Doug Muder has written what is in my opinion the finest UU blog post to date, entitled Unitarian Universalism and the Working Class . Go and read it before reading the rest of this post. In fact, go read it even if you never read the rest of this post.
I am a working class Unitarian, as obviously Doug is. He describes mindsets and attitudes from the working class that the upper classes might not understand, attitudes necessary for survival. He closes by asking, “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?” This is possibly the most important question ever asked of UUs, and not just for the purpose of recruiting from the lower classes; it is vitally important because if we are not speaking truths that are universal, we’re not speaking truth at all!
Lessons learned from growing up poor are often in direct contradiction to lessons taught at UUA GA workshops. Let’s take a composite poor person’s life, part mine and part several friends- call him “Don”, because he might be a she, spelled “Dawn“- to see what I mean. Don’s parents drilled him in the lesson Doug mentions, “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...In the working class it’s not that way...What if you had one shot? You wouldn’t blow it, would you?” And so Dawn works like a dog all through High School. Because he’s not a natural student, he spends hours every night studying rather than hanging with his friends. he works summers and weekends at the kind of menial jobs a teenager can get because he’s going to need every penny at college.
Don attends a community college or state school because even with a Pell grant and loans, that’s what he can afford. He also works while going to school. Some “Dawns” will earn enough in their blue collar day job that they can’t bear to go on with the dual life- I didn’t have the stamina nor, I’ll admit, the discipline to work full time and still finish school. Upon graduation, or upon getting his journeyman badge if he dropped out of college, he lands an entry level position behind peers with degrees from fancier schools. Don spends the decade of his 20’s, perhaps longer, either working overtime or a second job to cover the crushing student debt load (and possibly credit card debt as well) he picked up in college. Finally, somewhere in his late 30’s or 40’s, he’s down to one job and has time to think about things like re-connecting with a spiritual life; he wanders into a UU church.
Here he learns that he’s a “winner in life’s lottery”, that those with less are “less fortunate”. This is in direct contrdiction to his life experience... he’s been working 50-60 hours per week since he was 13 years old, working his youth away when his peers were having fun, and now learns the fruits of this discipline are considered “good fortune”. His life experience is that anyone who stays away from drugs, finishes high school, and doesn’t have/father a child out of wedlock can earn a decent living; outside of a physical or mental handicap, poverty is the result of bad life choices, usually multiple bad choices... but if he dares say so he’ll be denounced as a heartless Republican and shunned.
At other workshops, he’ll learn that all he has is not good fortune, but the result of “privilege”- either “White Privilege”, or “Male Privilege”, or (shudder) the dreaded “White Male Privilege”! He contemplates his scarred and callused hands, the varicose veins from being on his feet 12-14 hours a day working two jobs for a quarter of a century, and wonders how hard he’d have had to work without all that “privilege”...
In the mainstream Christian church in which he was raised, “envy” was one of the deadly sins. His life experience confirmed this; envy leads only to schadenfreude, and the inability to enjoy those blessing one does possess. Here, he learns that envy is a virtue, not a sin; the problem is not that the poor don’t have enough but that the rich have too much- it is the gap that is the problem. In his parent’s day, the diseases of the poor were kwishiorkor, pellagra, rickets, scurvy- many hundreds of thousands died in the United States before WWII from simple dietary deficiencies due to extreme poverty...today, the diseases of the poor are diabetes and heart disease from overweight- but the UUA teaches that things are worse than ever because the gap is bigger.
To Don/Dawn, the UUA does not exist in the real world, or at least not in the world inhabited by the bottom three quintiles. Don longs for a church that preaches personal responsibility, because choices have consequences; the UUA teaches that personal results have societal causes. Problems that Don sees as caused by correctable human flaws that should be preached about are seen by the UUA as societal inequities that can only be cured by political action. Oh, well, he shrugs, at least the UUA works with people from both parties- the Democrats and the Greens.
Doug ends his piece with “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.” My faith is that there is just such a message. My sadness is that I don’t believe we have any intention of looking for it- that we would rather surrender the working class to the Religious Right than to admit that any position the GA’s have voted on was wrong.