Archives For liberal religion

The traditional narrative has always been that as we grow more secular, more permissive as a society, theologically (though not necessarily politically) liberal religions fade with irrelevance, while theologically conservative faiths that stand athwart history would endure as they always have. But what if that’s not true? What if we were quantifying success in a manner that favored one side over another? That seems to be the topic of an upcoming book by religious studies professor Matt Hedstrom entitled: “The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century.”


“The story of liberal religion in the twentieth century is a story of cultural ascendancy  This may come as a surprise. Most scholarship in American religious history, after all, equates the numerical decline of the Protestant mainline with the failure of religious liberalism. Yet a look beyond the pews, into the wider culture, reveals a more complex and fascinating story. Here, we see that the defining features of religious liberalism—its cosmopolitanism; its engagement with the latest historical and scientific thought; its ethics; its focus on psychology, mysticism, and individual religious experience—arose among a spiritual vanguard in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but by the middle decades of the twentieth century had become commonplace among the American middle class. This book tells the story of how that happened.”

Even more interesting is the idea that modern Paganism could be included in the modern classification of “liberal religion,” especially if you compare and contrast liberal religion’s “book culture” with modern Paganism’s.

“The Rise of Liberal Religion attends especially to the critically important yet little-studied arena of religious book culture—particularly the religious middlebrow of mid-century—as the site where religious liberalism was most effectively popularized. […] by the post-WWII period the religious middlebrow had expanded beyond its Protestant roots, using mystical and psychological spirituality as a platform for interreligious exchange. This history of religion and book culture not only shows how reading and book buying were critical twentieth-century religious practices…”

There seems to be an argument that post-WWII American religious book culture helped create space for modern Paganism, very much spread by its own culture of books (“people of the library” as the old adage about our faiths go). Indeed, Unitarian-Universalism, which seems to be on a recent upswing in numbers, and the de facto poster child for liberal religion, explicitly lists nature religion as a source that it draws from.

“Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.”

As a result, Pagans have a strong presence within the UUA, and liberal religion often gets tarred as “pagan” by its critics. In addition, I think that talking about the success of liberal forms of religion can’t be complete without mentioning those with no religion, the “nones,” and their recent (and ongoing) growth. Many, including myself, have pointed out that “nones” aren’t without beliefs or spirituality, they simply have abandoned formal religion in the sitting-in-pews sense. Author Brian D. McLaren, writing for the Huffington Post, sees that many “nones” are simply tired with the choices theologically conservative, specifically monotheistic, forms of religion present them with.

Later in the evening, two young women, current college students, told me the same thing. “We grew up in the church,” they explained. “We’re still followers of Christ, but we’re not attending church any more. We can’t find a church that doesn’t load a bunch of extra baggage on us. We tried, but they all had this long list of people we had to be against. It’s just not worth it.”

So long as success of a theological stance, or religion, is measured by how many people sit in chairs on Sunday, evangelical Protestantism, Catholicism, and other related traditions, will be seen as “winners.” However, a broader look at our culture, and the varieties of religious experience within it, may tell a different story. I’ll be very much looking forward to Hedstrom’s book, and I think that like another recent book about religion in American history“Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise,” it will reveal a lot about our communities, even if never mentions us.

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There’s a certain truism that’s been adopted by commentators and analyzers of religion in the United States (and more broadly in the West), that liberal Protestant Christianity is in a demographic death spiral, and thus liberal forms of Christianity itself are in danger of winking out of existence. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat, author of “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” made waves this past Summer by asking if liberal Christianity could be saved.

“…if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves. […] Liberal commentators, meanwhile, consistently hail these forms of Christianity as a model for the future without reckoning with their decline.”

Andrew Sullivan recently declared that Christianity itself was in crisis, and several scholars and writers have read the demographic tea leaves to see what happens as the “nones” grow and the generational shifts start to change the makeup of religious bodies. So it is within this atmosphere that I read about how the decidedly post-Christian Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations has actually experienced growth in congregants over the past ten years.

Unitarian Universalists at Pride in Washington DC

Unitarian Universalists at Pride in Washington DC

“De Lee is one of a growing number of Unitarian Universalists, a group of people who believe in organized religion but are skeptical about doctrine. The denomination grew nationally by 15.8% from 2000 to 2010, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. Although they remain small in total numbers with about 211,000 adherents nationwide, Unitarians believe their open-minded faith has a bright future as an alternative to more exclusive brands of religion.”

This shouldn’t be a surprise since, according to UUA President Rev. Peter Morales, the UUA is perfectly situated to appeal to those apprehensive of traditional Christian religious organizations, especially those claiming “no religion.”

“The great irony here is that these “nones” are very much aligned with Unitarian Universalist values. They are accepting of ethnic and sexual diversity. They are open minded. They also seek spiritual community. They present a huge challenge and a huge opportunity for us.”

Also of note is that the UUA is experiencing a lot of their growth in the South, not just the traditionally “liberal” coasts and open-minded campus towns.

“The denomination, which started in New England, has been growing more in the South than in other parts of the country, said Rachel Walden, a public witness specialist from the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association. […] In Tennessee, Unitarians grew by 20.8% from 2000 to 2010. During the same time frame, they grew by 22% in Georgia and by 42.5% in Colorado.”

Religion scholar Diana Butler Bass, author of “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening,” recently said in an interview that she feels that America is in the midst of a spiritual awakening, one that isn’t necessarily centered on Christianity or even monotheism.

“…when I talk about the fact that we’re in an awakening, I believe we are in a period of intense cultural reorientation or revitalization, and that during an awakening, politics, worldviews, religion, education—the whole way a society approaches being community, and connecting with one another, and understanding their God or their gods—it all changes.”

So what does this growth auger? What I think this means is that liberal, New Age, and Pagan faiths are perfectly positioned to benefit from the growing distrust and disillusionment of rigid one-true-way monotheistic forms of religion. They no longer care to wait while church organizations grudgingly admit the humanity of their gay friends, or litigate birth control yet again. Liberal Christianity is diminishing, yes, but what we’re seeing now is almost a slow-motion alchemy as these adherents search, seek, and often find a home with faiths outside the dominant Christian paradigm. So we see Buddhists grow, and Pagans grow, and yes, we see Unitarian Universalists grow.

The long-mocked theological flexibility of the UUA, which allows Pagans and Humanists alike in their pews to worship alongside the UU Christians  may turn out to be a secret strength that allows it to weather the post-Christian cultural transition that many Christian religious bodies seem unprepared for. Indeed, just a year ago journalists were questioning whether Unitarian Universalists would survive far past their 50th anniversary, with three years of “dips” in membership. Now the narrative has flipped, and suddenly we’re talking about their growth. While the UUA may never become a dominant demographical heavyweight as some denominations are today, their very nature may allow them to thrive and survive while other falter. They may even turn out to be a natural nexus point for liberal religon as it grapples with what the future holds.