What Does the Growth of Unitarian Universalism Mean?

There’s a certain truism that’s been adopted by commentators and analyzers of religion in the United States (and more broadly in the West), that liberal Protestant Christianity is in a demographic death spiral, and thus liberal forms of Christianity itself are in danger of winking out of existence. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat, author of “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” made waves this past Summer by asking if liberal Christianity could be saved.

“…if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves. [...] Liberal commentators, meanwhile, consistently hail these forms of Christianity as a model for the future without reckoning with their decline.”

Andrew Sullivan recently declared that Christianity itself was in crisis, and several scholars and writers have read the demographic tea leaves to see what happens as the “nones” grow and the generational shifts start to change the makeup of religious bodies. So it is within this atmosphere that I read about how the decidedly post-Christian Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations has actually experienced growth in congregants over the past ten years.

Unitarian Universalists at Pride in Washington DC

“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. The denomination grew nationally by 15.8% from 2000 to 2010, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. Although they remain small in total numbers with about 211,000 adherents nationwide, Unitarians believe their open-minded faith has a bright future as an alternative to more exclusive brands of religion.”

This shouldn’t be a surprise since, according to UUA President Rev. Peter Morales, the UUA is perfectly situated to appeal to those apprehensive of traditional Christian religious organizations, especially those claiming “no religion.”

“The great irony here is that these “nones” are very much aligned with Unitarian Universalist values. They are accepting of ethnic and sexual diversity. They are open minded. They also seek spiritual community. They present a huge challenge and a huge opportunity for us.”

Also of note is that the UUA is experiencing a lot of their growth in the South, not just the traditionally “liberal” coasts and open-minded campus towns.

“The denomination, which started in New England, has been growing more in the South than in other parts of the country, said Rachel Walden, a public witness specialist from the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association. [...] In Tennessee, Unitarians grew by 20.8% from 2000 to 2010. During the same time frame, they grew by 22% in Georgia and by 42.5% in Colorado.”

Religion scholar Diana Butler Bass, author of “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening,” recently said in an interview that she feels that America is in the midst of a spiritual awakening, one that isn’t necessarily centered on Christianity or even monotheism.

“…when I talk about the fact that we’re in an awakening, I believe we are in a period of intense cultural reorientation or revitalization, and that during an awakening, politics, worldviews, religion, education—the whole way a society approaches being community, and connecting with one another, and understanding their God or their gods—it all changes.”

So what does this growth auger? What I think this means is that liberal, New Age, and Pagan faiths are perfectly positioned to benefit from the growing distrust and disillusionment of rigid one-true-way monotheistic forms of religion. They no longer care to wait while church organizations grudgingly admit the humanity of their gay friends, or litigate birth control yet again. Liberal Christianity is diminishing, yes, but what we’re seeing now is almost a slow-motion alchemy as these adherents search, seek, and often find a home with faiths outside the dominant Christian paradigm. So we see Buddhists grow, and Pagans grow, and yes, we see Unitarian Universalists grow.

The long-mocked theological flexibility of the UUA, which allows Pagans and Humanists alike in their pews to worship alongside the UU Christians  may turn out to be a secret strength that allows it to weather the post-Christian cultural transition that many Christian religious bodies seem unprepared for. Indeed, just a year ago journalists were questioning whether Unitarian Universalists would survive far past their 50th anniversary, with three years of “dips” in membership. Now the narrative has flipped, and suddenly we’re talking about their growth. While the UUA may never become a dominant demographical heavyweight as some denominations are today, their very nature may allow them to thrive and survive while other falter. They may even turn out to be a natural nexus point for liberal religon as it grapples with what the future holds.

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About Jason Pitzl-Waters

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