Unitarian Universalism is a Christian religion

At least for me it is.

The aspects of Universalism and Unitarianism that inform my religious life are Christian and my Christian faith is distinguished by Universalism (and to a lesser degree, the ethos of Unitarianism.) If you’ve read my blog much, you’ve gathered that. Yes, of course, I know that most Unitarian Universalist aren’t Christian and perhaps don’t want to be. But if so many people are pining for the hundreds of thousands of “lost” Unitarian Universalists that the recent Pew study suggests live in the United States — of which we know almost nothing — then who’s to say that there’s not a significant corpus of silent and unknown Unitarian and Universalist Christians out there, perhaps even a majority? Or more to the point, I’m hacked off that it’s acceptable to verbally minimize the import of Unitarian and Universalist Christians and not expect pushback.

Which brings me back the all-to-familiar refrain, following by Fred L. Hammond, the eponymous author of A Unitarian Universalist Minister in Mississippi, who wrote

If we see ourselves as a denomination that means that we are a denomination of a specific faith tradition such as Christianity. Yet, we no longer identify as a Christian faith. We may have people who honor their Christian heritage and identify as Christian but Unitarian Universalism is not a Christian faith.

I think this is fundamentally an error, and he’s only the most recent — and far from the most grating — to make it. Rather, it is that the Unitarian Universalist Association is not a Christian organization. But the UUA and Unitarian Universalism are not the same thing.

The Unitarian Universalist Association is essentially a service and coordinating body, not an ecclesiastical organization. Consider this: if the UUA Board of Trustees — even the General Assembly itself — adopted a resolution which defined what a Unitarian Universalist is, how would we collectively act? I suspect there’d be howling from the rooftops. And before the howling, quick calls from many quarters that their particular constituencies not be excluded. Basic questions of membership and leadership are invested in the congregation and that’s detailed in the UUA bylaws. Doctrinal teaching, too? A particular church can make that call; the UUA can’t. (Which, for instance, is why I flinch when the president of the UUA gets deliberately “pastoral.” Bill Sinkford isn’t my pastor.)

But informally, because it has had the coordinating power and bridged congregations, ministers, schools and other institutions including the independent/cast-off affiliates, the UUA has had more power to shape congregational internal identity than it could ever hope to acquire. That’s going to change. The promise of distributed social networks — welcome to this blog! — and a deliberate constriction of role by the UUA means that the constellation of Unitarian Universalism is going to get bigger.

Even if we weren’t liberal, and generally comfortable with pluralism, we would still have to describe ourselves — inasmuch as that’s possible — in a plural way. If someone asks, we’ll have to continue to hedge and give caveats and realize that the dreaded “elevator speech” can’t mean anything more than a dictionary definition or a personal testimony. In other words, I don’t expect to say you’re a Christian if you’re not, and I demand you not write me out because you prefer to paint in broad strokes.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Scott: I appreciate your commentary on my post. Yet, I don’t think stating that Unitarian Universalism is a religion in its own right and not a denomination is an error of thinking. You stated that as a Christian who is nurtured (I’m paraphrasing) by the Unitarianism and Universalism aspects of our faith, that therefore Unitarian Universalism is a Christian Religion. Your point, if I understand it correctly would mean that for the Jewish Unitarian Universalists among us, that Unitarian Universalism is a Jewish Religion. For the Buddhists, it is a Buddhist Religion. For the Pagans, it is a Pagan Religion, etc. All who identify by these and other faiths and find nurturance within Unitarian Universalism should be able to claim Unitarian Universalism as their (place name here) religion. Is my understanding correct?

    You state correctly that people hedge and caveat when attempting to explain Unitarian Universalism and this is part of the problem. We are accused by our critics of having no core to our faith, precisely because of the perception to believe anything that they want and be Unitarian Universalist. I think there is a core to our faith. As a religion, we have come to believe that there are many expressions of spirituality that will give us the depth and breadth of religious experience to enable us to live out our values in the world and help create a better world for all. We have a richness in our plurality of sources that inform us in ways that no other religion has, including a faith as rich and diverse in theological and spiritual practices as Christianity.

    Stating that the Unitarian Universalism is a Religion in its own right and not a denomination of another religion does not cut you out of the fold. But when you state Unitarian Universalism is a Christian Religion you are cutting out everyone else who are nurtured by our faith yet spiritually practices Buddhism, or Jewish, or Islamic, or Baha’i or Pagan or other practices. We are not as a people of faith, purely Christian nor are we purely any other traditions. Therefore to be most inclusive I call Unitarian Universalism to be a religion.

    From this point I can then tell people what we stand for and why our religion has a saving message for today’s world. I don’t have to hedge and add caveats because I have already established we are a religion in our own right. My personal theology may express a specific spirituality but my religion is Unitarian Universalism. Blessings, Fred

  2. Your definition of the UUA as a service and coordinating body is interesting but it has difficulties, particularly in the area of representation. Unitarian Universalists always say that they want to be relevant in “the world” (whatever that word means for them). See, for example, the campaign program of any UUA presidential candidate in the last 20 years at least, including the current campaign. But, who can speak on behalf of American Unitarian Universalism in the international arena? The President? The Board? Congregation by congregation? Any individual? Unless American UUism makes a decision about whether they are a single body, or a conglomeration of congregations, associations, or religions, it will be hard to be relevant and to speak with a single, consistent voice. (And if UUism is a conglomeration, it will also be hard to know who must speak in this or that forum, who has the authority to implement what is decided in that forum, and who will feel represented by that spokesperson.)

  3. …it will be hard to be relevant and to speak with a single, consistent voice.

    Is this necessary? Does UUA need to speak on our behalf? My Church unites not as agreeing in opinion, not as having attained universal truth in belief or perfection in character, but as seekers after truth and goodness. So can’t my Church as well as all UU Churches speak in multiple inconsitent voices and still be united seekers? I would answer Yes to these questions.

    As for whether we are Christian, I would say no, but it’s interesting to ask non-Christians what they would make of us and I think Hindus, Muslims, others looking at us from outside would simply label us Christians because of our heritage. Everything Western is Christiandom from their perspective. And not only are we Christians but a Protestant non-Catholic sort of Christianity too.

    It’s a past we can’t get ourselves lose from and I’m not certain we should try so hard either because it is the tradition that allows us to unite not in belief but as those seekers.

  4. If we UUs concede that liberal UUism once was but is no longer a Christian faith, it would be primarily because we have accepted as our own a pinched, ungenerous, illiberal definintion of Christianity, and so we are no longer willing to honor or promote our historic Christian witness.

    Previous generations of Unversalists and Unitarians were unwilling to concede that point to the illiberal faction. Many other liberal Christians still refuse to concede. Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong, for example, offers a “non-theistic” liberal theology that embraces other naturalistic and spiritual apprehensions without repudiating his denomination’s authentic religious traditions — much as our own Transcendentalists did a century and a half ago, or our Religious Humanists did two generations ago.

    If we have lost our historic position of leadership on the theological left, perhaps it’s because we find it more convenient to surrender than to lead.

  5. Let me address Jaume’s point about trying to be relevant in “the world” as part of UUA presidential campaigns. If I read Peter Morales correctly his approach to relevance is simply to foster effective growth because only if we’re more than a tiny fraction in US religious life can we have any impact. Note please that our doctrinal diversity is completely irrelevant here, which is a good thing. What this means is simply that the UU Service Committee would have more resources for disaster relief or whatnot if funded by the members of a faith group larger than ours is today. That churches with a bigger local membership could participate in more (outside) commitments, like Habitat for Humanity, Interfaith Coalition, homeless dinners, etc.

  6. As someone raised within UUism… it’s not a Christian denomination. UUism is instead a religion of many faiths. Christianity is–absolutely–is one of them. A major one.

    I’m profoundly moved by the Christianity I see among UU Christians–and I’m really not concerned with whether you–they–label themselves as Unitarian or Universalist or something else. I’m not caught up in the labels. I’m caught up in how their faith, their understanding of Jesus, changes their lives and makes our shared world better.

    While not a Christian myself, I sincerely want to see more UU Christians who are practicing their beliefs within our community as much as UU Buddhists are. I’m baffled that–in my own congregation–there are two sanghas that meet, and no Bible studies (despite the fact that there are twice as many avowed Christians in the congregation, and free space available for the asking…).

  7. @Jaume. I agree with Bill (partly) insofar as there’s need to speak with a common, unified voice. I’m not convinced it’s even desirable, or (so far as it’s been seen) possible.

  8. To all, and those who follow. There are a number of religious strains and traditions within Unitarian Universalism, including at least two that would make itself a religion sui generis. One is a kind of religious eclecticism and another is “churchly” religious humanism, the second of which overlaps a bit with (the even more marginal) Ethical Culture. And there’s not much evidence of love between those camps.

    These are convenient places, but because their representatives are nested institutionally within the UUA, there isn’t much to keep them from becoming inbred. Indeed, Unitarian Universalist are among the most sectarian people I’ve ever met. Unitarian Universalist Christians — also Jews, Pagans and Buddhists and perhaps the “less-churchly” Humanists — have an outside world of reference, which contain significant communities of parallel religionists where resources, fellowship and a reality check may be had.

    An explicit model of parallel religiosity within the Unitarian Universalist ecology — there’s evidence of an implicit parallel religiosity, as seem in the affiliates, ministerial and informal lay groupings, plus regional differences — seems far more healthy than the same small handful of people playing king of the hill.

  9. Much of this conversation falls into the perenial identiry crisis of Unitarian Universalism. And the more that I see of this debate, and the large-scale landscape of this crisis, the more confused I feel about what Unitarian Universalism is [and I’ve been in UU churches since 1992]. This is profoundly disturbing for me, as somebody who is a minister.

    For me this unending identity crisis increasingly inspires an imense skepticism about Unitarian Universalism as a meaningful religion. And I begin to wonder if liberal theology is better lived in some other community that is not frequently wringing its hands trying to figure out what it is. Ethical Culture may be marginal, but at least it has a more coherent understanding of itself. The UU identity crisis eats up massive amounts of energy that would be better spent on the work of being religious community.

  10. I too think UUism per se is an entity unto itself. The use of the term “denomination” is loose, and not technically correct, but from a cultural perspective makes some sense. Most people that I’ve encountered are not religiously literate to a great extent; i.e. growing up Catholic, some of my peers would confuse “Christian” and “Protestant” as synonyms and therefore state that they were not Christian, they were Catholic.

    Universalism, separate from the mix of UUism, is a valid and reasonable form of historic Christianity, insofar as I understand Universalism (which admittedly is not very far). I really don’t see how it can be smooshed into Unitarianism, if by Universalism we mean more than just the notion of final salvation for all.

    Unitarianism, separate from the mix of UUism, has a bit more trouble in my opinion maintaining a valid Christian identity. It’s one thing to have a strict monotheistic Christianity but it’s another altogether to ignore the virgin birth, the miracles of Christ, the resurrection, the soteriology of Paul and the later Church Fathers (and the Doctors of the Church) the book of Revelation, and 2000 years of Christian thought and history, and still claim the mantle of “Christian.” Thinking that Jesus was an inspirational teacher is not in and of itself enough, in my opinion, to qualify oneself as Christian. I like some of Buddha’s teachings, but I am far from being a Buddhist.

    From the moment Channing gave his famous sermon in Baltimore, he opened a gate that lead to the inexorable conclusion that Unitarianism, while rooted in the Christian tradition, has grown beyond it-just as Christianity did with Judaism, and the Bahaii faith did with Islam. By questioning long-held Christian doctrine, and with contact between Western and Eastern traditions increasing, Unitarianism had by the beginning of the 20th century developed into or at least began planting the seeds for a more small “u” universal monotheism based on reason, tolerance, and the hunger for wisdom from whatever source. The interaction between Anglo-Unitarianism and the Brahmos of India, as well as the Khasis who followed Singh’s lead, the writings of the Transcendentalists, and other broad-minded religious groups worldwide, brought the players in question to a similar place. And to call it Christianity is a stretch…for me at least.

    With all due respect, this idea “As a religion, we have come to believe that there are many expressions of spirituality that will give us the depth and breadth of religious experience to enable us to live out our values in the world and help create a better world for all.” is not enough to build a religion on. This is a now a common cultural belief, not a unique theological foundation. A recent poll showed that the majority of Americans do not believe that there’s only one “true” faith. If this is what defines UUism, it is no longer a relevant differentiating characteristic. If it’s goal was to engender religious tolerance in society at large, mission accomplished. What next? It is impossible to build any depth in any group which holds as equally valid and which tries to practice/accomodate equally ideas & beliefs that are in natural conflict (theism vs. atheism for example).

    The problem has always been, in the US, that there is a lack of central authority or in its place, recognized consensus (because an unrecognized consensus does exist) in UUism. The religion has evolved to take in the religiously and socially rejected, not to provide them with a friendly place to visit or a message unique to UUism to inspire, but as a place to set up shop (and thus the proliferation of the hyphenated factions of UUism). We have gone from being-to use a crude metaphor-a single retailer of our own brand of merchandise to being a strip mall of human religious thought and ideology. UUism is the Wal-Mart of religion-please don’t throw anything at me-but think about it, the description has some merit.

  11. Scott, you’re likely right; I think I read your title, misread (didn’t really read) that stand-alone first sentence…

    NDM, I suspect that you’re right–in the sense that you’re critiquing the current version of UUism as indicated in the Principles. But maybe that points to the wisdom of them coming up for regular reconsideration and revision. I know that the commission isn’t going to offer a mere apple polishing of the current form, but something better suited to now.

    I’ll have to reject the Wal-Mart analogy (even after having tried hard to get past the ick factor reaction). Were it apt, we’d see a rush of people to UUism as the easy way. The easy path is only a superficial appearance; in practice it’s far more demanding. To be a good UU, you have to find your best handle on The Truth and show it by living it. There’s no convenient spot where you can mouth mainstream UU dogma and just go on with daily life. It’s not about what you believe. It’s whether what you DO reflects what you claim and affirm.

  12. A recent poll showed that the majority of Americans do not believe that there’s only one “true” faith. If this is what defines UUism, it is no longer a relevant differentiating characteristic.

    Jaume wrote UUism not relevant but I think above shows we were relevant and wildly successful… so now what?

    Elect a unifiying voice to speak on our behalf? Great, except our success created a market expecting customized paths plus personalized service. (If I can pick up the retail models).

    A spokesperson isn’t going to cut it (especially if the message the person will be flogging isn’t clear).

    But boutique Churches offering high quality custom crafted-product might be our path. We’ll never succeed against Walmart Churches though…that’s not our niche, market, or style; and just because we’re small and unique doesn’t mean we don’t offer a needed spiritual service. It doesn’t mean we can’t be economically viable either as smaller and focused Church.

  13. PS… and do note while we’ve always been small, we had great impact if we can claim even in part that transformation ….that the majority of Americans do not believe that there’s only one “true” faith.

  14. I don’t mind the Christian thing at all.

    But UU doesn’t have sacraments.

    There’s an inner Episcopalian in me that loves the sacraments.

    So that’s one of the reasons why I dig Paganism. It can get very sacramental.

  15. @TtR. I think the “no sacraments” notion would be news to the Unitarian and Universalist Christians I know. I’ve certainly officiated both of the dominical sacraments.

  16. Wonderful post Scott. There are some good essays to this point, among others, in the new book: “Reverend X: How Generation X Ministers are Shaping UUism” by All Souls Tulsa’ Jenkin Lloyd Jones Press, namely, I think, Rev. Marlin Lavanhar’s essay on “How the Principles and Purposes Are Leading UUs Astray.” Nothing particular new in it for those of us following this issue for what, 25 years, and of course longer, and it cites many of the articles exploring this that were published in the UU Christian Journal back at the time of the P&P creation, but it is a very good summary piece that seems to capture much of your sentiment. I’m reviewing it and some related others in the next issue of the UUCF’s Good News periodical. Have you had a chance to read it yet? I know you’ve blogged on the generational thing often; I might have missed a post.

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