Marginalized Groups

How power is used in negotiating difference is among the most difficult of all issues faced by institutions-particularly those that choose to be in voluntary association such as religious institutions. In fact, the major pressure points of conflict in our understandings of congregational polity revolve around the dilemma of power and difference. This section explores how prevailing understandings of congregational polity may enhance or inhibit our well-being as an association of congregations living with the reality of differences in power and identity in our multitheological and increasingly multicultural religious movement.

Like most groups, Unitarian Universalists define themselves in terms of demographics, values, lifestyle, associations, modes of behavior, social, and theological orientation. These factors, which exist at the center of our movement and characterize our dominant cultural ethos and identity, are what sociologist Robert Bellah refers to as a group's "habits of association."

We might better understand Unitarian Universalism as a social system if we consider not only the characteristics, values, and patterns that are normative for those at the center of our movement, but the characteristics of those at the margins-those who do not fit the Unitarian Universalist norm.

William Connolly has explored group identity in relation to difference. Just as heresy is defined in relation to orthodoxy, identity (both individual and social) is defined in relation to other identities.[1] Similarly, marginality exists only in relation to centrality. Theologian Jung Young Lee reminds us that "marginality and centrality are so mutually inclusive and relative that it is imbalanced to stress one more than the other."[2] In other words, centrality can be defined only in relation to marginality and vice versa. Thus who we are not helps to inform who we are as a religious movement. The "habits of association" of both groups are context-based, determined by the history, background, and social location of the group's members.

Although there are clear signs of preparation for change-if not social transformation in the Unitarian Universalist movement-with the notable exception of women gaining acceptance as ministers and leaders, the UU movement is still largely influenced by its pre-1970s identity as a liberal religious movement whose members are primarily of European American heritage, highly educated, heterosexual, "come-outers" with a humanist/existentialist bent.[3] See Section 5, "The Spiritual and Cultural Ethos of Unitarian Universalism," for a fuller exploration of this topic.

The "Non-discrimination" Clause: Bylaw Ambiguity

Article II, Section C-2.3, of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Bylaws is the most frequently cited reference that guides our decision making and action about open membership and non-discrimination. Accordingly:

the Association declares and affirms its special responsibility, and that of its member societies and organizations, to promote the full participation of persons in all of its and their activities and in the full range of human endeavor without regard to race, color, sex, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, age or national origin and without requiring adherence to any particular interpretation of religion or to any particular religious belief or creed.

It is this statement that many people understand as a non-discrimination clause with particular application to numerical minority and marginalized groups. A pressure point that bears on congregational polity is that there is no common understanding of the meaning of "non-discrimination" or "open membership" based on Article II, Section C-2.3. This bylaw is highly ambiguous because the assumptions are not stated and there is no agreement among Unitarian Universalists about the following questions:

  • Are Unitarian Universalist congregations open (or should they be) to anyone who wishes to join, including those who promote hatred against a particular group? Should a membership standard be applied that is consistent with the UUA Bylaws, especially the Principles and Purposes? Is applying such a standard authoritative, a creed in disguise, coercive, or discriminatory?
  • Are intentional congregations (those designed to meet group-specific needs) inherently good or are they discriminatory?
  • Are individuals or congregations obliged to adhere to the Principles and Purposes, including the imposition of any standard of membership?

One interpretation of Article II, Section C-2.3, focuses on a section of the language of the bylaw: "to promote the full participation of persons in all of its and their activities and in the full range of human endeavor without regard to race, color. . . ." This clause has been interpreted to mean that our congregations and the activities of the Association should serve all people who wish to be included. In this scenario, "without regard to . . ." assumes that difference (based on race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, or theology, for example) need not be a special consideration. Further, it is assumed that an ideal group is a group in which differences are not emphasized, that assimilation into the mainstream is desirable. The logical conclusion of such an argument is that intentional congregations-those designed to meet group-specific needs (e.g., gays and lesbians, Latino/as, humanists)-are exclusive congregations and therefore antithetical to the intent of this bylaw.

A second interpretation of this Article is based on the assumption that authentic diversity is best supported by pluralism, not assimilation; that a pluralistic group is one that intentionally supports and highlights differences as inherently good and encourages each group to express its uniqueness and integrity; that for a group to be true to itself, differences cannot (or should not) be deemphasized through acculturation or assimilation into the mainstream.

A third interpretation focuses on the opening phrase, "the Association declares and affirms its special responsibility . . . to promote the full participation of . . ."; this emphasis supports a pluralistic viewpoint.

These ambiguities and multiple interpretations lead some people to argue that the language of Article II, Section C-2.3, is paradoxical, if not contra-dictory. In any case, there is no agreement on the question of who is or is not welcome in our congregations. Indeed, this remains a point of conflict that directly affects how congregational polity is understood in our con-gregations and the Association. For a discussion of other ambiguities in the UUA Bylaws, see Section 4, "The UUA Bylaws: A Study in Ambivalence."

Majority and Minority Norms in Conflict

During the past three decades, we have struggled to address issues that arise out of multiple understandings of the Bylaws and the Principles and Purposes. On the one hand, considerable efforts have been made to better understand and struggle through our differences, to teach not only tolerance but also respect for our diversity and to reaffirm our faith in "the inherent worth and dignity of every person." On the other hand, many of our decisions and practices are based on the assumption that the norms and values held by the majority in an earlier era serve us well today. More important than the recognition of any one group now considered to be marginalized is a larger issue that frequently gets lost: What is normative for mainstream Unitarian Universalists is not necessarily normative for those at the margins of our movement. How one understands this issue in relation to congregational polity has massive implications for the future of our movement-whether we will grow-and if we grow, whether we will duplicate our demographic profile or grow through diversity.

For purposes of this report, marginalized groups in Unitarian Universalism include:

  • gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people
  • people of color
  • the physically and/or mentally challenged
  • the working class and those who are not college educated
  • young adults (ages 18-35) and youth (ages 14-18).

These groups represent the current focal point of anti-oppression initiatives in the UUA Department of Faith in Action and Weaving the Fabric of Diversity, an adult education curriculum produced by the UUA Department of Religious Education. Other marginalized groups within the UU movement include Canadian Unitarian Universalists, Unitarian Universalist Christians, neo-pagans or practitioners of earth-centered religions, and those who live in a culture of ultraconservative Christianity.

A Challenge to the Historic Unitarian Universalist Identity

Between the 1960s and the 1980s, two groups-African Americans and Canadians-compelled Unitarian Universalists to reconsider their identity as an Association, as congregations, and as individuals. In separate venues, both groups captured the attention of the General Assembly, the UUA Board of Trustees and staff by challenging long-held assumptions about Unitarian Universalist values, theological premises, and rules of governance.

While issues of representation and empowerment sparked considerable controversy over the years, an underlying issue was the assumption that Unitarian Universalism would appeal primarily to those who fell within the UU "demographic norm"-which excluded people of color. It was once considered that a logical pathway to growth was to develop marketing strategies to attract people within the existing demographic norm rather than to promote diversity, and a policy recommendation to this effect was made. Fortunately, the UUA did not accept this 1987 recommendation.

There were additional assumptions:

  • that Canadian Unitarian Universalists and people of color who were already Unitarian Universalists held values that were consistent with Unitarian Universalist norms
  • that people of color and Canadian Unitarian Universalists aspired to mirror the norms and values of (if not to be like) Unitarian Universalists in the United States (no doubt presuming a Euro-American ethos)
  • that Canadians and people of color could or would easily assimilate or be integrated into the mainstream of Unitarian Universalism.

That women were already a numerical majority (in society at large and within the Unitarian Universalist movement) is central to understanding their empowerment, and it may explain why many non-majority groups in the Association continue to be marginalized. In addition to their lower proportional representation, generally speaking, marginalized groups share the following characteristics:

  • They are viewed as unrepresentative of Unitarian Universalism.
  • They lack equal access to power and influence in the Association compared with mainstream groups.
  • They often feel that they must fight for recognition of their perspectives, interests, and agenda, and for inclusion in our congregations and the Association.

A prevailing assumption among Unitarian Universalists-one that reflects cultural assumptions among the mainstream in the United States-is that marginalized groups should or will be integrated or assimilated into the mainstream. But since the 1960s, US history has shown that this rarely happens. Instead, groups that stand at the margins have challenged dominant group perspectives, norms, values, standards, and assumptions, asserting their own identity, understandings, and interests.

These differing perspectives and competing interests not only challenge our collective identity, but they continue to result in conflict. Congregational polity is often invoked as justification for resisting, if not rejecting, a group that has heretofore been nonexistent or a minority within a local congregation or our movement. In such cases, by sheer numbers the majority tends to prevail-and maintain its power-still believing its position to be fundamentally democratic. But where is the balance between political democracy and theological principles?

The Canadian Unitarian Council

Canadian and African American expressions of resistance have shown that the assumptions about mainstream assimilation are false. These circumstances lead to an interesting paradox. Until recently, the number of Canadian clergy serving UU congregations on both sides of the border could be counted on two hands. Within the last decade, there has been a great expansion of Canadian clergy and ministerial students; and many more congregations are being led by Canadian-born Unitarians.

At the same time, after the decision to hire a full-time executive director in 1983, the Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC) has become a much more effective and uniquely Canadian voice. The CUC helps congregations deal with social justice, financial, legal, and development issues specific to the Canadian context. Because the criteria for determining the viability of new congregations in the United States are not the same as in Canada, the CUC funds its own extension programs and other programs that do not meet UUA criteria, and cooperates with the UUA on other projects.

Four Marginalized Groups

By the 1980s, women's voices were making their way toward the center of our movement. The gay/lesbian/ bisexual/transgender community was gaining power as well. Both groups challenged the assumption that heterosexual and male-centered values, experiences, and aspirations were normative. Today, youth and young adults as well as persons with disabilities have helped us to understand that neither middle age nor being "temporarily able-bodied" represents Unitarian Universalism in its fullness, nor should be considered normative. Though Unitarian Universalists remain the most highly educated group among 70 religious movements,[4] because of (at least in part) the new strength of groups previously at the margins of Unitarian Universalism, some of our members have begun to find the courage to acknowledge that they did not attend (or complete) college.

Now we examine four types of marginalization in Unitarian Universalism: the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community; people of color; children and religious education; and marginalization based on theological views.

1. The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community

The gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community (called LesBiGay) has gained greater acceptance in Unitarian Universalism than in any religious movement (except the Metropolitan Community Church, which was created to meet the needs of this population). While a statistical correlation cannot be made, it is likely that the Welcoming Congregation Program developed by the UUA may account for this acceptance, at least in part. At the same time, this program has created controversy. Although the idea for the program grew out of a 1987 attitudinal survey that documented widespread homophobia and heterosexism among Unitarian Universalists, many congregations already believed that they welcomed all people, including the LesBiGay community.

Citing congregational polity, many congregants expressed displeasure that they would be considered a "welcoming congregation" only when certified by the UUA Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns (OLGBTC). Although such certification is not required but "highly recommended," most congregations that complete the program do, in fact,apply for certification. Based on measurable behavioral objectives, the program suggests steps that aid congregations in moving toward affirming same-sex unions, dedication of the children of same-sex couples, and language that is inclusive of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender relationships. The program also encourages congregations to adopt bylaw changes to include a non-discrimination clause to protect the LesBiGay community from discrimination in hiring or calling a minister. Of course, these behavioral objectives (measurable or not) do not guarantee that a congregation will be free of homophobia and heterosexism.

Certification as a Welcoming Congregation

A pressure point for congregational polity centers around certification as congregations struggle with issues that, to quote Jeanette Hopkins, "by intent or by unawareness, causes or permits gays, lesbians, bisexuals, et al. to feel unsafe, unwelcome [or] unaffirmed."[5] The controversy is summed up by a gay man who visited one congregation: "This feels like a welcoming congregation to me, but you aren't on the list." Some congregations view the list as a litmus test (which for them seems to be a creedal statement) and have therefore chosen not to participate in the welcoming congregation certification process. Some say that certification sets up a two-tier system and promotes competition, if not a holier-than-thou attitude among congregations.

Though participation is voluntary, critics also say that the welcoming congregation certification process violates congregational polity. In January of 1996, the OLGBTC estimated that only 89 of our 1,039 congregations had been certified.

Hopkinshighlights a question that many people have raised: "Why should not Welcoming Congregation certification be awarded also to societies that are racially and economically inclusive (though the suggestion that a society Ôwelcomes' people of color and the poor seems to have a patronizing ring)?" She also asks several critical questions regarding the Welcoming Congregation certification process and congregational polity:

  • Will societies that do not apply for certification as Welcoming Congregations be perceived, or even stigmatized, as un-welcoming?
  • Will people who resist official recognition be seen as homophobic?
  • What is the source of an authority to certify?

Many of the issues affecting the LesBiGay community also affect people of color and other marginalized groups who, in contrast to their own self-understandings, have been subjected to the assumptions, beliefs, values, and norms-in short, the dominant paradigm-of Unitarian Universalists.

2. People of Color

A careful review of the UUA Bylaws helps us to understand some of the issues faced by racial or ethnic minorities in Unitarian Universalism. Since the 1961 merger of Unitarianism and Universalism, people of color have been the center of at least three controversies in which congregational polity has been invoked: (1) open membership, (2) the Black Empowerment Controversy, and (3) affirmative action (including the current racial justice and cultural diversity initiative).

Open Membership

One of the issues on the agenda for the 1963 General Assembly was whether to exclude several rural Southern Universalist congregations who, by authority of their bylaws or in practice, excluded African Americans. The proposal to exclude was defeated, based on "the ground that a free religious movement has no power to excommunicate."[6]

The Black Empowerment Era

The years from 1967 to 1982 were a period of stormy relations between Unitarian Universalists of European heritage and those of African heritage. Multiple issues of congregational polity were at the heart of the controversy. Without explicitly naming the controversy as an issue of polity, the 1983 report of the Commission on Appraisal, Empowerment: One Denomination's Quest for Racial Justice 1967-1982, gave considerable attention to issues of congregational polity. Readers are encouraged to review that report for background and detail. A brief summary may be helpful in understanding the controversy.

With strong passions and competing ideologies about how racial parity should be approached, self-empowerment strategies of the Black Affairs Council (BAC), the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUCC), and Black and White Alternative (BAWA) flew in the face of existing structures of governance and presumed consensus about how the business of the Association should be carried out. With so many voices claiming power, the matter was further complicated. The controversy called into question notions of Unitarian Universalist identity, structure, and system of governance. To cite the 1983 Commission on Appraisal report, "Who speaks for Unitarian Universalists, anyway? Board of Trustees? General Assembly? Nobody?"[7] The lack of agreement on answers to this question yields a myriad of additional questions about congregational polity:

  • What constitutes legitimate authority for a marginalized or disempowered group in the context of a majority group-in this case, Unitarian Universalism-as a voluntary association of autonomous congregations?
  • In what ways do the Unitarian Universalist Principles and/or Bylaws call us to enact compensatory or retributive justice for our complicity (direct or indirect) in supporting or maintaining racism and other forms of systemic injustice?
  • Given historical injustices and the quest for empowerment of persons of color, should power and authority within the Unitarian Universalist Association be distributed disproportionately to begin to level the playing field?
  • Can there be a biracial or multiracial alliance within the UUA in which those who have been historically empowered accept the leadership of those who have been disempowered and oppressed? If so, how should such an alliance be structured?
  • To what extent are the General Assembly voting processes and the democratic principles of the Association an effective means to achieving racial justice in the Association?

Since the Empowerment Controversy began more than 20 years ago, we have not had a systematized review of congregational polity or other issues that arose at that time. If we are to learn from the experience, such a review would seem to be a worthwhile endeavor.

The Racial and Cultural Diversity Initiative

Some of the same congregational polity issues that arose in the 1967 to 1982 period are now focused on various aspects of the racial and cultural diversity initiative, which followed the 1992 UUA General Assembly Resolution. It has the following dimensions:

  • an affirmative action policy of the UUA Extension Ministry Program (within the Office of Congregational, District, and Extension Services) to offer special support for ministers of color
  • special support for intentional congregations-those whose vision is to function in a cultural milieu that is consistent with the racial, ethnic, linguistic, and/or identity needs of people of color.

A number of new and emerging congregations seek to affirm particular racial, ethnic, or cultural groups and to meet the needs of particular communities (e.g., gays and lesbians, Unitarian Universalist Christian congregations, Spanish- or Korean-speaking congregations). Although the Association has established sanctions against congregations that discriminate against individuals on the basis of racial, ethnic, or sexual or affectional orientation, there remains a need for a deeper understanding of intentional congregations whose raison d'etre is to express an identity that differs from the Unitarian Universalist norm.

Some Unitarian Universalists believe that intentional congregations (or a special emphasis on any one group within a congregational or associational context) are exclusionary and thus inconsistent with the UUA Bylaws, Article II, Section C-2.3. Deeper discussion is needed about how to balance and negotiate the self-identified needs of particular identity groups that have been historically oppressed with the perceived rights of groups that have been historically empowered.

Although most people would acknowledge that ministers of color have not begun to approach parity in the Association, achieving parity rests not only on political will or intentionality, but also on how congregational polity is interpreted. Jeanette Hopkins articulates one position: "We have resorted to restrictive means to achieve ends of openness in efforts to encourage a stronger African-American presence in our churches, in our ministry, and in the Black community."[8]

The central polity issue for marginalized groups is perhaps a question of means more than ends. Suspicion of coercion and a belief that the UUA wishes to impose its will on member congregations are among the issues that prevent us from reaching consensus about the means necessary to achieve racial justice as affirmed in the UUA Bylaws (including the Principles and Purposes) and General Assembly resolutions.

3. Children and Religious Education

Religious education is a complex issue. On the one hand, we place high value on religious education for children. On the other hand, how we think about religious educators-both ministers of religious education (MREs) and directors of religious education (DREs)-is sometimes inconsistent with how we think about religious education as a program that is central to faith development. Religious educators have a special identity that is rarely understood or affirmed as a central aspect of congregational life in our movement.

Given that we can point to many vibrant religious education programs throughout our movement, not everyone would agree that children's religious education is, in fact, marginalized. However, if we examine longstanding patterns in religious education, coupled with the self-understanding of those who serve children and families in our congregations, the community of religious educators (MREs and DREs alike) emerges as a marginalized group. As a group, religious educators (both MREs and DREs) have not yet gained equal economic parity or the political clout of those who focus on parish ministry.

Congregational Polity and Religious Education

One of the issues here revolves around congregational polity. Despite the fact that congregational polity requires consensus, decisions about religious education are often made by a relatively small group within a congregation. Religious educators point out that many of those who comprise such committees often do not understand religious education as a ministry to both children and families. Nevertheless, they are empowered to determine the foundations of children's religious education, and to make major decisions about programming for children, compensation, visibility, the extent to which religious education is understood within the congregation, and the overall image of what is still largely women's work.

While it should be noted that a small number of men serve our congregations as religious educators, it is not coincidental that the majority are women and that both women and children have been historically marginalized. Women and children are, in fact, the focal point of religious education in most congregations. Reaching parity for MREs is being addressed by the Department of Ministry. Religious education consultants are now available in some districts to address these issues more generally. Our ability to address the issues of congregation-based decision making in relation to the marginalization of women and children depends on our willingness to widen the circle of discussion and decision making in our congregations.

A group of MREs with whom the Commission met pointed to three factors related to "the feminization of religious education." Compared with parish ministers, (1) their work is less valued; (2) their compensation is lower; and (3) MREs, both females and males, are less respected. MREs also pointed to a set of assumptions that affect their professional development and livelihood, including the following:

  • MREs are not available for settlement outside their current location
  • MREs are not preachers (or there is often surprise that they can preach as well as most parish ministers)
  • MREs may not work out because (a) they are considered more trouble to congregations than they're worth; (b) they "cost too much"; and (c) they are generally part of multiple ministry staff teams, which are presumed to be problematic.

Such assumptions tend to spread like wildfire throughout congregations and the Association. Not coincidentally, most such assumptions are posed in direct contrast to parish ministry as normative, which MREs believe leads to the perpetuation of their marginalized status. Directors of religious education cite similar issues as well as the fact that because many are part-time employees, the lack of employee benefits perpetuates their status as second-class workers.

Marginalizing children's religious education in Unitarian Universalism may be related to a discomfort with theology among UU adults. All the evidence points to a general skepticism, if not fear, of serious theological engagement. If parents and adults have not resolved their own theological issues (or if they are unclear about what they believe), it is not surprising that they are uncomfortable with religious education for their children. Although we may be relatively comfortable with the World Religions curriculum as a broad approach to religious education, many religious educators told the Commission that one of the questions parents consistently ask is: What are you going to teach my child about the Bible (or about Christianity)? Until we address our personal theological ambiguities, we will unconsciously continue to marginalize children's religious education.

The marginality expressed by ministers of religious education is part of the larger debate throughout the Association about what constitutes ministry. Although we have had three categories of ministry for more than a decade, there is ambiguity (perhaps more among laity than clergy) about the legitimacy of both religious education and community ministry as ministry. (See Section 9, "Religious Leadership," for a discussion of community ministry.) Parish ministry is still considered the norm not only in Unitarian Universalism, but in most religious traditions. Many who chose the ministry of religious education or community ministry still feel marginalized within the UU movement. Many issues need to be worked out to make all three categories of ministry not only acceptable, but normative.

Affirmative Action—Yes or No?

The issue of affirmative action and preferences is a controversial one for the LesBiGay community, people of color, and religious educators. The following questions exemplify the nature of the debate:

  • Should the Association have affirmative action goals? Should congregations support the Association's efforts to monitor staffing patterns at the UUA with special attention to marginalized groups?
  • Should the Association recommend affirmative steps (e.g., the Beyond Categorical Thinking Program) for congregations perceived as having discriminated against a ministerial candidate based on race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, or other reasons?
  • Should preferences for job applicants or volunteer positions be stated? For example, in 1992 the Nominating Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Women's Federation (UUWF) announced that candidates "are expected to be committed feminists" and to support "a non-hierarchical work process."9 Does our system of congregational polity preclude the Association, its member congregations, and associate or affiliate organizations from stating a preference and/or orientation related to commitments, values, beliefs, or organizational processes or structures? Does a preference for a particular orientation or value system represent a means test and is this tantamount to a creedal test?

4. Marginalization and Theological Identity

Theology is one of the most passionately held convictions of Unitarian Universalists. At the same time, theology is a sensitive and sometimes divisive issue with major implications for congregational polity. As a form of governance and an expression of our cultural ethos, congregational polity serves as a context for better understanding the multiple theologies in our movement. Although we do not have a creedal test or a dogma, we do have Purposes and Principles that help to make possible some degree of unity in our diversity. Unlike governance and issues on which a congregation can vote, different perceptions about theology can divide-and have divided-congregations in our movement.

While our covenant expresses our common mission as congregations, more specific issues not addressed in the Principles and Purposes surface as issues of congregational polity. For example, some members of congregations that have a dominant theological perspective fear that they will not be able to express freely their particular faith understanding and that their faith will be compromised. In an attempt to address both majority and minority theological views, some of our congregations have approached theology from "the least common denominator" perspective so as not to offend anyone. But this does not seem to be a solution.

As individuals, most Unitarian Universalists seem fairly reluctant, if not uncomfortable, disclosing or discussing their personal theology. While our collective acceptance of multiple theologies serves us well most of the time, our collective theological ambiguity sometimes acts as a point of division and conflict. If we are to reach a deeper understanding of the multiple theologies that we affirm as Unitarian Universalists, theological dialogue is needed, keeping in mind that while debate may promote mutual growth, it will not necessarily reduce fear.

A Non-Christian Religion?

Although both Unitarianism and Universalism are firmly rooted in the Jewish and Christian traditions, the Enlightenment has had a stronger influence on present-day Unitarian Universalism. Between 1930 and 1960, the primary theological identity of Unitarianism shifted from Christianity to various understandings of humanism and existentialism.[10] An apparent consequence of this theological shift was that Unitarian Universalism came to be widely known as a "non-Christian" religion.

It is true that collectively we are a non-Christian religion. A frequent interpretation of this non-Christian identity (both in terms of how we understand ourselves and public perceptions) has been that someone who is Unitarian Universalist cannot be Christian. While earth-centered theologies have been hotly debated on the General Assembly floor and in congregations, one of this century's most controversial theological issues in Unitarian Universalism has been whether one can be genuinely Unitarian Universalist and Christian at the same time. Indeed, one view is that it is a contradiction for a Unitarian Universalist to be a Christian. It is difficult to know how widely this view is held. We have heard vitriolic arguments on both sides, as in this statement:

"Christian UU" or "UU Christian" is a contradiction in terms-or should be at any rate-and UUism ought not be cheapened by being linked to Christianity any more than it already seems to be.[11]

These perceptions and attitudes seem to prevail among many Unitarian Universalists and have been at the heart of several congregational and district-level disputes in which congregational polity became a central issue of contention. Some Unitarian Universalists who are not Christian presume that they know what a Christian is. And herein lies another problem: Neither what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist nor what it means to be Christian is easily defined. Further obscuring the debate are self-righteousness and some of our assumptions, habits, and communication styles operating within the marketplace of ideas, whether those ideas are informed or not.

Theological Biases

In spite of our fourth Principle-to affirm and promote "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning"-it seems fair to say that both anti-Christian and anti-Pagan biases exist among a significant number of Unitarian Universalists. With the adoption of humanism and existentialism as normative theological perspectives within Unitarian Universalism, the implicit message became: We support people in their theological search as long as they don't land at either end of the Unitarian Universalist theological spectrum with Christianity at one end and neo-Paganism at the other.

It is somewhat ironic that some humanists have begun to articulate their feeling of marginalization within Unitarian Universalism. Many who joined our movement before the 1960s, says the Reverend Suzanne Meyer, "often wonder whether they are losing their congregations, whether the style of religion they discovered in Unitarian Universalism still exists."[12]

It is difficult to say which theological perspectives are dominant in Unitarian Universalism at this point. What is clear, however, is that we are becoming a more theologically diverse religious movement. No doubt this trend stems from the fact that in the past 10 years, Unitarian Universalism has been in the middle of what a recent issue of the World magazine called a "tectonic shift,"[13] which presumably suggests greater diversity among Unitarian Universalists rather than a dominant theological trend. At least three factors have contributed to this shift in our theological understanding and identity:

  • constant and predictable pendulum swings in religious ideas and movements the world over
  • fewer new Unitarian Universalists who come with a deep commitment to anti-authoritarianism and religious freedom
  • a longing for more spirituality among Unitarian Universalists.

While some humanists have expressed concern that more emphasis on the spiritual will lead to less emphasis on the intellectual,[14] the two are not always mutually exclusive. Our theological sensitivities, insensitivities, and misunderstandings continue to cause consternation that sometimes results in conflict about the issue of congregational polity. Four tendencies contribute to the conflict: prejudgment-our collective unwillingness to engage in serious theological dialogue or to understand what premises are held by Unitarian Universalist Christians, Pagans, and those of other theological orientations; a focus on points of difference rather than on points of unity as Unitarian Universalists; varying communication styles; and resistance to authority.

Other factors may serve as barriers to strengthening our common theological understandings:

  • lack of clarity or a common definition of what theology is in its broadest sense
  • lack of understanding or appreciation of the contextual and evolving nature of theology
  • an unwillingness or inability to respect fully or learn more about theologies other than the one(s) we choose to claim
  • an association of personal theology with creedal religion, doctrine, or dogma (particularly of the Judeo-Christian tradition)
  • an inability or reluctance to reopen old wounds associated with past religious experiences.

These barriers-especially our resistance to authority and inability or unwillingness to engage in open and honest theological discussion without prejudgment-are also expressed in terms of social and congregational relations.

Comfort or Values: Which Do We Hold More Dear?

Conrad Wright, one of the most recognized authorities on Unitarian Universalist congregational polity, asserts that when we consider diversity, congregational polity is an "inherent" and "insoluble problem"; that congregationalism "inevitably limits the range of people who worship together." He states that "congregational polity is wedded to homogeneity"-that the more heterogeneous the group, the less likely it is that consensus will be reached on deeply held ideas. This stance is consistent with congregational studies from experts at the Alban Institute and challenges our assumption that diversity is both desirable and possible. Wright also assumes that racial and ethnic diversity is not sufficient common ground around which to unify the Unitarian Universalist movement and that the search for racial and ethnic diversity will be successful only if socio-economic unity already exists.

If these premises are true, our challenge is to find significant points of unity among us and ways to negotiate new structures on which to build our diversity. For congregations rooted in Presbyterian or Episcopalian polity, marginalized groups can appeal to a higher ecclesiastical body-and have done so with varying degrees of success-for participation and inclusion. In our congregational movement, however, there is no such higher body to promote empowerment for the marginalized. Tension within congregations has sometimes been increased by an emphasis on rights over responsibility and an affirmation of our values.

The challenges of liberalism are many, including the challenge to forge a greater degree of harmony between what Dr. William R. Jones identifies as our "espoused theories" versus our "theory-in-use." One such espoused theory, which is consistent with the first of our Principles (affirmation of "the inherent worth and dignity of every person"), is that our denomination welcomes all, regardless of race, class, nationality, and sexual or theological orientation. Yet because of the preponderance of people who fall within the UU norm-well-educated, middle-class people of European heritage -it is not surprising that the assumptions, values, needs, and interests of the majority often prevail over the interests of the marginalized.

The Challenges of Democracy and Unitarian Universalism

At one level, the challenges of marginalized groups are directly related to congregational polity-the fact that our congregations are autonomous and can thereby choose to include or exclude the interests and needs of minority groups. At another level, the challenges of the marginalized are related to the premise that a representative form of governance (majority rule) is adequate for building democratic structures within our congregations. These issues are not unique to Unitarian Universalism, but they remain unresolved challenges of systems based on democratic principles the world over. We cannot dismiss the claims of marginalized groups simply by pointing to the fact that numerical majority groups almost always acquire and maintain more power than their minority counterparts. At one level, the quantitative measurement of participation in the Association is appropriate. At another level, however, a qualitative response is required if we are to achieve parity, if marginalized groups are to be heard.

More than 150 years ago, in his classic, Democracy in America,[15] French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville articulated this dilemma. He argued that there is an inherent tension between equality and liberty in democracy that is not easily reconciled. He suggested that one of the challenges (and perhaps one of the limitations) of democracy is protecting the minority from the "tyranny of the majority." It is easy to focus our energies on those in our congregations whose strategies, tactics, or tone may be inconsistent with approaches that are comfortable for us. This phenomenon has been labeled the "tyranny of the minority." One tyranny is, of course, no better than another. But tyranny is not the issue. Rather, the processes out of which tyranny grows deserve examination. If, by the power of their numbers and norms, the majority in our congregations uses the democratic process of congregational polity to support and sustain injustice, oppression, and ultimately tyranny (in the hearts and minds of the minority), then the democratic process needs to be examined. If, on a consistent basis, the only way that minority groups can get the attention of the majority is to behave in ways that are dramatic, if not bizarre to some people, then some aspect of our system of governance is failing.

Using Theology to Guide Polity

Whether our polity guides our theology or vice versa is a question for serious discussion and consideration. Part of our challenge is to come to terms with our religious call and to let our religious principles guide how we approach the democratic process. If the Unitarian Universalist principles were our primary value consideration and the democratic process derived from those principles, Unitarian Universalism would look very different on the delegate floor at General Assembly. Exploring our moral, ethical, and religious premises in relation to political premises could shift the ways in which we view congregational polity, one of our most cherished principles.

If a dominant group has the power and numerical authority to name reality, to name the primary group identity, how can non-dominant groups ever assert their identity and their own empowerment? This is not merely a question of politics or of how we negotiate social relations. The politics of difference has both theological and political dimensions, whether or not the matter is placed within a religious context. Because religious institutions are endowed with greater moral authority than secular institutions, they are obliged and challenged to address these issues, though it may be "in fear and trembling," as Saint Paul suggests. Fear is not desirable; it is simply part of the human condition in moving toward change and in confronting our differences.

Balancing Power, Identity, and Difference

How marginalized groups negotiate power within the context of congregational polity is partly a factor of numbers. But increasing the number of groups now at the margins of our movement will not solve the issue of marginalization until we address a core assumption: that dominant group perspectives and experiences are normative in a hierarchy of values.

One of the favorite symbols among Unitarian Universalists is the circle. We invoke the circle to represent multiple elements of wholeness, relationality, inclusion, and diversity-suggesting that all are welcome in our circle. Once in the circle, however, there are still centers of power and margins of powerlessness. To emphasize the need for greater diversity is to overlook the interlocking relationship between those who have historically stood at the margins of our movement and those who remain at the center. Our failure to achieve greater diversity-present efforts notwithstanding-may be due in part to the fact that many of our congregations have focused on how to attract people who are "different" into the center, and how to assimilate them into the mainstream of Unitarian Universalism (which assumes an acceptance of the UU norm). By contrast, relatively little attention has been given to imagining what an authentic center would look like that included all who are now at the margins, if power within the circle were distributed more evenly.

If we are to transcend the paradox of identity differences in relation to congregational polity, we need to reflect critically on a series of questions such as:

  • How do we understand ourselves in relation to "the other"?
  • How can we move beyond what William Connolly calls "the dogmatization of identity"-carefully honoring the natural diversity of humans so that we are all empowered and we all value and respect our differences?
  • How can congregational polity be structured and practiced in ways that are consistent with building the "interdependent web" and in ways that respond to the problematic relationship between identity and difference, inclusion and exclusion?

These are questions for congregational study and reflection on how systems of congregational polity function. Readers are encouraged to engage in what have been called "deep chair" discussions, a process that will invariably yield more questions, but more answers as well.


Both the theory and the practice of congregational polity sometimes impede our ability to move forward in serving the cause of justice, particularly as related to marginalized groups. If the cry of congregational polity is continually raised and successfully defended as a justification to exclude or diminish those groups that now stand on the edges of the circle of Unitarian Universalism, marginalized groups will never become part of the cultural center of our faith. How we negotiate different understandings and interests, and how marginalized groups can gain parity and empowerment-in spite of congregational polity-remains a core issue of our faith.


  1. The UUA Board of Trustees should direct the staff to identify resources to strengthen congregational understanding of how our cultural ethos, collective identity, dominant attitudes, values, and norms within the Unitarian Universalist movement affect the empowerment (or lack thereof) of groups that are now marginalized within the Unitarian Universalist movement.
  2. In our quest for "justice, equity, and compassion in human relations" and the affirmation of "the inherent worth and dignity of every person," the UUA Board of Trustees and staff should continue to support congregations in systemic anti-racism and anti-oppression training and educational initiatives.
  3. In light of the fact that conflict is inherent in congregational polity, resources (such as referrals and training) should be made available to congregations for conflict management and resolution.
  4. Congregations should reexamine their assumptions about democracy in relation to marginalized groups and the extent to which congregational polity is guided by Unitarian Universalist principles and values.


Conversations with Conrad Wright; Commission on Appraisal hearings; and Star Island Religious Education Week.


  1. William E. Connolly, Identity/Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).
  2. Jung Young Lee, Marginality: The Key to Multicultural Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), pp. 30-31.
  3. Commission on Appraisal, The Quality of Religious Life in Unitarian Universalist Congregations, report to the UUA General Assembly, June 1989 (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1989), p. 31.
  4. Barry A. Kosmin and Seymour P. Lachman, One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society (New York: Harmony Books, 1993).
  5. Jeanette Hopkins, "When Is a Welcoming Congregation Not a Welcoming Congregation," Unitarian Universalist Voice, Spring 1996, pp. 1, 6.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Commission on Appraisal, EmPowerment: One Denomination's Quest for Racial Justice, 1967-1982, report to the UUA General Assembly, June 1983 (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1984).
  8. Jeanette Hopkins, p. 7.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Commission on Appraisal, The Quality of Religious Life in Unitarian Universalist Congregations, pp. 31-34.
  11. John Sikos, "UUs Are Not Christians," Letter to the Editor, UUDom: The Connection (newsletter of the Unitarian Universalist District of Michigan), June 1996.
  12. Warren Ross, "Diversity Without Division: Theological Difference in Our Congregations and How to Make It Work for You," World, November/December 1996, p. 36.
  13. Ibid., p. 34.
  14. Carol Agate, "Uniting Spirit and Reason," sermon given at the 1996 Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Indianapolis, Indiana.
  15. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York: Vintage, 1954).

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