Scouting and Paranoia

The Boy Scouts’ recent decision to maintain their exclusion of gay scouts and leaders was disappointing. Alas, it was not surprising. After a two year review, the organization decided to maintain its anti-gay policy. I know that this was particularly painful for the many Unitarian Universalists who have worked so hard to change this policy.

The paranoia (and I use the word with care–denoting fears that are delusional and without foundation) has puzzled me for many years. Before I was a UU (much less a UU minister), I was a newspaper publisher in Oregon. In the early 1990’s Oregon was torn apart by anti-gay referendums. The small city in which I worked was one of the battle grounds for local anti-gay laws.

I remember how bitter the feelings were. I particularly remember how the anti-gay forces, backed by the religious right, painted a picture of the destruction of civilization if their initiative did not pass. Their campaign slogan was that gays and lesbians should have “no special rights.”

I remember writing one particular editorial that poked fun (actually, “poked fun” is understatement) at the campaign. The city in which I lived, Cottage Grove, had less than 10,000 people. The city had a library, a fire department, a police department, parks and the usual public works. What “special rights,” I asked, could the city conceivably bestow on gays even if it wished to?

Would the fire department respond more quickly to a fire in a gay home? Would gays get their library fines waived? Even if the city wanted to give special treatment, it would have to know who was gay and who was not. It was both silly and sad at the same time.

One of the great truths that has emerged in the last decade, a truth that gets very little media attention, is that granting rights like marriage equality to gays does not bring the end of civilization. In fact, the effects are almost zero. Divorce rates do not change. The traditional family continues to exist. The sky does not fall.

None of the effects the religious right predicted—NONE—have come to pass. The ironic truth is that once rights like marriage equality are in place nothing much changes. Life goes on.

The recent decision of the Boy Scouts is a victory for paranoia. That is sad. What is a cause for joy is that this kind of paranoia is in retreat.

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Violence in Aurora and America


Last week, on the day of the shooting in Aurora, Colo., that killed 12 people, I posted a brief comment on my Facebook page. My reflection was an act of the moment intended as a personal note, not something I anticipated would be published widely. Here is what I wrote:

I awoke early this morning in Colorado. It was another gorgeous morning, not a cloud in the sky. I made coffee and then checked the news. Across town in Aurora a dozen people had been killed. We took a walk along Ralston Creek. Such beauty, such tranquility here. Such wanton, senseless violence not far away. Those who worship guns worship a god that demands regular human sacrifice. Why are we horrified at the rituals of human sacrifices by cultures like the Aztecs when our culture worships gods far more violent? May the living victims find healing. May those who loved the dead find comfort. May we some day, some precious day, come to our senses.

I don’t believe any of my Facebook posts has ever had such a response. At last count 213 people “liked” my post and 30 people commented. Perhaps most telling, 110 people shared the post on their page. I can only imagine how many thousands saw it. This wanton killing clearly touched many of us deeply.

A part of me wonders that we can still react so strongly. One would think we Americans would get numb to these killings. They occur so often that they have a quality of repetition.

When we look at other countries, especially other “modern” nations, the number of murders using guns in the United States is simply staggering. A couple of years ago 9,369 people were murdered with guns. (The number of people who commit suicide using a gun is much higher than the number murdered!) The same year there were 144 people murdered in Canada, 14 in the United Kingdom, 12 in Ireland, 269 in Germany. Germany’s 269 is the second highest number among developed nations! For every murder in Germany we kill 35. For every murder in the UK we kill 670. Meditate on that for a moment.

The availability of guns, and especially guns intended exclusively for killing people, clearly has a lot to do with this. We all know about the political clout of the gun lobby and the National Rifle Association (NRA). Bill Moyers just issued a scathing commentary on the NRA.

While I agree with Moyers about the role the NRA has played, I would have us go behind the gun lobby and the murders. What is it about us that gun advocates have such power? Why is it that we cannot have anything resembling a reasonable discussion about what kind of control of weapons is appropriate? I mean, even the NRA does not advocate that individuals should be allowed to own M-1 tanks or tactical nuclear weapons. I have heard no one argue that the right to bear arms applies to attack helicopters or missile firing drone aircraft. If we agree there are some limits, then the debate ought to be about what limits are just and prudent. Yet we cannot have such a discussion in America today.

What is behind this apparent madness? Something very deep, something fundamental, is going on in our culture. The belief in the sanctity of gun ownership has a kind of fervor about it that is normally associated with religious passion.

Theologian Paul Rasor speaks of a “theology of violence” in his recent essay in the UU World. Our culture contains a belief that violence is necessary and that it somehow can save us. Look at the popular heroes in the media and in our history.

I know, you know, we all know, that the shootings in Aurora are just the latest installment. It is going to happen again and again and again. There are too many guns, too many disturbed people, too many opportunities.

Better gun control would help. So would better identification and care for the mentally ill. But they are not enough. We have to address our American glorification of violence.

At one level this is a deeply spiritual issue. Our task as a religious people committed to compassion and to peace is to show a better way. This is important. Thousands and thousands of lives depend on it.

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Loss of Confidence

In my last entry I talked about the rapid rise of the “nones”—people who express no religious affiliation.

Another fascinating trend is the unsteady and slow decline in the confidence Americans have in organized religion. Take a look at the chart below. It shows the trend over the last 40 years. This chart is taken from an article in on the Gallup Poll website:

Seen in combination with the rise of young people who have been turned off by organized religion and with the loss of members in both Mainline and Catholic churches, it paints a picture of a rapidly changing culture.

At one level, one can hardly be surprised at the decline of confidence in organized religion. We have seen the scandals of sexual abuse ignored by the Catholic Church and the scandals of televangelists.

If “Church” were a brand, we would conclude that the brand was in trouble. Increasingly people associate religion with tawdry behavior and with hypocrisy.

Yet there is another picture as well. Congregations that are vital and authentic are thriving and growing. All kinds of “spiritual” exploration and fellowship is also happening outside the walls of churches.

This is a volatile and vulnerable time for all religious groups. It is also a time rich with possibility. I am absolutely convinced that we Unitarian Universalists have more potential than others. We have a message of openness and tolerance. We work for compassion and justice in the world. We offer a spiritual home that nurtures growth and safe exploration. Our challenge is to seize this opportunity.

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Rise of the “Nones”

Religion in America is in the midst of a dramatic change. The change is not what most people believe. I remember hearing about the rise of fundamentalism. Actually, evangelical fundamentalism is in slow decline and has not grown in 20 years. Biblical literalism is less than half of what it was 50 years ago, down from 65 percent of the population to 30 percent.  That still strikes me as way higher than it ought to be, but at least the trend is good.

Perhaps the most important single indicator of this change—and most important for us as Unitarian Universalists—is the dramatic increase of the “nones.” The percentage of young people who claim no religious identity is skyrocketing. Here is a chart showing the percentage of college freshman who claim no religious identity:

This is a truly stunning rise in the number of young people who feel no connection to any religious tradition. In secular language, “church” is becoming a bad brand. Young people associate church with narrow-mindedness, hypocrisy and rigidity.

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.

Our work in the UUA’s “Congregations and Beyond” discussions is very much focused on how we can connect with UU’s who do not belong to congregations and to this growing part of American society that shares our values, that seeks spiritual community, but that has no religious identity. The future of our faith will depend, in large part, in learning how to engage millions of people who share our perspective.

By the way, a discussion of the “nones” was an important part of my report at General Assembly.  Watch a video of that report.

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From the Road: Our Religious, Compassionate Justice GA

GA is over and I am exhausted! But what a wondrous, satisfying, joyful fatigue this is. I have rarely felt such gratitude—gratitude for colleagues, for our partners, for our guest speakers. My head is still spinning.

This was an extraordinary General Assembly. In the days ahead I want to reflect on why so many of us were profoundly moved. Something powerful happened that goes beyond excellent programming.

Here are some initial reflections.

First, this was the most religious GA I have ever experienced. Because we designated this as a “Justice GA,” everything revolved around our acting from our core religious value of compassion. Part of me wants to say, “Well, duh.” A religious association meets with a religious focus–what a concept. Yet I am thinking that the religious part of GA often feels like something added on.

Another key factor was the fact that we past the abstract. “Justice” and “right relations” can seem cold, formal and legalistic. At this GA justice was about the treatment of real people. At this GA we kept it real. We need to remember that.

Closely related to that is the fact that we did this GA in close cooperation with local partners. I am thinking that this helped us get outside our purely UU concerns. Our partners (and what wonderful, brave, committed partners we have) opened us up.

Yet another aspect of this GA was the presence of youth and young adults. Our youth enrollment was double what it has been. Having that many young people has a pervasive effect. Simply put, they raise the energy a couple of notches. Youth I spoke to told me that is was the focus on justice and public witness that attracted them.

Hmmm. A profound religious focus. Getting real. Working with partners. Involving more youth. We could do a lot worse in the future.

Were you at GA? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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