Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Unitarian Universalism and the Working Class

Delivered Tuesday, April 3 at the weekly chapel service at UUA headquarters in Boston

My hometown is in downstate Illinois, in the farm country. We had one high school, so whether your dad was a millionaire or ran off when you were three never to be seen again, that’s where you went.

My father worked in a factory, the same factory for my entire childhood. You could do that in those days, if you showed up on time every day and did what they told you.

It was a good job. The factory made cattle feed, and cattle always need to eat, so the work was steady. If you were careful, it paid well enough to support a family.

It was also a bad job. Dad always came home stinking of fish oil. Over time, the noise ruined his hearing. And the schedule flickered. He worked the day shift one week and the night shift the next. Back and forth every other week until he retired. All the workers in that factory did that.

If the night shift was working overtime, I didn’t see him all week. But otherwise I got off school about an hour before he had to leave for work. I’d race home on my bike and we’d play baseball. He taught me to hit by throwing me tennis balls in the front yard.

Dad had an interesting method for teaching me not to be afraid of the ball. “Let it hit you,” he said. Because that’s how Dad thinks: If the worst has happened already and you survived, what’s to be afraid of?

Unitarian Universalism has a class problem. We talk about it some, but not a lot. And when we do we often focus on the very poor: the homeless, panhandlers, people on welfare.

But we also have a problem with the working class. I don’t meet many people like my Dad in UU churches, not even at the church in my hometown. I’ve preached there twice now. Dad came to hear me the first time, but I don’t think I sold him on Unitarian Universalism. He hasn’t been back.

Meanwhile, I’ve met a lot of educated professionals there – the newspaper editor, the superintendent of schools, a professor from the local university. Because that’s who goes to a UU church.

Why is that? In some ways it’s the same mystery as our race problem: We try to stand for all people, but when we look around we’re usually standing with people like ourselves. We promote equality, but perversely, the less privileged would rather join conservative churches, churches that seem to us to serve the interests of the rich, churches that tell them it’s their own damn fault their lives are such a struggle.

One reason this mystery is hard to talk about, I think, is that a lot of us believe an explanation that we don’t want to say out loud: Working class people are stupid. The powers-that-be have duped them into pining for Heaven instead of changing Earth.

It’s a tempting explanation, because it absolves us. We don’t have to ask if we’re being stupid, if the working class doesn’t listen to us because we’re really only talking about our lives, not theirs.

Let’s go back to baseball for a minute. Batting helmets. Did you know the major leagues didn’t make batting helmets mandatory until 1971? You know who fought that rule? Players. Hitters. The league had to grandfather the active players in, so that they could keep facing Nolan Ryan without helmets until they retired. The last batter without a helmet was Bob Montgomery in 1979. The same thing happened in hockey. The last helmetless player retired in 1997.

Now, from the outside it sounds crazy that the players would fight a rule that protects them, but it makes an odd kind of sense. You see, the players knew the lesson my Dad taught me: If you’re afraid of the ball, you can’t hit it. They just took it one step further: If you’re really not afraid, why do you want a helmet?

When you’re doing something hard, like hitting a baseball, sometimes the mindset that works is not the objective, big-picture view – the one that tells you to wear a helmet.

Another sports example: I remember hearing Muhammad Ali say, “I am the greatest. There ain’t never been no fighter like me. There ain’t never been no nothing like me.”

If you ask whether those statements were objectively true, you miss the point. Ali was doing something hard. He needed to think that way to do what he did.

Working class people are doing something hard. Picture it like this: Imagine society as a giant maze, with success as a prize at the end. Some people are born right by the exit. Others start in more difficult places. They can’t just wander out. They have to make all the right moves.

Now, you might stand in a high place outside the maze and feel compassion for the people deep inside. You might ask: “Why does it have to be so hard to find the prize? Couldn’t we knock out a few walls? Why can’t the minimum wage be higher? Why can’t the government hire the unemployed? Why can’t college be free?”

When you’re standing in a high place those are great questions.

But if you’re inside the maze, that mindset won’t get you out. “Why does this maze have to be so hard? Why does that wall have to be there? Why can’t I have a clear path to the prize?”

It doesn’t help. No matter how good those questions are objectively, if I’m in the maze I don’t need them in my head.

Ten-twelve years ago I was visiting my sister in Tennessee. She also got an education and joined the professional class. My nephews never had any doubt they were going to college.

That Saturday night I got her husband Ed talking. He was researching clean ways to burn coal. It was a demanding job, but he believed in it and thought it was important. So he worked long hours and traveled a lot. He was also finance chair of their conservative, not-quite-fundamentalist church. They were raising money for a new building. That seemed important too. And his sons, my nephews, were both in elementary school. Ed worried that he wasn't spending enough time with them.

Job, church, family – every part of his life wanted more from him. What to do?
The next morning I went to church with them. The sermon topic was “Resisting Temptation.” I boiled the entire 20-minute sermon down to three words: Don't be bad.

I felt smug that morning, because I knew that Ed would have been so much better off in my church. We talk about real life, his real life. He didn’t need to be told not to be bad. His issue wasn’t Good vs. Evil; it was Good vs. another Good vs. a third kind of Good. And that’s the issue in my life and in the lives of all my professional class friends.

The primary spiritual challenge of the professional class is discernment. There are so many good things we could do with our lives. How do we choose?

A UU church will help you figure that out.

But I don’t think discernment was Dad’s issue. Because the factory was not a competing Good. It was a necessary Evil.

When he was pitching me tennis balls in the front yard, I don’t believe that any part of him actually wanted to go off to that dirty, hot, noisy, dangerous factory. He went because if he didn’t something bad would happen. He’d be punished. And in the long run, if he lost his job, I’d be punished.

He didn’t need help discerning what to do. He just needed to make himself do it.

And that’s working class life in a nutshell. You’re not following your bliss. You’re not pursuing your calling. You’re selling your time for money. The way out of the maze, and the way to get your kids out of the maze, is to go out every day and do something you’d rather not do.

Professionals have trouble grasping that. Because we imagine that we also do things we don’t want to do. We don’t get that extra hour of sleep in the morning. We have meetings with people we don’t like. We fill out forms that we know are pointless. It’s on a whole different scale.

Here’s what sums it up to me: When professionals retire, we keep dabbling. The newspaper editor in my hometown – he’s retired; he still writes. When the professor retires, he’ll keep reading journals and going to talks. But in the thirty years since my Dad took early retirement, he has never brought home some fish oil and mixed up a batch of cattle feed in the garage. When you retire from WalMart, you don’t set up a bar-code scanner in the basement, just to stay busy. You do that stuff for money, and when they stop paying you, you never ever do it again.

UU churches also help with the second major spiritual challenge of the professional class: inspiration. That’s what discernment is for: to find a consistently inspiring path through life. The ideal profession is a calling, and inspiration is how you work those 12-hour days without burning out. Inspired people bounce out of bed in the morning with ideas and ambitions. They stay late because there’s always one more thing they want to try. Those are the people who really make it in the professions. If you have to push yourself, and you’re competing with somebody who’s inspired, you’re at a huge disadvantage.

That’s why professionals tell their children: “Find something you love, so that you'll be brilliant and creative and energetic. You'll run rings around the guys who are just doing what they have to do.”

In the professional class, inspiration is the road to success. It’s the way out of the maze.

In the working class the road to success is self control. That’s what you want to teach your children: Resist temptation. Walk the narrow path. Do the hard thing you don’t want to do, so that you and the people who are counting on you won’t be punished.

That almost sounds like a theology. But not our theology.

Let’s throw one more thing into the mix: Second chances. Rich kids, professional kids – they get them. The door never completely closes on you. If your parents are doctors or lawyers, you can flunk out of two or three colleges. It’ll work out. If your name is Bush, you don’t have to get serious until you’re 40. The sky is still the limit.

In the working class it’s not that way. Listen to Eminem’s song Lose Yourself. He asks: “What if you had one shot?” And the fantasy, of course, is that you get one shot. What if you had one shot? You wouldn’t blow it, would you?

So you’re deep in the maze. There’s a church in there. It tells you that there’s Good and there’s Evil. And because somebody has done something incredibly generous, you get a chance to choose Good. One chance. You get it wrong, you go to Hell forever.

There’s another church. It tells you there are a lot of ways to be good. And if the good you pick doesn’t turn out to be the best good, pick again. It’ll work out.

Which church is talking about the world you live in? Which message do you want your kids to hear? Which one gives you the mindset you need to get out? You see, it isn’t just that a harsh theology justifies a harsh world. It also works the other way: a harsh world justifies a harsh theology.

Of course, if you’re already outside the maze, if you’re standing in a high place and have the big view, then the whole good-and-evil, heaven-and-hell theology doesn’t sound so impressive. It’s crazy. It’s stupid. Almost as stupid as batting against Nolan Ryan without a helmet.

The question I want to leave you with is whether Unitarian Universalism is bringing the world a message about life, or just a message about our lives? Can we speak in words that make sense both in the high place and in the maze? Can we teach both subtle discernment and making yourself do the obvious hard thing? Inspiration and self control?

I hope so. Because otherwise we’re a boutique religion. Otherwise we’ve surrendered the working class to the religious right.

My hunch, my faith – or maybe just what I need to believe to do what I do – is that we can find such a message, that there can be a truth that encompasses all times and all places, a wisdom big enough for all people.


Ms. Theologian said...

This was extremely insightful. Thank you for sharing it.

kim said...

Is this the sermon you promised us about why when people seek out religions, they go to conservative religions rather than UU?
It has a very interesting perspective. I need to think about it for a while....

Anonymous said...

Great ideas - helped me to frame some thoughts and questions I haven't yet been able to verbalize. I hope that we do in fact find--or develop--something to offer the working class as well as other people who are stuck in their various mazes.

Doug Muder said...


This is the direct descendant of the sermon I alluded to in "Right and Left Together".

BTW, I just heard from the UU World editors that "UU & the Working Class" is going to appear in their Fall issue.

kim said...

congratulations on that!
It clearly is an issue we need to have some dialog about. The letters to the editor about it should be really fun.
I'll probably send it out to the people on my email list who are UU, so they'll get a preview.
Are you still going to do the other sermon you alluded to then?

Doug Muder said...

Other interesting takes on UUism and class are David Bumbaugh's article Beyond the Seven Principles: the Core of Our Faith , Virginia Wolf's sermon Can We Talk?, and PeaceBang's blog post It's not Theology, It's Class.

Doug Muder said...

Kim asks: "Are you still going to do the other sermon you alluded to then?"

Probably not. I started with that text and improved it to get this one. So if and when I preach on this topic again, I'll probably start with this text rather than go back to that one.

PeaceBang said...

Doug, this is a gift that comes as a punch in the stomach, but one that I appreciate getting.

It's also a beautiful piece of writing and I'm thrilled it will be going into the World.

Thanks for this wonderful piece.

Donald O'Bloggin said...

As a middle class young adult that grew up in the UU church, I'm not sure how I feel about this. I'm not disagreeing completely, but there seems to be a few things... missing?

This is not to say I'm comfortable in the congregation I grew up in, I'm not (they've become more elitist and classist since I left a few years ago for college) but... hmm.


Jim said...

Thanks for this thought-provoking post. But I must say that your argument just doesn’t work for me on several levels. For one thing, you seem to assume that your premise – that members of UU congregations are all “professionals” -- is universally or nearly universally true. There are many of us who are not professionals who participate actively and in important ways in our UU congregations and in our larger communities. Are we really just statistical blips? Or chopped liver?

It’s almost as if you’re proving your own assertions (that all UUs are self-involved, navel-staring professionals) by ignoring a significant group that’s already here and trying to work within many UU congregations.

Also, I don’t think you’ve nailed the appeal of many of the so-called fundamentalist churches to most of the members. You seem convinced that it’s the “Good vs. Evil” theology that draws and keeps members. I believe that it’s the experience of transformative spirituality – of real physical, emotional and spiritual uplift that people experience at church services and in other interactions with each other – that fills the pews (whether those pews are in fundamentalist churches or UU churches).

Every single person of any class in a given church faces a unique set of challenges. The church might be able to help a little bit with what you call “discernment” (but not much really, in my opinion), but it can help a lot with getting people ready to take action in their own lives and in the greater world.

My parents and grandparents went to tent meeting revivals not so much because they wanted to avoid going to hell, but because they needed to get charged up to do what needed to be done and to make meaningful connections with other church-goers and the larger community. And that’s pretty much why I go to church, too.

I'm not saying that theology is unimportant. But I do believe that tweaking our "message" or stance is not the best way to build a more diverse community that benefits everyone.

Let’s do some work together!

Shannon said...

I am happy to have come across your blog this morning. I am wondering where your home town is? I find this particularly relevant because I am a member of an emerging congregation in Mt. Vernon, IL. Trying to strike a balance, or create a congregation that does not cater to the professional class is an important initiative for us. Many of our members (out of 17 total) are more educated than others, while others are highly self-educated but with no college degree, and others are working class retirees who are for the first times in their lives reaching out to learn more about themselves and the world around them. It has been a real challenge, and one that we welcome, for our congregation to be welcoming and inclusive to everyone who walks through our doors. There are a lot of issues that we have to deal with in our small congregation and small town that I feel others in the wider UU spectrum are not comfortable dealing with.

Anyway, now Ia m just rambling- but thank you for writing this, posting it, and asking some hard questions.

Doug Muder said...


My home town is Quincy, Illinois. I hope to go back there frequently, so I hope the folks at the Unitarian Church of Quincy don't take offense at how I've characterized them. I've really enjoyed meeting the people there, and they've been very nice to me. And just because nobody walked up to me and said, "I work at the ADM plant" doesn't mean nobody does. That's just the impression I got.

Doug Muder said...

I appreciate Jim's comment. There are a lot of caveats I would have included if I weren't trying to shoehorn my main message into a 15-minute talk, and I'm sorry if I implied that he doesn't exist or is chopped liver.

I agree that "real, physical, emotional and spiritual uplift" is an important part of the draw of conservative churches. I didn't focus on that factor because I think it cuts across class boundaries. A lot of my professional class friends wish UU services were more full-spectrum uplifting, though for them paganism rather than fundamentalism is UU's competition.

kim said...

I agree that "real, physical, emotional and spiritual uplift" is an important part of the draw of conservative churches.

Is it possible that different people see different things as "real, physical, emotional and spiritual uplift"?
What is it that people see in conservative churches as "real, physical, emotional and spiritual uplift"? Is it lively singing? Is it candles and incense? Is it rhythmic, composed preaching? Is it the content? Is it the delivery? What is it?
Is it possible that Cool New England Intellectual Types (TM) see what UUism offers as "real, physical, emotional and spiritual uplift"?
There is a saying about multi-use tools that says if it does lots of things, it does no one of them well. I worry that if we try to be everything for everyone, we will do none of them well. What happens when what some people consider "real, physical, emotional and spiritual uplift", others consider embarrassingly demonstrative? do we just boot out the more inhibited members?
One of the most succinct comments I have heard was from a young lady in our congregation. She said, "I want a sermon that makes me cry." But different things make different people cry. Whom are we trying to serve?

Jim said...

Thanks, Doug, for your thoughtful response to my comment. I guess my main concern is that anytime a church starts talking about specific groups that don't seem to be well represented, they run the risk of marginalizing those same people simply by categorizing them and thinking of them as "different from the rest of us."

And you're right, the appeal of more lively and uplifting services (and other interactions) does cut across boundaries-- which is the point, right?

Rather than focusing on the somewhat narrow dichotomy of Inspiration vs. Self-Control, I would suggest trying to deliver an authentic message whose power can be felt on several levels.

Thanks for raising a critical issue regarding the importance of ministering to everyone!

Kim, I guess my individual test of what consitutes an uplifting experience of church would be, "Did I leave the church feeling better able to face my life and the world than I did beforehand?" If we start out with intention in this direction, we won't please all the people all the time, but I think we'll be headed in a good direction.

Doug Muder said...

I'm wondering if Kim would react better to the word "inspiring" rather than "uplifting".

I think it's a common mistake (made by people on both sides of the argument) to reify "inspiration" -- as if some particular object or action in itself is inspiring. We can't make our services inspiring just by adding or removing something in the order of service.

I think it's easier to define "uninspiring": A service is uninspiring if, when it is over, the trajectory of my life continues unaltered -- not because I looked at my life and consciously affirmed it, but because it never seriously occurred to me that my life could be altered.

Inspiration can fail in a lot of different ways: For lack of ideas and direction, failure to bring abstract ideas down to earth, failure to raise motivation, and for lack of healing the wounds that keep us from moving.

As far as sermons that make people cry, I've never seen anyone break down during one of my sermons. (I've got a great view; I'm sure I'd notice.) But if I don't cry at some point during the writing process, the sermon probably isn't very good.

Scattered Gemini said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scattered Gemini said...

Hi Doug~

I wandered over via links from Cuumbaya & uuMomma.

The one thought i have right now is that, for myself, i'd never even heard of UU Churches until i left the South Side of Chicago/NW Indiana area.

I had gone from being raised Catholic to being sucked into a very cult-like church in the early 90's. In the late 90's, my employer in the Smith College area mentioned that her parents attended a UU and she thought i would fit in. I didn't check it out for another two-three years.

I ended up plugging into a Church that was within 20 minutes of where i'd grown up and lived for 20 years of my life. I never even realized the Church was there until i was specifically looking for a UU congregation.

I'm wondering how many people are like me, they don't even know that Unitarian Universalism is out there? They don't know that being UU is an option?

Thanks for the thought provoking post.


kim said...

I'm not arguing with you, I'm just asking. Isn't it true that different people like different things? I've sat around a table of UUs talking about our favorite parts of the service (we were trying to figure out what to leave out to shorten it). One person loved the silent meditation, another wouldn't miss it. One person loved the children's story time, another thought it distracting. Someone just loved the choir, another didn't. And on and on -- so how do you make a service more inspiring when there are so many different perceptions of what, exactly, is inspiring? Are we trying to have "something for everyone"? Then the services get too long and we wrestle with that.
Do they teach you in seminary what it is that gives people that feeling they want to walk out with?

Ron said...

Belatedly coming into this incarnation of one of the most important questions among us; I remember a few months ago asking some ministerial colleagues what they thought the big taboo subject was for UUs these days, and class issues was a unanimous response.

Since the church plant I am with is in an area where people are either retired blue collar or would love to aspire to what used to be called "blue collar" jobs, here is a recent candid observation/question of my own that might add something to this wonderful conversation.

I have noted that getting people to ask questions, on all levels, not just about spiritual matters but of their own attitudes and responses, has been difficult, especially with those among us who have not gone beyond high school and who have or are working in jobs where there are layers of hierarchy and chain of command unlike anything in the professions. There is something inherent in the process of thinking critically that comes with professional formation, maybe of what you have touched on about "discernment", that seems to prepare people for such a liberal theological enterprise.

Of course, getting people to go to questions first is a spiritual matter for all of us--"why do you feel that way? did you always feel that way? how have you changed? etc." instead of immediately going to "i can't believe they think that way" or "i don't like it that they feel..." Here it just seems harder for the half of us not in the professions.

What helps though, here, and I think might elsewhere to get at this issue, is the role of the small group. In a good small group setting, as opposed to the standard Sunday worship and programming-is-what-we-are-all-about model, a lot of this gets faced and differences of all sorts are acknowledged and transcended.

Matthew said...

Doug, have you investigated this idea any further? The relationship between class and theology is something that continues to puzzle me, even beyond UUism.