It was the type of statement I’ve expected to come from the Roman Catholic Pope, in his effort to reassert his church’s authority over secular society: “Individualism is the spiritual disease of our time.”
That statement didn’t come from Pope Benedict, however. It came from Peter Morales, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. His effort to push Unitarian Universalism into anti-individualism is part of a larger agenda within the denomination to encourage individual members to put their own interests and needs aside for the sake of the Unitarian Universalist collective identity.
Tony Lorenzen, the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Pathways Church in Texas, urges Unitarian Universalists to follow the pathway of “Submitting to Christ’s Body, the Church. Well, it’s not about you, it’s about the community. We are at heart a covenantal community and that’s what this is about.”
Matt Dance, addressing the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fort Wayne, urges Unitarian Universalists to follow the Stoic idea that “The key to human happiness is to acknowledge that the world is not about you.”
The UUIdentity project complains that “In a culture that has overemphasized individualism at the expense of community, we have overemphasized freedom of creed at the expense of identity.”
A Unitarian Universalist “statement of conscience” from 2003 proclaims, “Seeing the world as an interconnected web challenges us to turn from self-serving individualism toward a relational sense of our selves.”
Janet Onnie, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs, complains of a “national plague of individualism”.
The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Westchester warns of “a world torn apart by individualism”.
Davidson Loehr of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, preaches that, “we have taken individualism to such an extreme, we hardly know how to define ourselves as parts of something larger any more.”
Reverend Lynn Thomas Strauss of the Unitatrian Universalist Church of Rockville says in a serom that, “I believe the greatest weakness, the greatest danger of our Unitarian Universalist thought and ways of living, is our tendency to idolize the individual.”
Yesterday, Unitarian Universalists wrapped up their 50th anniversary general assembly. There was a great deal of celebration among the attendees, but not much discussion of the fact that Unitarian Universalism is in decline. 16 out of the 19 Unitarian Universalist districts have lowering membership. As the general population is increasing, the number of Unitarian Universalists is decreasing.
The decline of Unitarian Universalism is not well studied, and is probably due to several factors. I suspect that one of those factors is the frequent preaching by Unitarian Universalist ministers against individualism. Many members of Unitarian Universalist congregations remain strongly attached to the ideals of individual responsibility and development, and are deeply suspicious of calls for the sacrifice of individual identity for the sake of the collective.
Unitarian Univeralist ministers, and administrators like Peter Morales, on the other hand, have placed themselves in a position of authority, and tend to grow a particular attachment to the institutional needs of their organizations. Many of them continue to show respect for the individual, but some have begun sliding toward a kind of totalitarian vision of Unitarian Universalists, in which members of Unitarian Universalists sublimate their own thoughts and needs for the good of “community”.
This growing anti-individualism is a contradiction of the promise of Unitarian Universalism: A respect for individual conscience. People seeking a place where they won’t be asked to merge into a dominating group identity may walk into a Unitarian Universalist congregation, hear a sermon against individualism, and walk back out the door. People who long to be told that they must conform to collective expectations, rather than thinking of themselves, can go to one of many Christian churches and hear that message much more clearly.
Unitarian Universalism won’t stop its membership decline by retreating into the comfortable impulse to conformity that is traditional to religion. Individualism is not the disease of our time. The loss of individuality in a world of mass media is.