Sunday, January 26, 2014

Give me a dose of that old-time liberal religion

One of my favorite wisecracks about Unitarians (today merged with Universalists) goes like this: "Unitarians believe that there is one god --- at the most."

That came to mind the other day when I inadvertently --- while looking for something else --- wandered into the 1908 presidential campaign during which Republican William Howard Taft (left, a Unitarian) narrowly defeated William Jennings Bryan (a devout Presbyterian, populist, prohibitionist and staunch defender of what today might be called creationism (remember the Scopes "monkey trial"?).

My memory of religion in politics goes back only to the 1960 presidential campaign, when some protestants engaged in a great deal of hand-wringing about John F. Kennedy's Roman Catholicism --- fantasizing about hotlines to Vatican City and that sort of thing. But the subject has arisen in many campaigns, including the most recent.

Back in 1908, protestant preachers, especially in the Midwest, had a field day with Taft's religion --- his devotion to the Unitarian outlook was lifelong. "Infidel" probably was the term most frequently used, but since anti-intellectualism also has been a thread among some protestant sects, other more adventurous preachers alleged that the portly candidate probably was a Catholic, too, perhaps even Episcopalian.

Taft ultimately transcended the 1908 debate and won, but lost his bid for re-election during 1912, a campaign that threw Theodore Roosevelt, reborn an independent and hardly an orthodox believer himself, into the mix --- thereby leading to the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Taft went on to serve as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1921 until his death in 1930.

One of Taft's legacies is an eloquent characterization of Unitarianism as it stood at the turn of the 20th century, part of a 1917 address delivered in San Francisco when he was serving as president of the General Conference of Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Churches:

"Now, what are Unitarians? Are they Christians? Of course, that is a matter of definition. If a man can be a Christian only when he believes in the literal truth of the creed as it is recited in the orthodox evangelical churches, then we Unitarians are not Christians. A Unitarian believes that Jesus Christ founded a new religion and a new religious philosophy on the love of God for man, and of men for one another, and for God, and taught it by his life and practice, with such Heaven-given sincerity, sweetness, simplicity, and all-compelling force that it lived after him in the souls of men, and became the basis for a civilization struggling toward the highest ideals. Unitarians, however, do not find the evidence of the truth of many traditions which have attached themselves to the life and history of Jesus to be strong enough to overcome the presumption against supernatural intervention in the order of nature. They feel the life of Jesus as a man to be more helpful to them, as a religious inspiration, than if he is to be regarded as God in human form."

Today's Unitarian Universalists are considerably more skittish about applying the term Christian to themselves, even engage in interesting debates now and then about whether the "G" word is appropriate for church. 

None of that means self-defined Christians (or Episcopalians) aren't welcome among them, however, and I enjoy and usually benefit from a good dose of truly liberal religion.

When the impulse toward that happens, I sometimes go to the Web page of All Souls Unitarian Universalist in Tulsa, with more than 2,000 members one of the largest UU congregations in the country. The congregation live-streams its 8:30, 10 and 11:30 a.m. services, then makes archived versions of sermons available.

Today's guest minister is the Rev. Galen Guengerich and the title, "God" (Revised). Here's a description: 

"Having left an upbringing in a family of Mennonite preachers to discover his own experience of God, Galen Guengerich understands the modern American struggle to combine modern world views with outdated religious dogma. Drawing upon his own experiences, he proposes that just as humanity has had to evolve its conception of the universe to coincide with new scientific discoveries, we are long overdue in evolving our concept of God. Gone are the days of the magical, supernatural deity in the sky who visits wrath upon those who have not followed his word. Especially in a scientific age, we need an experience of a God we can believe in — an experience that grounds our morality, unites us in community, and engages us with a world that still holds more mystery than answers."

If I hurry, maybe I can make it home in time to tune in at 11:30. Or maybe not. The annual parish meeting and potluck is on the agenda today, so it may be necessary to watch the archived sermon instead.

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