September 5, 2010

President Obama, Theodore Parker, M. L. King Jr. and God

Posted in 2010, Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 9:03 am by Rev. Thomas Perchlik

ON September 2nd Melissa Block of NPR’s All Things Considered said, “Yesterday on the program, we talked about the new rug that’s part of the makeover of the Oval Office. Woven around the border are some of President Obama’s favorite historical quotes, including one from Martin Luther King, Jr.: The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Well, several of you wrote in to correct that attribution, pointing out that the original source of that quote was in fact the 19th-century Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker of Massachusetts.”  The story went on to a conversation with Clayborne Carson (Professor of History, and the founding director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University) who notes that the actual wording of Parker’s original was longer, more nuanced, than the MLKing jr. version.

I assumed that most of those writing corrections to NPR were Unitarian Universalists. It made me happy to hear Parker get his due, especially so near the bicentennial of his birth.  It reminded me of my comment last Sunday that the reason so few people are able to recognize Obama as a Christian is that he was raised Unitarian Universalist.

Then two other things came to my mind. First, that we appear in the popular culture largely on borrowed light. Our president, Peter Morales, gets arrested and hardly a notice. Both King and Parker were big in their days, but only after they left the circle of Unitarianism to join a much larger circle of American popular theology and public speaking. King was a Baptist, and we had martyrs in the anti-slavery fight and the Civil Rights struggle, but usually we are mentioned only in footnotes to footnotes, like this article.  Parker was rejected by the Unitarian ministers of Boston. It was good to hear Parker quoted as “a Unitarian” but I am not sure how well we integrate his impact, his importance, and his eloquence in our current practice.

The second thought I had is that that the reason these two figures are not obviously ours is that both King and Parker were unquestionably theists, whereas Unitarian Universalism is very questionably theist. Parker was very emotional and very personal in his theology. As Dean Grodzins has so well documented in his biography of Parker, Theodore took his break with the Boston Unitarian Ministers not just as a theological or intellectual debate, but also as a very personal rejection that brought him to tears on more than one occasion. This focus on the personal was at the center of his religious practice and his piety toward God. I can’t tell you how often theists have come to be with my church for a while, but then have drifted away looking for a place as loving and justice oriented as ours, but one where God and Christ are verbally invited to be present and praised in worship. (I am still trying to find ways to minister to these people in a way that would keep them in our fold and yet maintain the integrity of Humanists, Buddhists and other non-personal theists in my congregation.) For King’s Part Rosemary Bray Mcnatt paraphrases a conversation she had with Coretta Scott King, who said, in effect: “We gave a lot of thought to becoming Unitarian at one time, but Martin and I realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian.” [This was before our UU consolidation]

I am not saying we all have to become  personal theists to become a great religion. I am saying that we will not be a popular religion in America until we practice better ways of being more inclusive of people like M. L. King Jr. and Theodore Parker.



  1. Chuck B. said,

    An interesting post, well written and timely.

    I would say that even post consolidation our faith is not up to the task of any mass movement in support of minority rights of color unless it furthers the comfort of our white upper middleclass majority. While there is scattered work being done for immigrant rights, it is to help our nannies, maids, and construction workers, but nothing is being done by us on a national level to demand more services for them when they get here. We don’t want our workers to be hassled as they work for us, but we do not care about the odds stacked against them once they are here. Where is the national UU effort demanding higher taxes to aid the poor and more multi langauge schools? Where were we in the battle for the public option? These would have helped the poor, particularly poor minorities of color, but it would have inconvenienced us.

    The problem may partly arise from the fact that we listen too much to those UU who use the PC term of conservative to maks their racist, anti-inclusive anti-social justice ideology. Also, too often the demand for social justice requires a demand for more taxes and then the right of our faith trots out their complaint that we are too liberal and the ministers cave. If you want social justice the minister’s answer to such complaints cannot be “Well I respect your point” but must be “Greed is morally and ethically wrong”.

    I would also point out that we as a faith fail to celebrate the martyrs you mention. If we fail to make a big deal of the sacrifice of Viola Liuzzio (sp?) why should the mainstream care? We can draw a line from her assasination throught the passage of the Voting Rights Act, to the election of the first African American President who as you note was raised UU. What has the UUA done to celebrate this?

    While I agree with your points concerning the acceptance of theists, I would just suggest that the comments above play a large role as well.

  2. Historical Note: Viola Gregg Liuzzo and Rev. James Reeb were both active Unitarian Universalists and both were killed in March of 1965 in the act of living out their UU values and faith in this world. Reeb was beaten on the streets of Selma, along with other UU ministers, while walking from a restaurant in the evening of the 11th. He died later in the hospital. Viola was shot in a car on the road returning Leroy Moton from Selma to Montgomery. Viola had been a Catholic for most of her life and her family was Catholic, so her funeral was held in a Catholic church. The memorial marker for her, placed by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, makes no mention of her religious affiliation. Reeb’s memorial marker makes his identity clear. Both memorials are included annually in Civil Rights Tours of the area. Both have been included in most UU materials and events concerning the Civil Rights era.

    Also note: Greg McKendry and Linda Kreager, were killed in Knoxville, TN, 2008, for being at a UU worship service. Both were active UUs.

    Toribio Quimada, was killed in the Philippines for his work as a religious liberal leader. He was a Universalist.

    Norbert Chapek was killed by the Nazis in 1942 because of his liberal religious leadership in Czechoslovakia. He was Unitarian.

  3. Chuck B. said,

    Thanks for the Historical note, you did not mention that she is credited as the only white woman to die in the civil rights struggle. Also, in her documentry “home of the brave” she seemed to have had a serious conversion to UUism, so I see little point in discussing her previous religios views. Few of the other famous UU’s we love to cite were born UU’s. In fact was Chapek or the others always UU’s?

    In any event, it stil underlines my point. Viola is an example of a lay person UU who stepped up in the movement and committed the ultimate sacrifice for the purest of reasons: to give comfort. While I am sure that there are hundreds of examples of other UU’s that were killed for their actions that was not my point.

    MY POINT was that here was a UU that we should celebrate to show our connection to diveristy and civil right here in this country. You know, to increase diversity, maybe make our congregations more than a majority of white upper middle class post graduate degree people. We have important connections to the struggles of African Americans and yet we fail to celebrate it.

    I do not believe MLK spoke at the euology of the other people you mentioned ( I am almost positive not for those who died in 2008) or that their deaths had the political impact upon the Civil rights struggle for African Americans. I have not seen their documentaries. Pundits did make that claim about Viola’s assisination in hers. If I am wrong, Rev Perchlik…please explain it to me. Or direct me to their documentaries where I can see it myself.

  4. I mentioned Liuzzo’s Catholic association because people might know that her funeral was a Catholic service. I did not mean to diminish her UU identity but to acknowledge the sources of other people’s confusion about her identity.

    Your comment about being “almost positive” that King did not speak on the 2008 deaths of Kreager and McKendry is very confusing since King died almost forty years previous. I included other UU martyrs to note that we have died for our faith outside of the Civil Rights movement.

    For one detailed account of Martin Luther King Junior’s words at James Reeb’s Memorial:

  5. […] a great religion. I am saying that we will not be a popular religion in America until we practice better ways of being more inclusive of people like M. L. King Jr. and Theodore Parker. (“Rev. Thomas Perchlik’s Weblog,” […]

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