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.