Alternative Explanation of Our National Religious Journey

Alternative Explanation of Our National Religious Journey

It doesn’t get mentioned a lot, but the number one problem with having our denominational headquarters (The Unitarian Universalist Association) in Boston is that city’s long association with a particular view of religion and civilization, namely the City Shining on a Hill. It keeps us stuck in that characterization of what we’re here to do. Our publishing arm is called Beacon Press. We refer to our social justice efforts as Standing on the Side of Love — as if only the truly evil could hold countervailing political views. The university wherein we house our archives displays the simple word “truth” on its shield — although that used to be “truth and light.”

It’s all so Manichean, so “I’m right and you’re wrong.” You wouldn’t be surprised to find the leaders of such a faith in the forefront of the early twentieth century eugenics movement. You wouldn’t be that shocked to find out that folks who believe in a Shining City on a Hill feel comfortable with cultural genocide of other civilizations. It’s not such a stretch to realize that we’re incredibly inclusive of all visibly different human types, so long as they subscribe to the same few principles that we describe as “universal.”  “Common sense.”

Obviously, I subscribe to these principles,too. But it’s a choice, not an evolution. And I don’t believe that everyone who believes differently — even in the political realm — is evil incarnate. I believe I can learn from listening to them, that their ideas can often help me to improve my own.

But isn’t that why all the voluntary immigrants came to this country– to enter this shining city on a hill? Didn’t all the colonial Americans share generally the same beliefs about God and society? Except, of course, for slavery, but that’s mostly been settled…

Well, Massachusetts was not the oldest of the thirteen colonies, and it was not the most liberal. In particular, it was the least liberal on social and religious diversity. Europeans came to the other colonies for other reasons, and settled them around radically different metaphors.

My own favorite is New York, because the Dutch who founded it were a trading company expanding their network into a fast-growing realm. When the religious among their settlers wanted to exclude a group of Jews who sought refuge from Brazil in 1642, it was the trading company who forced compliance. Likewise, the Carolinas and Georgia were settled by investors who wanted anyone who could invest or provide labor. These states, with their huge unconquered expanses, soon found the most expedient course was “Grudging Toleration” of non-Christians and dissenting sects. (Roman Catholics, believed to be French and Spanish Fifth Columns, were excluded.)

Two colonies — four, depending on interpret the Quaker-influenced designs of Pennsylvania and New Jersey — advocated full religious freedom for everyone. The two clearly free states were Rhode Island, composed of religious refugees from Massachusetts, and Delaware, again heavily influenced by Quakers. Virginia, famously, worshiped according to the dictates of the British crown (as did the Carolinas and Georgia, technically, but they couldn’t find Anglican clergy willing to live there). These colonies, despite being official oppressive had inadequate means to enforce social conformity.

Massachusetts had foreseen that problem, which explains why it so quickly founded a local university to provide itself with “a learned ministry.” For the next two hundred years, young men of promise were spied out and educated by their local pastors, regardless of financial means. To ensure they could achieve the expensive education that Harvard provided even then, leading families would invite promising young men to live with them for a few years and teach in the village schools; often such settlements resulted in marriages between affluent daughters and previously penniless religious leaders. What once had been an Errand to the Wilderness was transformed into a carefully managed garden.

As the Shining City tightened its grip on the Bay State, much of the rest of the East Coast Anglo-European network was abandoning the dream of a religiously homogenous society. Sure the Great Awakening elevated orthodox Protestantism to a frantic level, but the paroxysms soon played themselves out, leaving behind a quiet piety known as the Second Great Awakening. Universalist rejections of the same Great Awakening theology swirled through so many regions, from Lake Champlain to New Pennsylvania — that it’s impossible to state conclusively where this religion was founded or planted as the nation claimed independence.

The First Amendment to the Constitution, rejecting establishment of any religion by Congress, might have been an outgrowth of the recent English Civil War and French Revolution (not to mention the Hundred Year War and Peasant Rebellions that were as recent to our founders as those founders are to me) — but it signaled the new nation’s intention to survive militarily and thrive economically. Yes, in many of these matters the founders were ruthless, callous sinners toward Natives and African Americans, but it must be said that among themselves they were working on “live and let live.” “Worship where you want, so long as I can do the same.”

This was the philosophy which conquered the City on a Hill and spread across the mountains, the prairies, reached even the farther shore. When we maintain our denominational headquarters on a hill still mourning its loss of primacy, the very stones under our feet, the water we drink, the beaches where we swim, reinforce an arrogance whose constant reappearance keeps us distracted from the fundamentals of religion. The legend keeps forcing us to sanctify our vision of access. But those we would welcome learned long ago, in other places, that they are fully equal, fully proud. “Can I come in?” is not their question. “What are you inviting me into?” is their reply.

We need to settle into a part of the nation where religious conversation hones, renews, progresses religious answers.


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