January 21, 2013

Was MLK Unitarian?

Posted in 2013 tagged , , , , at 7:56 pm by Rev. Thomas Perchlik

This past Civil Rights Sunday I decided to speak about gun violence. It seemed a clearer and more relevant topic than MLK, theology, race and identity. I am glad for my choice, but the matter of “where do we go from here” as UUs on matters of race still remain pressing and must be addressed.

So, I start publicly writing on that subject here to see if I get any good responses and to help clarify my thinking. Many UUs may be familiar with the fact that both Martin King Jr. and Barak Obama both attended Unitarian churches for a while. Both knew Unitarians, wrote and spoke about Unitarian or Unitarian Universalist people that they knew. In another world, either might might have become a UU. They both chose a more “Baptist” religious identity and community.

In brief, there are two centers to my thinking on this subject of why we are so far short of our vision on matters of race and a beloved multicultural community. These centers are our theology and our identity.

In King’s Doctoral Thesis he judged both the theologies of Lutheran (or Protestant) existentialist Paul Tillich and Unitarian Process thinker Henry Wieman as inadequate. He did this primarily on ‘Personalist’ grounds, insisting that God had to be a person as far as Christians were concerned or else God could not truly care for us or know us or be in relationship with us or choose to act on our behalf. Now, I don’t think he is correct in his thinking here (I think he is choosing a rather limited and narrow set of definitions) but I do think he showed his resonance with a more popular way of thinking. While King chose to align himself with a rather common and civic notion of a personal God he was certainly in line with Unitarians like Theodore Parker, but with not the majority of Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists. As a movement we chose a heavily Humanistic, Existentialist, and sometimes atheistic theology.

Likewise, Barak Obama did not get from the UUs he knew a sense that our faith was a powerful way to affirm individual worth and dignity, nor a movement dedicated to bringing justice, equity and compassion into human relationships. Though he has Lincoln’s and King’s paraphrasing of Rev. Theodore Parker preaching on his oval office rug, for Senator Obama (in Dreams of My Father) modern Unitarianism was merely a world-religions smorgasbord that practiced radical tolerance of belief. When he went looking for a source of spiritual solace and challenge, and a faith to sustain his political engagement, he did not look to us.

In terms of identity, to put it very simply Unitarian Universalists are aligned with an intellectual minorities, but not racial or ethnic ones. In American racism, the fact is that who you identify with determines who you hang out with and who sees you as “one of us”. Martin King Junior knew that if he was to be a leader in 1955 it would have to be as a Negro in the Black Church. Likewise Barak Obama came to realize that, though he would represent the needs of everyone as a politician, he would still have to do so as ‘a black man’. As Dr. mark Morrison-Reed pointed out, Unitarianism, Universalism and UUism all rose as part of a racialized and segregated society. In that context we developed a white identity. We have striven against that in the past two decades to some degree or other, but in the end we have not become truly multi-cultural as a community. Perhaps some day, but not yet.

So, that is the outline of my thinking. Is this the beginning of a good sermon yet?


  1. […] Thomas Perchlik has written a post on his blog asking whether Dr. King was Unitarian. Read it, comment on it, think about […]

  2. UUnderstand said,

    I disagree with the “personalist” argument for two reasons:

    1.) Even before I was a UU, I found that the only kind of God in whom I could believe was not one who would personally “save” human beings in any way, but one who would give us spiritual strength so we could learn how to help ourselves and others. To be such a profound, unlimited, and reliable source of spiritual strength, God absolutely must be superior to us, not an authoritarian but the wisest of elders.

    2.) As an animal-rescue volunteer, I strongly disagree that I need to actually be a non-human animal in order to know, be in a relationship with, truly care for, and/or act on behalf of non-human animals. The “personalist” argument regarding God is similarly limited. It reminds me of people who claim humans are hardwired to only really love their biological relatives, forgetting that when we leave our families of origin, we choose spouses and life partners from other families.

    I have often been perplexed by the Baptist-like religions practiced by many Afro-Americans, who surely know that Christianity was forced upon their ancestors by slavemasters and often used to justify the “peculiar institution” (abolitionist Christians, of course, used other Christian arguments to oppose slavery). However, I also know that black Christianity is somewhat different on the surface and in substance from white Christianity, and am willing to accept that the slaves eventually made Christianity their own, just as the LGBT community turned the insult “gay” into Gay Pride.

    Integration is often progress forward, but not always and not in every circumstance. Whether the issue is age, race, sex/sexual identity, or disability, sometimes people really do want to be with “their own.” I experienced this myself when I was younger as a member of a girls-only service organization, and when I was somewhat older in a support group with others who shared a “hidden” disability.
    If I were black, I don’t think I’d be Baptist-like or even AME, but I’m almost certain I would want membership in some sort of black community organization that met regularly. For blacks living in smaller communities, black churches may be the only option for ethnic socializing. For blacks working full-time, black churches may be the only option regularly available on weekends.

  3. I would drop the theology explanation. Both men choose their churches because of identity. MLK was almost completely about race, although there were-and are-class differences between black churches. BHO had a much wider range of choices, which allowed him to choose very politically.

  4. Forgot to click follow by email.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: