Truth with a lowercase 't'

My first brush with Unitarian Universalists came 15-plus years ago when I covered Edmond, Okla., a fast-growing bedroom community north of Oklahoma City, for The Oklahoman.

That was a few years before I became a Godbeat writer per se. But on my suburban beat, the Rev. Wayne Robinson was the gift that kept on giving — as far as helping me fill news holes both in the daily paper and a three-days-a-week zoned edition. Robinson was the local Unitarian Universalist pastor and had a different view of the world than most other religious leaders in the conservative, Republican-dominated town.

I drew a scathing review (and looking back, probably deserved it) from the left-leaning Oklahoma Observer when I opened a front-page story in 1995 like this:

EDMOND - No one in Edmond ever accused the Rev. Wayne Robinson of trying to save souls.

It was his other crusades - suing to remove a cross from the city seal, protesting public prayer at high school football games, rallying for abortion rights - that brought him so much disdain.

"I haven't had any problem whatsoever with the resentment and reaction my actions have caused," Robinson told The Oklahoman.

If I recall (the rest of the story is behind a pay wall), the piece was a profile of Robinson as he moved to a new state. The story gave Robinson ample space to talk about his beliefs and motivations and quoted critics as well, but in retrospect, the lede certainly sounds like editorializing.

All of the above (unfortunately for you, kind reader) really has nothing to do with this post, except to say that I didn't really understand Unitarian Universalists back then and didn't take the time I should have to study their theology.

Which leads (finally) to the subject of this post: An excellent feature on the 50th anniversary of the Unitarian Universalist Association by Daniel Burke of Religion News Service:

BALTIMORE (RNS) A recent Sunday service at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore ended with an apology.

Laurel Mendes explained that religious doctrine had been duly scrubbed from the hymns in the congregation’s Sunday program.

But Mendes, a neo-pagan lay member who led the service, feared that a reference to God in “Once to Every Soul and Nation” might still upset the humanists in the pews.

“I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable by reciting something that might be considered a profession of faith,” said Mendes, 52, after the service. “We did say `God,’ which you don’t often hear in our most politically correct hymns.”

Welcome to a typical Sunday in the anything-but-typical Unitarian Universalist Association, a liberal religious movement with a proud history of welcoming all seekers of truth—as long as it’s spelled with a lowercase “t.”

After opening with a telling anecdote from a visit to a Unitarian Universalist church (read: reporter actually left the office, which generally improves any story), Burke gets to the news peg, which is a good one:

For 50 years the UUA has conducted a virtually unprecedented experiment: advancing a religion without doctrine, hoping that welcoming communities and shared political causes, not creeds, will draw people to their pews.

Leaders say its no-religious-questions-asked style positions the UUA to capitalize on liberalizing trends in American religion.

But as the UUA turns 50 this year, some members argue that a “midlife” identity crisis is hampering outreach and hindering growth. In trying to be all things to everyone, they say, the association risks becoming nothing to anybody.

The story is full of specific details, quotes sources on both sides of the debate and provides important context on where the Unitarian Universalists fit into the bigger picture of American religion:

Like the UUA, one in four Americans sample from a variety of faith traditions, according to a 2009 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. A separate Pew survey found that 65 percent believe multiple religious paths can lead to eternal life.

“There has certainly been an increase in the amount of people who are open to the kind of ideas the Unitarian Universalists have championed,” said John C. Green, a political scientist who worked on the Pew studies and has studied the UUA.

(Interestingly enough, a Scripps Howard News Service columnist whose name you may recognize touched on some of the same themes in his column this week and also quoted Green.)

I did feel like one line in the story needed more concrete sourcing and explanation (i.e., what age is a "younger" member?):

But a lack of defined beliefs has led the UUA to lose 85 percent of its young members, according to several reports, said Scott, an active member of his Unitarian Universalist congregation in Rochester, N.Y.

Alas, that's a minor quibble.

You won't find many more enlightening or helpful pieces of religion writing in under 1,000 words. Be sure to read the whole thing and tell me what I missed.

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