From Day 1, folks here at GetReligion have urged newsrooms to pay more attention to liberal Christianity and other forms of liberal faith. There is, of course, lots of coverage of these groups when it comes to politics and social-justice issues. Progressive actions on sexuality make news.
What is missing is what any of this has to do with the basic building blocks of religious faith and tradition. What do these liberal groups have to say about, well, doctrine?
With that in mind, let's turn to the long, intensely reported Washington Post feature that ran under this headline: "Prominent progressive D.C. church, accused of racism, tries to move on." The church at the heart of this story is All Souls Church Unitarian, a prominent congregation at or near the heart of progressive Beltway culture. Here is the overture:
One of the District’s best-known progressive congregations was locked for months this year in a very public conflict with its associate minister, who claimed she was mistreated and pushed out because she is black. Her supporters -- in the church and around the country -- spotlighted the case as an example of what, to them, liberal racism looks like, and vowed to keep it in the public eye until she got a better exit package.
The conflict at the 1,100-member All Souls Church Unitarian, known for nearly 200 years as a bastion of social justice activism, became fodder for debate about the nature of racism, and whether its pervasiveness will always seep into interactions and judgments even among people and institutions who say they are fixated on fighting it.
Now, three months after All Souls reached a private settlement with the Rev. Susan Newman Moore, the impacts of the dispute are still unfolding.
A few lines later, a very interesting word enters this discussion. Let us attend:
Moore has returned to the Baptist denomination in which she was ordained in the 1970s, and a few weeks ago the D.C. Baptist Convention held a “reaffirmation” ceremony for her, “as a binding of sore spots where wolves have taken a bite of you.”
You read that right. This prominent Unitarian Universalist preacher is a Baptist.
Yes, there are Baptists on the doctrinal and cultural left and even the far left. Baptists don't have creeds and a catechism. Ask Bill Clinton.
Nevertheless, the word "Baptist" certainly offers an interesting twist in a story about fighting inside a UU flock. A few lines later there is more information:
While Moore served at All Souls, and was initially ordained in the 1970s as a Baptist, she first was assigned a church by the United Church of Christ in the 1980s. It was the United Church of Christ that suspended her because of the conflict at All Souls. Moore resigned rather than accept the suspension.
Let me be frank: I have no idea if the problems inside this church were linked to doctrinal issues, the content of her preaching or perhaps worship style. That's kind of my point, after a close reading of this Post report.
Maybe Moore talked about God too much, which can be a problem in some Unitarian sanctuaries. Here's how a major UU leader -- the late Forest Church -- described that to me, in an interview two decade ago. Yes, some of these UU debates have legs.
The senior minister of New York City's historic Church of All Souls ends his services with a benediction that begins with: "And now, in our going, may God bless and keep us. May the light of God shine upon us, and out from within us, and be gracious unto us, and bring us peace." While his church has grown accustomed to hearing the word "God," he has heard negative feedback in other Unitarian settings.
"I used to get booed when I would visit other churches," said Church. "That doesn't happen much, these days. The idea of using the word 'God' in a benediction isn't as radical as it used to be. ... I get away with God language with impunity, now."
Yes, spirituality is so hot in America today that even the Unitarians are talking about God and some even advocate talking to God.
There's the rub. Many older, "traditional," intensely agnostic UUs, he told me, have struggled to accept forms of spirituality linked to feminism, environmentalism and other world religions. They are just as nervous about the word "goddess" as they are about "God."
Does this have anything to do with the current tensions at All Souls DC? Again, I have no idea. Maybe religion has something to do with all of this? Maybe a loud, proud liberal Baptist got on the nerves of old-school atheist-agnostics?
It certainly appears that this UU battle involved strong personalities and, perhaps, a sense of cultural style, embodied in the persons of Moore and the Rev. Rob Hardies, a "popular but controversial white senior minister," according to the Post.
The question, of course, is how all of these factors intertwine with issues of race and power.
As I read this story, I was also reminded of tensions linked to the faith of President Barack Obama. The big question: When was Obama going to join a church in DC? Washington is, after all, a city packed with prominent African-American congregations, some progressive on politics, but not doctrine, and some that are liberal on both. As I noted at one point in that era:
Obama came to Christian faith in the context of a liberal African-American church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, then led by, of course, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The UCC is his natural home. Then again, the idea of seeking a liberal African-American congregation -- on basic biblical issues -- adds an interesting element of risk and difficulty to the [DC church] equation.
Now, the Post did dig into that puzzle a bit, while waiting for the Obama church shoe to drop. Click here to see that story: "Quiet Prayer in D.C. Churches for Obama's Decision -- Questions of Race, Faith Fold Into One: Will He Choose Us?"
To be blunt, the issue was whether Obama was going to raise his children in a predominately white United Church of Christ congregation -- because that was the church that embraced his liberal approach to Christian life and core doctrines (think heaven and hell, the divinity of Jesus, moral theology on sex). Or would Obama join a politically liberal African-American congregation in which, from time to time, he might hear sermons on morality and doctrine that would make him uncomfortable? The Obamas never walked the aisle and joined a DC church.
You see, issues of race, religion and worship are always complicated -- even in settings, such as Pentecostal denominations -- in which some black and white believers have long shared pews and even pulpits. The Post story openly addresses the fact that liberal Protestant flocks -- think UU and UCC -- tend to be white and culturally sophisticated. As a former Episcopal priest once put it: Think NPR at prayer.
The Post report about All Souls ends like this:
Nadine Bowden Ramos, a longtime active African-American congregant at All Souls, said she continues to be involved in a small group of African-American congregants, but no longer attends Sunday services because she doesn’t want to hear Hardies preach. The saga around Moore’s case prompted difficult conversations with her husband, a white usher, and other friends who are active there. ...
“For me, I do look around and wonder: ‘Are you on Rob’s side? Susan’s?’ People come on Sunday and just go about their business,” she said. “It feels like there are well-intentioned white people who want justice on the outside, but inside you want everything to just look pretty and you’re less concerned.”
The bottom line: Might religion have had something to do with all of this?
FIRST IMAGE: Screen shot from the Yelp page for All Souls Church Unitarian.