Barack Obama bid farewell to the grandmother who reared him in a memorial service last Tuesday at the First Unitarian Church in Honolulu. Madelyn Dunham and her husband Stanley had first discovered Unitarian Universalism on the West Coast, living in Washington State, where they attended the East Shore Unitarian Church in Bellevue.
Many early U.S. Presidents had Unitarian connections, like John Adams (who is buried at the Unitarian Church in Quincy, Massachusetts) and Thomas Jefferson (who told his nephew Peter Carr that he had to be a Unitarian by himself, since there were no organized congregations near Monticello). John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore and Howard Taft were card-carrying Unitarians. But since Adlai Stevenson ran for the White House in the 1950’s, no Unitarians have been near the Oval Office.
Honolulu’s Unitarian Church first came to national attention in 1969, when it offered political sanctuary to U.S. servicemen protesting the war in Vietnam.
President-elect Obama described his grandmother as "a trailblazer of sorts, the first woman vice-president of a local bank" in Honolulu. He called her Toots, short for tutu, the Hawaiian word for grannie.
Perhaps our new president owes some of his intellectual curiosity and willingness to entertain varying opinions to the liberal religious principles of tolerance and respect for diversity that infused his upbringing. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time that Unitarianism has had an impact on our nation’s history.