Unitarians as 'The Church of NPR'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Here are two stories from readers who attend a Unitarian Universalist church and how it differs from more traditional churches in the U.S. The first reader, John, describes how being exposed at an early age to a very different faith in a very different culture opened up his mind—and then closed it off to religion:

Fascinating collection of personal essays. Here is mine.

I grew up in Northern Virginia and was raised Episcopalian going to a long established Episcopal parish in Fairfax and being confirmed there. In 1962 my father joined the U.S. Information Agency. That September we moved to Ankara, Turkey. I was a few months short of 12.  

The move exposed me to the Turkish version of Islam. It was also the beginning of what I like to think of as an appreciation for what William James termed “the variety of religious experiences.” My father was a great believer in getting out and exploring the country, for which I will always bless him. We travelled all over the Turkish Mediterranean coast, to Istanbul and to Greece. This exposed me to Greek and Roman polytheism and to the Greek Orthodox traditions of the Byzantine Empire and modern Greece. At around the same time I was beginning to explore Western classical and American history, including the impact of the Enlightenment on Revolutionary America.  

After my parents separation in 1965, my mother, sister, and I returned to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I was quite offended by the lack of understanding she received from the Episcopal minister there. I don’t recall the impetus, although I think I can infer it, but in 1966 she left the Episcopal congregation for the Kalamazoo Unitarian congregation. It is possible that my mother’s Quaker heritage on her father’s side could have played a role. We continued as Unitarians when we moved to Tucson, Arizona, in 1967, when I was 16. In my 20s I gradually drifted away from organized religion.

I have recently begun connecting with the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, where I now live. I consider this an intellectual, not a spiritual, connection—one prompted more by my respect for the ethics and intellect of the two ministers leading RRUUC and a personal quest for community after my wife entered long-term care for Alzheimer’s.  

How would I characterize my religiosity at age 65? I would say that I have none. I don’t find a belief in a higher power or a system to worship one rational and for me, intellectually satisfactory.

Looking back 50 plus years, I would say that my move to Turkey may well have been transformative from a spiritual standpoint, although perhaps it only accelerated an intellectual journey that I would have made regardless of place. I think I realized in Turkey that religion is a human construction and that because it is a human construction, it is expressed in a great variety of ways none ultimately relevant to the existence or more likely non-existence of a deity. From that I believe I derived that there is no one “right way” and that any attempt to impose a “right way” is not only morally wrong but socially destructive. I think I also concluded that while I may not share the beliefs of another, that person’s personal quest is entitled to respect and not for me to judge.  

The other reader, Kelsey, is more deeply involved in the UU church:

It was years since I’d given a sermon. There I was, back in the pulpit of my childhood congregation, and I was about to talk about drones. I grew up deep in the church, or at least, as deep as a Unitarian Universalist gets: I almost had the exact wording of all seven principles memorized, but without a specific sacred text to sink into, I found myself instead on committee after committee, from the time I was 13 until I was 22.

Ours is a non-credal faith, which puts us on a very fine sliver between not a religion at all, in the eyes of the dogmatic, and too much of a religion, in the minds of many burnt by previous exposures to faith. Our ritual calendar is, like that of America itself, not explicitly Christian but functionally so. Our hymns replace “world of sin” with “worldly din,” and at times worship felt like a book group meeting in the back of a library.

We are, fairly, described as “the church of NPR,” and while there is great diversity of belief and people within the faith, the overwhelming impression is one of well-meaning upper-middle-class whites who listened to NPR, voted Democratic only because the Green Party wasn’t viable, and who marched against the last war, this war, and the next war. Our faith at large, and perhaps my congregation especially, during the 2000s, was deeply skeptical of American power at home and abroad, and with a ministry focused on this world and not the next, that translated to protest, marches, and a general outrage at the entire defense establishment. The question over coffee hour (it was always coffee hour) wasn’t “was the Iraq war a bad idea?” it was “should we even have a military, if we can misuse it like that?”

In as much as I had a conflict with my faith, it was that I was fascinated by how we got into our bad wars, and rather than turning away, I wanted to know more. Ending the draft clearly hadn’t stopped the risk of foreign policy adventurism abroad, and the protests against the 2003 invasion of Iraq didn’t work either. Years later, with college and a temp job behind me, I started work writing about military technology professionally. My work life was filled with fact sheets about bombers and drones and laser weapons and killer robots, and every Sunday I found myself in the pews of my new congregation, singing odes to a “Spirit of Life” [embedded above].

My home congregation invited me back to speak. The sermon I gave, after three days furiously refining it, was an attempt to reconcile that disconnect. How does one cover the minutia of war, and especially of future war, while remaining opposed to very real and human consequences of what happens in war? I gave the sermon, but the question never really went away. It’s the ever-present disconnect of my life, as a member of a faith deeply committed to repairing our broken world, and as a journalist narrowly focused on how, exactly, the world breaks.

Update from the first reader, John:

What a pleasant surprise. Thank you for running my piece. A great juxtaposition, by the way, as I agree with few of Kelsey’s views. I consider myself a center-left Democrat and incapable of viewing the world in the black-and-white shades that Kelsey seems to embody, especially on issues of foreign policy and national security. I am, at bottom, a pragmatist. Politically this probably makes me center-right on the UU spectrum.

I have come to see how very active RRUUC is on a range of issues. I have engaged, I think productively, on dementia—helping to arrange a series of seminars—I’ve joined in some very good dialogues on racial justice, and I’m participating in what will be a joint sponsoring with a Lutheran congregation of one or more refugee families. My respect for the two RRUUC ministers has continued to deepen as I have gotten to know them better.  

Will I ever formally join RRUUC? I don’t know, but I was surprised and touched earlier this month when asked to participate in a brainstorming session on welcoming newcomers.

Kelsey replies, “Of course, ask two Unitarians for a perspective on the faith and you’ll likely get five answers.”