Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Of Britney Spears, Middle Class, and “Voices of a Liberal Faith”

You may well ask what Ms. Spears has to do with our recent discussion of UUism and the middle class and the new short film available as DVD or download from the UUA, Voices of a Liberal Religion-Unitarian Universalists . The explanation will make the most sense if you first go watch the film.

Back? Ok... What was missing in that film? They mentioned that we welcome everyone, good, that’s our biggest draw. They mentioned that we’re big on social activism, fine, and they mentioned our sex ed classes for kids. All good things, especially the OWL program- that’s a huge draw for us; many come to us only to enroll their kids in our RE classes, and leave as soon as they’re old enough. So what’s missing? Personal ministry... how to live, day by day; how to be good (other than marching in Selma), how we can help you survive the daily grind, and be righteous in the face of temptation.

As was noted by Doug Muder in his UU World article that kicked off the discussion of our “Middle Class Problem, Not my father‘s religion , these are not UU issues, or sermons. His point was that UUs are almost universally professional class people, and so we no longer need that kind of ministry- “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 versus Evil; it was Good versus another Good versus 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?
That’s the kind of issue a UU sermon talks about.

Doug is quite correct about the kind of issue a UU sermon talks about, but quite incorrect that this is the kind of sermon the professional class- or indeed, any class- needs. This is where Ms. Spears comes in. Her personal self destruction continues; she has now lost custody or her children. A multimillionaire before she was old enough to vote, she is perfectly able to take the God’s eye view above the maze of success that Doug spoke of, and she had even more choices than the usual professional- she could have taken her singing career in any direction she chose; she could have turned to acting, modeling, become a professional celebrity on the talk show circuit, or gotten her own talk show for that matter. Or even retired; she need not work another day in her life if she so chooses. But she seems bent on destroying her life. She needs help.

People in that situation most often turn to their church. Despite the growth in the therapy industry, and the lessening of any stigma attached to going to counseling, the church remains the counselor of first choice for most people. It’s not that hard to figure out why- you can go every week for free and without question, and the mainline (or “working class”) denominations teach “... 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.”- the way out of your problems, and the way to avoid them in the future. Would Britney hear these sermons in a Unitarian church? No- as Doug says, those are not our issues.

But they should be. Social activism is well and good- but as the airline safety lecture goes, “Secure your own oxygen mask before attempting to help others.” We need to teach how and why to believe in something larger than yourself. (other than the Democratic party, I mean) It doesn’t have to be an angry Jehovah- you can speak only in terms of the harm evil does to the interdependent web, as I do here . But we need to talk about good and evil. We need to make judgments. The professional and ruling classes need these lessons just as much as the working class. Moreover, they want these lessons- that’s why we’re not any better at recruiting the professional class than the working class.

How can I say that? Look at the numbers. There are more than 2.6 million millionaires in this country. What would you call the professional class- would knocking down $100,000 a year be a safe definition? According to the US Census Bureau, 17,803,000 households make 100k or above. Counting non-working spouses and children, that’s many tens of millions of people in “our class”- but there are only 200,000 regularly attending UUs. There are probably more red haired left handed professionals than UU professionals. We are not the church of the professional class, we are the church of those who are sufficiently satisfied with our lives as to have the illusion that we don’t need judgements and hard lessons- it’s just that that happens more often in the professional class.

I do not believe that this new advertising campaign will work in the long run. Oh, it will get people in the doors, no doubt about that- but we won’t retain them until we have a message that speaks to the real lives of more than one half of one percent of the populace. We can be as welcoming as we like, but Gays and Lesbians and Transgendered and African Americans and Semites and Asians and Atheists and Buddhists and Pagans and Red Haired Left Handed Professionals all want a church with a coherent message that speaks to simple human issues.


Robin Edgar said...

:They mentioned that we welcome everyone, good, that’s our biggest draw.

That's also one of U*Uism's biggest frauds Joel and you know it. . .

Red Sphynx said...


My UU church has grown ~ 15% annually for the last 3 yrs. My minister doesn't talk about good and evil—how to resist temptation, how to make judgments, even how to help a troubled friend—as much as I'd like. But he does do it.

The Sunday sermons aren't the only place where such teaching is imparted. We've got a clutch of small-group ministries—covenant groups—where those issues get hashed out. I look forward to the advertising barrage. I expect it will bring us visitors and we'll retain a slice of them.

But I agree that we don't do enough for the harder cases. I'm in conversation with a guy that used to attend our church. He's been in jail, strung out on crack, going through a divorce, living in a halfway house. He needs the same kind of help Britney needs.

He doesn't feel comfortable in our churches because the folks all seem so much better off than he is. Wealthier, better educated, more together.

But theologically, he's a UU. Believes in a higher power, but not a messiah. We ought to be able to minister to him better.

Bill Baar said...

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?

Muder makes us sound smug. Maybe sometimes we are... I don't get that sense from my Church.

Chalicechick said...

FWIW, Britney Spears was raised conservative Baptist. She heard all those messages for years, and they all disappeared when she was faced with the real temptations money and power bring.

Also FWIW, ditto Bill Clinton. Seems to me that a lot of those faiths are easier to stick to when you're poor and you don't HAVE as many options.

And I'd say Britney (and Bill!) could use a place that talks about what to do when you have too many options. That seems to be her real problem, anyway.

As for "Voice of a liberal faith" I don't love this video, but at the same time, you are asking for quite a bit of theological meat from what is essentially a ten minute commercial.

I'm doing my best to judge UUA marketing by comparing it to other church marketing and this video is nothing special, but along the lines of what I've seen other places do.

Joel Monka said...

You're quite right that hearing the message isn't the same as following it. But the problem of options isn't limited to the rich; the poor also have the option to drink, do drugs, and take advantage of vulnerable people. It doesn't take all that much money to buy enough booze to ruin your life; the poor do it all the time.

As to "Voices", I'm not asking for the meat to come from the commercials. I did say "Voices" would bring people in the doors; it's actually not bad. I'm worried that once indoors, people won't find the meat there, either, and won't stay. I don't think the lack of new visitors is our problem, not retaining them is.

Robin Edgar said...

CC said: "And I'd say Britney (and Bill!) could use a place that talks about what to do when you have too many options. That seems to be her real problem, anyway."

Come to think of it maybe the U*U World has a few too many options, particulary when it comes to abuse of various kinds. . .

Joel Monka said...

Yes... link-spamming, there's an option for abuse... leaving downer messages on the blogs of Unitarians from England, Croatia, and other places that have never even heard of the Unitarian Universalist Association is another option for abuse... thread hijacking with off topic, off color comments that stifle conversations others were enjoying, there's yet another abuse option... misuse and misapplication of the term "DIM thinking", which threatens to render an important tool for victims useless could be considered a valid option for abuse... Yes, some members of the UU world have too many options for abuse, all right.

Shane said...

People go crazy when they don't have a feedback loop. This can happen when you don't get anything you want, or when you get everything you want.

The special case of Britney Spears or Michael Jackson occurs when you go straight from getting nothing you want to getting everything you want.

My UU church tends to be overly politically focused, which I think is focusing on how you want other people to change rather than how you can be better.

Robin Edgar said...

I have good reason to believe that your U*U "church" is by no means unique in that respect Shane. In fact U*Us seem to have a bad habit of pointing the accusing finger at others while obstinately refusing to acknowledge their own serious failings. . .