Unitarian Universalism and the Story of Forrest Church

by Dan Cryer
St. Martin’s Press, 2011

What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian Universalist? Someone who knocks on your door and asks what you believe.

How do you drive a Unitarian Universalist out of town? Burn a question mark on his front lawn.

Who answers Unitarian Universalist prayers? To Whom It May Concern.

Who knew there was such a thing as Unitarian Universalist jokes?

And why did Dan Cryer tell a string of them in Being Alive and Having to Die, his sensitive and insightful biography of Forrest Church, who for thirty years presided as minister at All Souls, the prestigious UU congregation on Manhattan’s Upper East Side?

For Cryer, a Methodist raised Protestant who became an All Souls congregant in 1994, the wisecracks reflect the church’s free-wheeling humanism, which can seem elusive. The Unitarian Universalist website describes the religion as one that “celebrates a diversity of beliefs” rooted in Christian and Jewish teachings, with a heavy emphasis on humanism and ethics. God doesn’t have to be part of the equation.

“UUs are seekers, part of a long line of spiritual pilgrims deeply expressive of a shape-shifting American religious ethos,” Cryer writes. “They believe in the value of searching as opposed to settling into any final destination.”

The number of Unitarian Universalists may be small—about 165,000 members, as of 2009—but the church’s credo reflects a larger conundrum for liberal humanists of all religions: how to create a roadmap for spiritual fulfillment and ethical behavior without the strictures of theological dogma. This philosophical-spiritual dilemma is of particular interest now, at the beginning of an election year where religious beliefs will be—once again—endlessly trumpeted as a crucial aspect of political leadership.

Forrest Church’s story has special resonance when considered against the backdrop of contemporary politics. Church came into prominence at the same time as televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, but it was the rigid fundamentalists, not the conciliatory liberal, who captured the national headlines. Now, of course, politicians on the right have outstripped the ministers in trying to outdo one another in terms of religiosity.

Forrest Church’s father was Senator Frank Church of Idaho, who became a liberal icon for his opposition to the Vietnam War. He lost his U.S. Senate seat in 1980, a casualty of the rising conservative tide exemplified by Ronald Reagan. The historic importance of that 1980 election is still felt today because Reagan’s ascendancy was propelled by the evangelical right, who for the first time had the clout to make their religious concerns part of the Republican platform.

In the past three decades, religion, which had been a crucial force in the Civil Rights movement, has become increasingly identified with anti-liberalism and fundamentalism. Zealots at the extremes have solidified political power as liberal sects of mainstream religions have focused on remaining relevant to their constituents. Certainly, it’s easier to drum up passion for righteous certainty than for nuanced logic and reason.

It was the anti-liberalism of the 1980s that gave Forrest Church the opportunity to make his mark as a thinker and proponent of social justice. He became a beloved pastor of a prominent church, author of fourteen books, co-author of another, and editor of ten more—and then took his message national, on public radio and television. He organized many programs to help homeless people and was an early advocate on behalf of people stricken with AIDS. From the pulpit he urged parishioners to believe in compassion, love and service, and then practiced what he preached.

The minister was hardly a paragon of old-fashioned virtue. He had an affair with one of his congregants, whom he eventually married after divorcing his wife. He was an alcoholic and—judging from his canny knack for self-promotion—was touched with the sin of hubris.

Born in 1948 as part of the Baby Boom, Forrest Church came of age in the 1960s. He practiced the rituals of rebellion and self-discovery that characterized his generation and displayed the era’s tendency for narcissism as well. He smoked marijuana and dabbled with LSD, and became alienated from politics. His initial interest in religion was mainly geared toward avoiding the draft as a conscientious objector. When his petition to become a conscientious objector was denied, he enrolled in divinity school to escape from military service.

What began as a dodge became a calling that was as much intellectual as religious, and resulted in a theology based on a belief in community and communal responsibility, a code Church called “neighborliness.” In 1992 he published a book called God and Other Famous Liberals, his manifesto against liberalism’s declining reputation and power.

This concept, as defined by Cryer, gives Church’s biography particular relevance in today’s political climate. “The definition of community that began with family and neighborhood stretched to nation and world,” Cryer writes. “However defined, it acted as buffer against the relentless assaults of business-oriented privatism and fundamentalist-inspired corporatism. The former tried to dismantle government oversight so that business could do what it pleased. This was the tyranny of Mammon. The latter tried to impose its religious beliefs on everyone. This was the idolatry of theocracy.”

With God and Other Famous Liberals, Church was urging “a radically different view of American public life,” writes Cryer. “Would America listen?”

The book was well received and, Cryer suggests, might have led Church to a more prominent role in defining the spiritual side of liberal politics. Cryer’s prediction may simply reflect his own stubborn faith in the power of the written word; he was, after all, the book critic for Newsday for twenty-five years. However, Church thwarted himself, becoming diverted by his love life and drinking problems, to be sure, but also by the quest for personal revelation that may have led to his unruly behavior. In the spirit of the times he lived in, he wrote inspirational books, a self-help book, a kind of biography of the Declaration of Independence, and finally a book about dealing with the cancer that killed him at age sixty-one. Like the Unitarian Universalism he embraced, Forrest Church remained hard to pin down yet committed to evolving a better understanding of what it means to be human.


Julie Salamon, formerly a reporter and critic for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, is the author of eight books—most recently Wendy and the Lost Boys, a biography of playwright Wendy Wasserstein.
tags: Books, Reviews, Unitarian Universalism   
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