Cultural Resistance

Sarah Richards
January 10, 2016

Cultural Resistance

I love that the blog created by UU minister Tom Schade is called “The Lively Tradition”—I hope it’s not too much of an inside reference. You may have noticed that our gray hymnal is titled “Singing the Living Tradition” which is itself taken from the statement you will find just below the seven principles in our hymnal’s first few pages: “The living tradition we share draws from many sources…” Our Unitarian Universalism is a living tradition in that we believe, as with our liberal Christian brethren and sistren that ‘revelation is not sealed’ and more than that, Unitarian Universalists believe that revelation comes from many sources (as described in our hymnal) and in many forms. Even blogs—which brings us back to “The Lively Tradition” blog I mentioned. In a recent post, Rev. Schade makes some very interesting arguments about our Unitarian Universalist history, politics and identity. He begins by noting the common UU congregation self-image as centers—or outposts—of cultural resistance. UU stances for peace, LGBT rights, racial and environmental justice are proudly traced from puritan free thinkers, Unitarian abolitionists, suffragettes, civil rights activists. But according to Schade’s analysis, in the heyday of both Unitarianism and Universalism in the mid to late 19th century, our forbears were part of the power elite in this country and with the few exceptions that we now hold in great reverence, Unitarians and Universalists were mostly content with the status quo—reformers, not resisters. The cultural shift came a century later, when Unitarians were in the minority opposition to Cold War-inspired Christian nationalism. Schade says,

I think that our turn from the respectable religion of the 19th and early 20th century predates our commitment to the Civil Rights movement; it stems from our resistance to the Christian nationalism of the 40’s and 50’s. We were formed in this moment of a push toward a cultural conformity, and our resistance to it.  Humanism, not only as theology, but as resistance to the popular forms of piety of the day, is a part of that history.[i]

Specifically, Schade zeros in on the humanist Fellowship Movement, as the key catalyst of this transformation of Unitarian Universalism. You may know that this Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship is part of that growth strategy started by the American Unitarian Association after WWII. Imagine being a “free thinker” here in the early 1950’s, opening the Southern Illinoisan and reading this ad:

What’s your idea of true religion?
Unitarianism is a way of life, life of vigorous thought, constructive activity, of generous service — not a religion of inherited creeds, revered saints, or holy books.
Unitarianism is not an easy religion. It demands that people think out their beliefs for themselves, and then live those beliefs. The stress is placed [more] upon living this life nobly and effectively than on the preparation for an after-existence.
If you have given up “old time” religion, Unitarianism has the answer for you.

Another advertisement:

This is the Unitarian Idea
Unitarian churches are dedicated to the progressive transformation of ennoblement of the individual and social life, through religion, in accordance with the advancing knowledge and the growing vision of mankind.
In Religion
Freedom is our Method
Reason is our Guide
Fellowship is our Spirit
Character is our Test
Service is our Goal.[ii]

Imagine answering the ad, meeting with a few others and discussing topics suggested by the AUA:

Jesus: God, Man, or Myth? God: Person, Force, or Phantom? Are Unitarians Christian? Prayer: To Whom and for What? Is Death the End? What are We Here For?[iii]

Schade reminds us that these discussions happened in a context when “the whole society is being pressured and pushed toward a amalgamation of conventional Protestantism and Patriotism.”

So then, the people attracted by those ads, like the founders of this Fellowship were, in Schade’s words, “not …a collection of those who thought themselves the local establishment, or the slightly more skeptical wing of the respectable elite. Such a group would be, by its very founding impulse, by its DNA, a little center of resistance to the prevailing conventional opinion. What was being formed was a little cell of cultural resistance.[iv]” I’m not sure if the founders thought of themselves that way at the time, but that description would fit the Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship when it was formed.

But Schade points out at the end of his essay that things are very different in the current national religious and political landscape, more than sixty years after the Fellowship Movement began. There is no national imperative to attend church, as we know church attendance is in decline nationwide, including among the power elite of mainstream protestant denominations. If we liberal religious folks see ourselves as outside mainstream culture, so do conservative evangelicals—they see themselves as resisting secularism that is culturally dominant. Well, you may be thinking, “Here in Southern Illinois, we are still an outsider minority, resisting the dominant regional culture.” The cultural resistance in our DNA is still relevant here as it may not be in the old New England UU congregations. Given that DNA, it makes sense that most UU growth is found in congregations less than one hundred years old, and those in the southern part of the country.[v]

And now we finally get to the heart of things: Schade challenges us to do some soul-searching as a congregation. He asks: “Is your congregation an outpost of a culture of resistance to the mainstream culture? Is that really part of who you are and why you exist? And if so, how and why? What are you resisting? How do you show it? How is it creating new life and new possibility for you and the people of your community?[vi]

Schade has some important critiques of why UU congregations might be less effective than they could be in allying with other outsider groups, but I’m going to save that for next week. Right now, I want to look inward, inside our Fellowship at some possible answers to his questions about cultural resistance. “What are you resisting? How do you show it? How is it creating new life and new possibility for you and the people of your community?

It seems to me that most of us—myself included—are comfortable with the self-image of heretics and cultural resisters here at CUF. But how are we actually living it? I’m still a relative newcomer here, but my experience in now four different UU congregations and my ministerial training has given me some perspective on patterns in congregational life. We might say that the majority of UUs consider ourselves to be “outsiders,” but there are differences in how we enact that UU identity. William Murry, one of my seminary instructors and author of the book Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st Century, finds two main groups within the UU congregation; two ways people live out their faith or if you prefer, principles.[vii] There are those who focus on spiritual development, the unconventional or resistant religious journey. Then there are folks whose ways of being UU are grounded in social justice. They are all about resisting various forms of injustice. Both kinds of UUs form groups within the congregation in pursuit of their goals, and may ally with like-minded groups outside the congregation. As they are human, both groups feel that their approach is the best, superior or more UU than the other. Now I would add a third group—the critics—people who are excellent at finding fault in both the “spiritual types” and the “activist types” and they, also human, feel superior as well.

These are broad categories with some overlap and people occasionally shift between them. And these three impulses—to privilege internal change, external change, or hold oneself outside both—are alive inside all of us, too, though we might recognize a stronger tendency toward one or the other. The problem isn’t, in my view, that any one of these groups is “doing it wrong,” it’s that judging each other is preventing us from showing our resistance as a congregation, it’s keeping us distracted from creating new life and new possibility for ourselves and the people of our community. I also don’t think that the solution is for each of us to cultivate a balance between the three ways of being UU, although it’s probably not a bad goal. I’m thinking of something simpler. What if, instead of judging each other, we were curious about the other groups? What if we asked questions of those other cultural resisters in order to make connections across difference? After all, we’re always talking about welcoming diversity. What if, instead of trying to get others to see and do things our way, we tried to see how we could work together?

Friends, replacing judgment with curiosity and respect will require more resistance—resistance to our own complacency, our own comfortable groove as “spiritual” or “activist” or “critic.” May we make the effort to connect across differences within our Fellowship, strengthening our Living Tradition. May we connect across differences outside our Fellowship to work with other cultural resisters for a peaceful, fair, and free world. May ours be a lively, living tradition.


[i] Schade, Tom “Humanism in Context” November, 2015.

accessed 1-7-16.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] accessed 1-9-16.

[vi] Schade, emphasis added.

[vii] Murry, William. Reason and Reverence: Religious Humanism for the 21st Century. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2006, p. 115.