In the Mall of Religion, with a Wrench, Wearing a Christian Mask

Bait and switch is a form of fraud. In a common form, a store advertises a great sale on something it doesn’t carry, then, when a prospective buyer comes in, convinces her to buy something similar but significantly more expensive.

Jclifford over at irregular times (note: the irregular times site appears defunct-SM, Jan. 10, 2019) thinks UU is perpetrating a bait and switch because it doesn’t really uphold its Principles, particularly in the way Christianity is presented relative to the other Sources and noting, in reply to a comment I left:

When Unitarian Universalists adopt the approach that Christianity has a privileged place within their congregations, it’s a contradiction of the promise of a welcoming attitude. It’s a contradiction of the promise of no creed. It’s a contradiction of support for the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. I call that bait and switch.

There’s a lot to disagree with in jclifford’s blogging on this matter. For instance, I don’t agree that the word-count approach to analyzing UU web sites is an accurate way of assessing the UU commitment to the free and responsible search for truth and meaning or the way it uses its Sources. I can’t assess the characterization of the sermons read for the analysis, but can only reiterate from my comment that I don’t feel a pro-Christian bias in the sermons I’ve heard.

In the comments, jclifford also makes a number of suggestions for UU on the matter of addressing Christian privilege. They’re worth looking at, but I don’t want to engage them here. What I really want to get at is the underlying problem which I see jclifford articulating.

That’s this: UU looks, to at least some people on the outside, like it is institutionally incapable of delivering on its promises of creedlessness in religion and openness to non-Christian religious traditions (either through incompetence or the malice of either active deception or accretion of neglect).

It is not difficult to find anecdotes of such failings around the internet. Atheists, those experiencing non- (or post-) Christian theophanies, even (perhaps unexpectedly) classical Unitarians and Universalists who have gripes about UU, their local congregations, and the UUA. I’m not going to say “well, if UU is being attacked from all sides, then it must be doing something right.” That’s a ridiculous sort of thing to say generally, and in the case of this sort of “bait & switch” accusation indicates that there’s a deep and abiding problem.

But I don’t think it’s actually a problem of bait and switch. UU isn’t selling or actively promoting Christianity to people who come in looking for something else. Not really. I think it’s a public face problem with at least two facets. The first is that’s it’s difficult to articulate that UU is about action and process. The second is that UU does, in fact, still present an essentially Christian religious persona.

On the first point. Since UU does not have a creed (in a technical sense), we like to say (accurately) that it’s a creedless religion, and–further–that we’re open to people of any (or no!) beliefs or faith. We’re rightly called out on this (particularly the latter characterization) since the Principles take on a de facto role as a creed. What UU is (in part) is a religion where people gather to do faith–what I see as faith that the world can be a better place than it is, and that we, right now, have a duty to enact and enable that.

Sometimes this means coming to terms with the existential world (finding truth and meaning), sometimes it means refusing to come to terms with the humanized world (expanding justice, peace, and respect for the interdependent web). Sometimes it means listening to someone decompress over a cup of coffee. Sometimes it means decompressing. What it typically doesn’t mean is worshiping, supplicating, redeeming in the eyes of godhead (though sometimes it does, and–depending on definitions–maybe it should more often…).

On the second point, I used persona deliberately. Our Sources include a lot of recognized loci of authority, and the UUA does not number the six categories of Sources, and the one about Judaism and Christianity is the 4th bullet point and all. But still. We use a lot of Christian words and symbology. We’re the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. A lot of our congregations meet in buildings which look like churches. Most of our congregations meet on Sunday mornings for services which are constructed along an identifiably Christian format with singing, reading, calling-and-responsing, a sermon, and a coffee hour after. The ones with loot often have staff called Rev. Our mask is Christian.

Further, our framing is often Christian. Sometimes the sermons I hear are explicitly Christian, but very rarely, and even then not orthodox, or Orthodox, or Roman Catholic, or mainline Protestant, or … but why go on? Usually the sermons I hear frame themselves around expanding Christian sources and language and ideas from the Christian tradition out beyond all Christian bounds. Or, just slightly less often, they use Christian language to give people a doorway to enter and a way to encounter non-Christian religious ways of being.

Actually, though, most of the sermons I hear are about what it means to be UU rather than something else.

I think jclifford misidentifies this framing as Christian privilege, with the negative associations ‘privilege’ has come in recent decades to connote. And, though I think it is in fact a misidentification, that’s actually not jclifford’s fault or problem to point it out. It’s a UU problem.

It’s our problem. It’s our fault if people think UU is the Mall of Religion, with outlet stores for every faith. It’s our fault people who go to a congregation expecting something different from a Christian service get a Christian-like service and are confused by why that is. It is, in brief, a branding problem. We on the inside know what we’ve got, and we like it otherwise we wouldn’t stay. And we have to stay true to ourselves both as individuals and as congregations. But we have to be clearer about expectations–both what expectations we promote to visitors, and what we might expect from them.

And the biggest lesson from jclifford is that web pages are where people get those expectations reinforced, we we need to make those tools as clear as possible.

(Note on old UU posts.)

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