Universalists enjoy the second-highest median household income ($34,800 per annum)
  • Nearly three out of four Unitarian Universalists own their homes (73.2 percent, and tenth in rank order)
  • More than half hold full-time jobs (52.8 percent, and eleventh in rank order).

A 1987 Association-commissioned demographic and psychographic survey[3] amplifies this profile, reporting that the typical Unitarian Universalist is

  • 52 years old (down from 55 in a 1987 survey)
  • more likely to be a woman than a man
  • of European-American heritage
  • nature-oriented and living in a suburban community
  • politically active and environmentally conscious.

Significantly, when this survey was presented to the Association, it was pointed out that this profile was an exact match with the customers on the catalog mailing list of L.L. Bean. In 1992, World magazine conducted a reader profile (updating the 1987 demographic survey) that indicated no significant changes in the UU profile.[4]

Unitarian Universalists as Liberal Religionists

Recent studies of congregational life in the United States expand the picture of who we are as liberal religionists. In his book, U.S. Lifestyles and Mainline Churches, for example, church historian Tex Sample defines three groups as the cultural left, cultural center, and cultural right. While these categories do not necessarily correspond to political labels, the group that Sample defines as the cultural left is quite consistent with the demographic and psychographic profiles of Unitarian Universalists described above. According to Sample, members of the cultural left:

  • are strongly inner directed
  • have a self-fulfillment orientation
  • tend to be nonconformists
  • have little loyalty to authority or institutions (little respect for "God, country, or apple pie")
  • are politically liberal
  • are mostly affluent
  • are deeply concerned about social issues, especially peace, the environment, and consumer issues
  • are nature centered, often believing strongly that "nature has its own wisdom"
  • tend to be experimental, particularly in terms of theology
  • are often not members of religious institutions
  • tend to seek the mystical
  • are often attracted to Eastern religions.

The UUA's market research suggests that Unitarian Universalists are largely suburbanites. In a study conducted in May 1982, Roof and McKinney[5] found that 44 percent of Unitarian Universalists live in suburbs, but that nearly one-third (31 percent) live in large cities. This report does not take into account that many of our congregations are located in small cities and towns. In contrast, the highest percentage of Canadian Unitarians live in big cities and suburbs. Historically, the greatest concentration of Unitarian Universalists in the United States is in the Northeast (33 percent), but a growing percentage now resides in the Midwest.

Given our history, as well as the high concentration of congregations in New England, it is not surprising that Unitarian Universalism has been called "the Boston religion," which carries the flavor and personality of the European-American upper classes. This characterization is still very much at the heart of Unitarian Universalist identity, as is a tendency toward the logical and the rational, which is not surprising given the history of the Free Church movement so firmly rooted in the Enlightenment era.[6]

The "Religion of the Successful"

What emerges from this data is a picture of the "paramount value pattern"[7] of our religious movement. These statistical profiles also support the claim that Unitarian Universalism has a "long history of high status in this society."[8] James Luther Adams addresses the theological implications of this status in what he calls "the religion of the successful":

We [in the United States] live in neighborhoods segregated from other neighborhoods in terms of education, occupation, and income; also separated by class and pigmentation, that is, by race. The segregation of sexism cuts across all of these boundaries. In all too great a measure, the churches are a function and indeed a protection of these segregations.

In this situation, we of the middle class are tempted, indeed almost fated, to adopt the religion of the successful. This religion of the successful amounts to a systematic concealment of and separation from reality-a hiding of the plight of those who in one sense or another live across the tracks. In the end, this concealment comes from a failure to identify correctly and to enter into combat with what St. Paul called "the principalities and powers of evil." The religion of the successful turns out then to be a sham spirituality, a cultivated blindness, for it tends to reduce itself to personal kindliness and philanthropy costing little. Thus it betrays the world with a kiss.[9]

H. Richard Niebuhr suggests that these characteristics are not specific to Unitarian Universalism, but are representative of middle-class denominations:

. . . the psychology of the [United States] middle class contains certain constant features which are reflected in its religious organizations and doctrines. Among these, the most important are the high development of individual self-consciousness and the prevalence of an activist attitude toward life.[10]

Niebuhr views class, race, national origin, and regionalism as social factors that are more important than theology in shaping the religious landscape in the United States, however much we might prefer this conclusion to be inaccurate.

Coming to Terms With Our Mythos

In addition to our ethos, our mythos-the often unconscious ideas, feelings, and cultural expressions that many Unitarian Universalists in the United States hold-may also be important to understanding our collective identity.

Some people in our faith are concerned that there are psychosocial dimensions of the culture of Unitarian Universalism that are not easily characterized. One such quality is what some people call "anal retentiveness"-the tendency toward orderliness (to the point of perfectionism), rigidity, stinginess, and obstinacy. Others have pointed out that a part of our collective personality is a tendency to be haughty, self-righteous, controlling and to express moral superiority. Two traits-self-righteousness and individualism-require further exploration.


It is ironic that although freedom and tolerance are central pillars of our faith, we can be somewhat intolerant, owing at least in part to our tendency toward self-righteousness. The Reverend Barbara Merritt describes this proclivity:

We can put up all kinds of signs around our church buildings, declaring our enlightenment, our openness and our glorious political consensus. With such advertisements we communicate two very important messages to visitors. First, those of us who attend this church are politically correct and publicly virtuous. Second, if you disagree with any of our pronouncements, causes or solutions, your opinion will not be heard, valued or taken seriously.[11]

Sometimes our attitudes run counter to the principles we say that we hold dear. On the one hand, we say that we affirm "the inherent worth and dignity of every person," value civil liberties, and promote tolerance and freedom of speech. On the other hand, our self-righteous attitudes are anything but tolerant and open to diverse viewpoints. Merritt traces this tendency toward moral superiority to the early history of the Unitarian movement. As an illustration, she cites T. S. Eliot's understanding of his Unitarian relatives:

To be a Unitarian, "was to be noble, upright, and superior to all other human beings . . . Unitarians believed that they were already enlightened, the enlightenment for them was an intellectual achievement. . . . Unitarians were put on earth to better the lot of humanity, to be a good and inspiring example. . . . Unitarians were expected to be dutiful, benevolent, cheerful, self-restrained and unemotional. . . . They attended church to set a good example to others."[12]

Psychologist Richard Kevin, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Raleigh, North Carolina, explains the same tendency:

UUs in one-church towns are somewhat like isolated aboriginal societies who have no word for human being in their language other than the word for themselves. Such groups find the discovery of human beings who are not of their tribe profoundly disturbing.[13]

If self-righteousness is one area where a need for growth is indicated, so too are communication and intolerance. One of our ministers who preferred to remain anonymous, agreed with Richard Kevin, but went further:

One of the results [of our difficulty in understanding others as human] is that we not only feel this way, but that we feel we are entitled to be the definers of reality and of "the right way" to be in the world. A corollary is that only a select few are sufficiently evolved to be among us.

These characteristics are among the paradoxes of our cultural ethos and group identity as Unitarian Universalists that often lead us into conflict.


Individualism has been a core value in the United States since its inception and has grown stronger in the larger culture, including religious institutions and Unitarian Universalism. (As discussed further on, in Canada, individualism does not seem to be a primary value.) Within Unitarian Universalism, church historian Conrad Wright credits both Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson as exemplars of "the extreme individualism that has been a hallmark of liberal religion," and as "privatized" so that their views "can yield no rationale for religious fellowship in general or the Church in particular."[14]

In a 1993 sermon on individualism, the Reverend John Papandrew (a Unitarian Universalist minister for more than 40 years) suggests that as an ethic, individualism ultimately fails us, with worrisome theological implications: "There is a vast underworld of people who have lived with the fantasy of the Lone Ranger and found it to be Hell. For Hell is the absence of relationship-the ultimate disconnection."[15]

Most Unitarian Universalist congregations hold an allegiance primarily to themselves, with only a secondary allegiance to the Association, districts, and related Unitarian Universalist organs. In spite of strong social action/social justice programs in many congregations, an allegiance to the larger community is often missing.

What causes this distancing and insularity? A partial answer may lie in the high value placed on rugged individualism, or in what Dieter Hessel called "strident individualism." Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck discusses this phenomenon from a theological perspective:

The problem-indeed the total failure-of the "ethic" of rugged individualism is that it . . . incorporates only one half of our humanity. It recognizes that we are called to individuation, power, and wholeness. But it denies entirely the other part of the human story; that we can never fully get there and that we are, of necessity, in our uniqueness, weak and imperfect creatures who need each other. . . . It also relentlessly isolates us from each other. And it makes genuine community impossible.[16]

While Peck's statement does not specifically discuss Unitarian Universalism, his analysis suggests that strident individualism is an impediment to building alliances and allegiance among our congregations, the Association, and the larger community. An additional consequence may be the loss of relational values that we take for granted: love, compassion, loyalty, service, justice-which some people understand as the goal of building a beloved community.

A Distinctive Canadian Ethos

Canadian Unitarian Universalists generally value the ethic of community more highly than that of individualism. The ethos of Canadian Unitarian Universalists-who live in the shadow of the United States, with a fraction of its population and an even smaller percentage of the UU family-has developed under the influence of and in reaction to Unitarian Universalists in the United States. Canadians still debate whether the ethos of our religious movement is that of Unitarians or Unitarian Universalists.

Whereas Unitarian thought moved into and across Canada both from the United States and from Europe (primarily England and Iceland), Universalist thought penetrated mainly into Ontario and Nova Scotia. By the time the two movements merged in Canada (a few months before the US merger), there was only a handful of Universalist congregations.

Much of the Canadian ethos has developed in relation to the "elephant next door," as the United States is often called. Those who live within the shadow of a dominant group with a dominant ideology often find themselves defined and self-defining in relation to the larger, ever-present "other." With the explosion of electronic information processing, Canadians have more access to United States culture than to Canadian. For example, although there are only two national television networks in Canada (CBC and CTV), most cable systems carry at least the major three US national networks in addition to a host of cable-only stations.

Despite this strong cultural presence, however, a prominent aspect of the Canadian Unitarian ethos is the insistence that it is not American. This seeming paradox may lie in the origins of each nation: Whereas the United States was founded as a national entity through armed insurrection, Canada was founded through legislation passed by the British Parliament in 1867. Unlike its neighbor to the south, the Canadian cry is not for independence and freedom as the utmost values, but for peace, order, and good government. Canadians tend to believe that the government is responsible for providing the necessities of life: programs and policies that guarantee access to basic food, housing, education, unemployment insurance, and health care, for which there is a collective responsibility to pay through higher tax rates. Despite a shift within the last five to ten years toward individual responsibility for these social needs, Canadians still believe that government should retain overall responsibility for the well-being of its people.

This understanding helps to explain the difference in beliefs about the basic unit of society. In the United States, the unit is the individual and the basic responsibility of government is to ensure the individual's right to freedom; in Canada the basic unit is the collective, and the government's responsibility is to provide for its citizens. This collective is variously defined as national, ethnic (First Peoples, Francophones, Icelandics, Ukrainians, etc.), provincial, regional, or local.

Within Canadian congregational life, the basic unit is most often the congregation or occasionally a subgroup within the congregation, but not individual members. A wider identification is also made with the cluster or region (where there are enough congregations to have a cluster); with the district (this is particularly true for the Western Canada District, the only entirely Canadian district); and with the Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC). Links outside national boundaries are more likely to be formed with the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) or with the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) rather than with the UUA.

Tensions Between Canada and the United States

Frequently Canadian Unitarians point out that their "American cousins" do not understand the particularities of Canada and the religious movement north of the border. For example, at General Assemblies, the Actions of Social Witness and Statements of Immediate Witness tend to deal only with issues in the United States, or assume that Canadian and United States issues are identical; this does injustice to Canada's uniqueness. Another source of tension lies in the methods suggested for annual canvass programs, which are not adapted to the sensitivity of Canadians in talking about money. At the same time, the rate of fair-share congregations is higher in Canada than in the United States-despite the fact that fair-share contributions through the Canadian Unitarian Council and district dues are higher for most Canadian congregations than for their US counterparts.

Tension often arises when Canadian congregations search for professional leadership. Clergy candidates from the United States may not fully understand that Canada is a different country, with a different history and culture. Congregations may invest time and money before the candidates realize the importance of their own national roots and withdraw from consideration. At times like these, Canadian congregations realize the size of the American elephant.

An anti-American, anti-UUA attitude also affects US clergy serving in Canada. Sometimes statements and observations made by US clergy are dismissed as being "American," or from a US perspective that is out of touch with Canadian values or ethos. The same statements are more likely to be accepted when made by Canadian clergy.

The prevailing notion of peace, order, and good government does not leave much room for acknowledging conflict within congregational life. In contrast to those from the United States, Canadians are often reticent about dealing with conflict openly, which can frustrate many US clergy and expatriate members of Canadian congregations.

Building a Community of Autonomous Congregations

The Canadian ethos and identity have important ramifications for the issue of congregational polity in congregations throughout North America. Although one central recommendation of this report-the building of a community of autonomous congregations-may be more readily accepted within the Canadian Unitarian movement, Canadians may be resistant to any understanding of polity that does not take into account the differing reality of Unitarianism in Canada.

Only to the extent that we remember and honor the very real and closely held differences that exist between the two nations will we be able to create a single community of autonomous congregations. However, by looking carefully at the success of the Canadian Unitarian Council-with its reliance on collectivity rather than individualism-we may create a better framework for becoming a community of autonomous congregations.


Who we are as Unitarian Universalists and as religious liberals is not coincidental to how we interpret congregational polity and rely on it to justify our understandings or positions.

Our demographic characteristics both strengthen and stifle our progress. The fact that (generally speaking) we are a highly educated group of people in positions of influence serves us well. Yet these same characteristics sometimes lead to blind spots about those whose demographic characteristics are inconsistent with our own, and sometimes to a false sense of moral superiority as well. Similarly, our outlook on power is both a strength and a limitation. We have a healthy disrespect for the legitimacy of power, so perhaps it is not surprising that power conflicts are often contentious. Similarly, values such as individualism are consistent with the value of freedom. At the same time, individualism is supported at the expense of building community.

"Strident individualism" is a fundamental value in the United States, in contrast to the more collective values of Canadians-a factor that demands our attention if we are to move toward building a stronger community of autonomous congregations. Exploring some of the factors that characterize the cultural ethos and identity of Unitarian Universalism provides a basis for considering in Part 2 of this report the pressure points of congregational polity-those areas of conflict that prevent us from more fully entering and building right relationships.


To understand more fully those areas in which our practice of congregational polity may affect our religious community both positively and negatively, congregations should engage in a process of study and reflection on how our collective identity-our ethos-and our unconscious values and beliefs-our mythos-may strengthen or limit our understanding of what it means to be a pluralistic religious movement.


Conversations with Eleanor Maticka-Tyndale, sociologist, University of Windsor; Sanford Tyndale; Brian Kiely, minister of South Fraser Unitarian Congregation, Surrey, British Columbia; Diane Miller, director, Department of Ministry; Tracey Robinson-Harris, deputy director, Department for Congregational, District and Extension Services; Lisa Presley, former interim minister, Unitarian Church of Calgary, Alberta; and William Sinkford, director, Department for Congregational, District and Extension Services.


  1. Unitarian Universalist Association, EmPowerment: One Denomination's Quest for Racial Justice 1967-1982, Report of the Unitarian Universalist Commission on Appraisal to the General Assembly, June 1983 (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1984).
  2. Barry A. Kosmin and Seymour P. Lachman, One Nation Under God (New York: Harmony Books, 1993), p. 257.
  3. Peter Heiurichs, "Boom or Bust? What Market Research Tells Us About the Future of Unitarian Universalism," report of survey results presented to the UUA, September 26, 1987.
  4. World Reader Profile Survey. Readex. (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1992 and 1996).
  5. Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney, American Mainline Religion (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1987).
  6. See essays by James Luther Adams, "Natural Religion and the ÔMyth' of the Eighteenth Century," in The Prophethood of All Believers, ed. by George K. Beach (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), and "Conversations at Collegium" and "The Liberal Christian Holds Up the Mirror," in An Examined Faith, ed. by George K. Beach (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991).
  7. John Madge, Origins of Scientific Sociology (New York: Free Press, 1962), p. 241.
  8. Barry A. Kosmin and Seymour P. Lachman, One Nation Under God.
  9. James Luther Adams, "Hidden Evils and Hidden Resources," The Prophethood of All Believers, p. 83.
  10. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York: New American Library, 1929), pp. 80-81.
  11. Barbara Merrit, "In Opposition to the Resolution: A Subtle Tyranny," Unitarian Universalist Voice, Summer 1995, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 4-5.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Quoted by Warren Ross, "Diversity Without Division: Theological Difference in Our Congregations and How To Make It Work For You," World, November/December 1996, Vol. x, No. 6, p. 36.
  14. David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985), p. 156.
  15. John Papandrew, "Individualism: It Ain't Necessarily So," sermon, November 14, 1993, All Souls Church, Washington, DC.
  16. M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), p. 56.

Pressure Points: Issues and Concerns Related to Congregational Polity >