Religions are not always what they seem.
A colleague once told me of his experience teaching a course on cults and small sects in the 1980s, when he had required his students to go out and actually spend time with one of the then-controversial groups. (Something I would never have done, for reasons of legal liability, if nothing else). From a suggested list of available groups, several selected the Unification Church, better known as the Moonies, and they duly made contact with a local branch of the group. Students attended the church’s services and participated in Unificationist activities.
At the end of the semester, though, my friend was baffled to read the descriptions he was receiving in term papers. Far from being secretive or manipulative, the group that students described was welcoming and friendly, and its members showed an admirable sense of humor, and a wide-ranging tolerance. The Unificationists were delightful, cultured, intelligent, people, profoundly dedicated to social service and racial justice, and to making the world a better place all around. And they loved to read good books! The students were baffled as to why such thoroughly nice people could possibly be so unpopular. How could anyone consider the Unification Church a cult?
The professor was no less puzzled, until he checked and found that his students had actually spent the term doing field research on the local Unitarians.
That story came to mind recently reading a USA Today report by Bob Smietana, headlined “Unitarian Faith Growing Nationwide: Unitarian Universalist Congregations Hold Growing Appeal Throughout The U.S.” According to Smietana, the UU church is a movement whose time has come. Reporting one Nashville believer, he remarks, “De Lee is one of a growing number of Unitarian Universalists, a group of people who believe in organized religion but are skeptical about doctrine. … Unitarians believe their open-minded faith has a bright future as an alternative to more exclusive brands of religion. … The church hopes to appeal to the rising number of ‘nones’ — those with no specific religious identity. A recent poll from the Pew Center for the People and the Press showed that about one in five Americans falls into that category.” Supporting his view, Smietana cites scholar Diana Butler Bass, a distinguished expert on “progressive” churches.
From my own dealings with UU members through the years, I entirely echo the views of those students in my friend’s misguided class. The church attracts sane, decent people, it does excellent work, and I have no wish to denigrate it. Its strong points include a laudable gift for denominational self-mockery, always a sign of health in any religion. But the notion that the church is growing on any scale, or that it is going to occupy any significant place in the American religious spectrum is so far from reality that it’s a mystery why a major newspaper would choose to run such a story.
Not a word Smietana says in his story is inaccurate, but it wholly lacks the context the reader would need to make sense of its claims. As he says, frankly, the church today has some 211,000 members nationwide, and that represents a solid growth over the past decade, some sixteen percent. But look at those numbers in context. That figure means that the United States has about as many Amish as it does UU members – surely, a sobering analogy.
Also, that growth statistic is not too impressive when set aside other bodies. Even if you take the questionable step of extrapolating that figure uninterrupted and assume sixteen percent each decade, the UUs still wouldn’t even approach half a million members until the latter part of this century. That still leaves them dwarfed by other churches whose growth genuinely has been impressive, including the Assemblies of God, Seventh Day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Today, the Assemblies claim some three million US members, and the Adventists and Witnesses a million each, and all are growing fast. And I could choose plenty of other examples. Brand-new upstart denominations like the Vineyard have rapidly swelled to perhaps 150,000 members, with huge potential for future growth.
The difference between these groups and the UUs is of course that they tend to the conservative end of the theological spectrum, with profoundly supernatural world-views. It’s hard to resist the conclusion that the media are reporting so favorably on UU growth because that is what they would like to see.
Maybe if you say something often enough, it’ll start to happen in the real world.
By the way, the Amish are also growing faster than the UUs. But don’t expect them to take over the nation’s religious life any time soon.