Friday, December 26, 2008

Obama's Unitarian Roots?

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.

27 comments:

Pinky said...

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I have been thinking about how different our society might be were Trinitarians in the minority.

Revolutionary Spirits said...

Jefferson predicted to Benjamin Waterhouse in 1822 that within 50 years, a majority of the country would be Unitarian. He was wrong, but what if he had been right?

Eric Alan Isaacson said...

What if Jefferson had been right? I suppose that might depend, to a great degree, on what the word "Unitarian" means.

I suspect Jefferson used it to connote the rejection of mystical dogmas and doctrines - - particularly the doctrine of the Trinity.

But it's by no means clear that one's stand on the Trinity controls one's position on critical social issues.

John Quincy Adams opposed, and John Calhoun with equal vigor supported, the institution of slavery. But both were founding members of the First Unitarian Church of Washington, D.C. (today called All Souls).

That Millard Fillmore and William Howard Taft were religious liberals did not require them to be politically liberal or socially progressive. Did it?

Moreover, I find my friends in the United Church of Christ can defend marriage equality every bit as fervently as the members of my own Unitarian Universalist congregation do.

I don't know. What if Jefferson had been right?

bpabbott said...

Eric,

I infer that you imply that little would be different. I agree.

Our Founding Truth said...

John Quincy Adams..were card-carrying Unitarians.>

Adams was only a unitarian because of his family connections. Adams was a true Christian, believing in the Trinity, and Deity of Jesus Christ:

My hopes of a future life are all founded upon the Gospel of Christ and I cannot cavil or quibble [evade or object to]. . . the whole tenor of His conduct by which He sometimes positively asserted and at others countenances [permits] His disciples in asserting that He was God.
John Quincy Adams to John Adams, January 3, 1817.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, I'm going to let this one pass [and Eric knows just what I mean] and simply welcome Mr. "Spirits" [Gary Kowalski, according the link to his pseudonym over on the right there].

Mr. Goswick [OFT], I have found the biography portion of the Unitarian Universalist website scrupulously fair, and this piece on JQ Adams

http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/johnquincyadams.html

provides ammo for both sides of the JQ Adams orthodoxy question.

Welcome, Gary. I look forward to discussing the Founding above current events, and its religions at arm's length, with no claims for their inherent truth or wonderfulness. Such is our custom and purpose around here as we are quite theologically [not to mention politically] diverse.

Brad Hart said...

Welcome to the blog, Mr. Kowalski and thanks for the post!

It has only been in the past few months (since the conception of this blog) that I have really begun to understand just how important unitarian thought was during the founding. I look forward to your future posts on this subject!!!

Jonathan Rowe said...

Thanks for the post and it's nice to have such a distinguished contributor on board.

Eric's point on Calhoun is something that needs to be explored in greater detail. The UUs of today are pretty politically liberal. Although I just ran across a website specifically designed for politically conservative present day Unitarian Universalists. But, being a "theological liberal" or "heretic" or believer in a cafeteria kind of nominal Christianity (however you want to term it) does not necessarily equate with being political liberal. Lots of political and social conservatives probably fit this description. Bill O'Reilly is someone who comes to mind in this regard. John McCain probably as well.

Revolutionary Spirits said...

Thank you all for your critical comments. I think Jefferson's hope was that religion in American would become progressively rationalized: "enlightened" in its embrace of both the scientific method and the conclusions of science, less doctrinaire and sectarian in temper, and at the same time more "democratic" in encouraging independent thought and individual investigation in religion rather than relying upon pre-existing spiritual authority (revelation, dogma, or priesthood) to authenticate metaphysical truth claims. This was his agenda, and it reflects an understanding of Unitarianism that was more influenced by Priestly and his English cohorts than by the nascent Unitarians of New England, many of whom (like J.Q. Adams) were more orthodox in outlook. Would America have been a different nation had Jefferson's vision prevailed? I think so.

Jonathan Rowe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan Rowe said...

I'm actually working on a post that I'm hoping demonstrates that Jefferson's vision is somewhat dominant in American today. During the Founding, it was perhaps dominant not only among the elite but also the masses, most of whom probably were not orthodox Trinitarian Christians who thought of themselves as "regenerate"/born-again or accepted all of the doctrines of the Churches with whom they were formally affiliated. The orthodox Churches of the Founding era DID possess more social and institutional power. And that's something that has changed.

I've thought about this issue quite a bit and admit much is uncertain. If you add up all of the evangelicals/fundamentalists and Roman Catholics who devoutly believe in their churches' official doctrines, I doubt you'd get a majority of the population of the US either today or during the Founding. But you might. And if you didn't get a majority you'd get a sizable minority that was perhaps somewhat close to majority status lead by political-religious figures, men like Timothy Dwight and Jedidiah Morse of the Founding Era or Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell (and some Roman Catholics I won't mention because I don't want to offend TVD) of today, who could be loud, smart (some not so smart), charismatic, and otherwise influential. (And someone like Christopher Hitchens and Jefferson himself would go off with invective, which I will not do for the sake of civility; but I'll note I can sometimes find these characters -- the forces of religious correctness of the Founding era and of today to be "mean spirited" and "ranters").

But this "unitarianism" in all but name only that is kind of a "Christian-Deism" (the orthodox call these members of their churches "nominal Christians") arguably dominantes the "Christian" religion both today during the Founding.

Tom Van Dyke said...

...and some Roman Catholics I won't mention because I don't want to offend TVD...

Oh, Jon, we're far past the possibility of offense, you and I. Everything is on the table. The Catholics split 50-50 or so in this past election anyway.

Neither have I ever written that I'm an "orthodox" Roman Catholic, a Catholic of any sort, nor even that I'm a "Christian," nor that I even believe in "God."

[Dang, ain't that enough "scare quotes" to last y'all?]

I hope my own testimony is a caution that we should not read too much into the Founders' silences, either. A close and careful reading of Matthew 7:6 might reveal the reason behind their and my silences. Or it might not.

Although I just ran across a website specifically designed for politically conservative present day Unitarian Universalists.

Oh, my. I'd find that damned interesting, Jon. Do they also offer coals from Newcastle for sale?

Tom Van Dyke said...

But this "unitarianism" in all but name only that is kind of a "Christian-Deism" (the orthodox call these members of their churches "nominal Christians") arguably dominates the "Christian" religion both today during the Founding.

Jon, I'm getting really scared of all these scare quotes.

There are people who have convinced themselves that you and I are going to hell for our sins or for our lack of sufficient faith.

But they aren't God.

Thank God.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Here is one of the conservative UU webpages.

http://geocities.com/conservativeuu/

Our Founding Truth said...

Hey guys,

Thanks for putting up that link on unitarianism Revolutionary Spirits. After some research on J.Q. Adams, there's NO DOUBT he was NOT an Orthodox Christian. But, it's also clear he wasn't a unitarian, as he didn't firmly believe Christ was just a man.

So what do we call him? I honestly don't know.

Thanks Tom for giving me the reason to do some more research on it.

Jonathan Rowe said...

OFT,

It's called the "Arian" strain of Unitarianism that believes Jesus more than a man but less than full God, the second person in the Trinity. Jesus, as it were, is a divine, but created and subordinate being. This was probably the most common kind of unitarianism during the Founding era.

Our Founding Truth said...

OFT,

It's called the "Arian" strain of Unitarianism that believes Jesus more than a man but less than full God, the second person in the Trinity. Jesus, as it were, is a divine, but created and subordinate being. This was probably the most common kind of unitarianism during the Founding era.>

No, that's not it at all.

Pinky said...

.
No, that's not it at all.
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I can't speak for any others, OFT; but, I believe Rowe is talking about the mind set of the Founders. Strauss warns us about judging the thinking of historical figures based on our present time and knowledge. I think Strauss is correct in that. And Rowe seems to be a stickler on trying to understand the Founders based on what was available to them.
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Jonathan Rowe said...

John Locke was probably of the Arian strain of Unitarianism as were Newton and Milton. And Richard Price of the Founders' contemporary era. When you see the quotation of John Jay questioning the Trinity, his next stop would have been Arianism (which still believes Jesus divine) as opposed to Socinianims (which rejects Jesus' divinity). For those who wished to continue believing in Jesus as a divine savior/messiah, but rejected the 1+1+1=1 as opposed to 3 dynamic of the Trinity, Arianism was their solution to that problem. Jesus was divine, but created, subordinate to the Father and not fully God, but arguably "super-Angelic."

Jonathan Rowe said...

My position is that the FFs and the philosophers and ministers they followed disproportionately believed in the Arian and Socinian heresies, all the while likely thinking of themselves as "Christians." This includes Locke, Milton, Newton, Clarke, Priestley, Price, Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, G. Morris, Wilson, Hamilton (before the very end), J. Story, Marshall, and many others.

I'm also open to the idea that figures like Washington, though they believed in "Providence" and could be termed "Christian" in a broad kind of sense were agnostic on issues like the Trinity and might not neatly fit in a box as Arian, Socinian, or Trinitarian.

Our Founding Truth said...

My position is that the FFs and the philosophers and ministers they followed disproportionately believed in the Arian and Socinian heresies, all the while likely thinking of themselves as "Christians." This includes Locke, Milton, Newton, Clarke, Priestley, Price, Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, G. Morris, Wilson, Hamilton (before the very end), J. Story, Marshall, and many others.>

Pure speculation with not one word of proof, as usual for Jon Rowe.

Jonathan Rowe said...

And you have no proof that anyone of the above mentioned was orthodox. With Hamilton you have proof only at his deathbed with perhaps a brief flirtation with orthodoxy during his youth.

Our Founding Truth said...

And you have no proof that anyone of the above mentioned was orthodox.>

See if you can understand this. I call myself a Christian. Now, it's your job to determine if I adhere to the fundamental tenets of the Bible. How are you going to accomplish that?

Jonathan Rowe said...

You've already told us how Christianity defines to you (according to orthodox Trinitarian doctrines, and Sola Scripture).

Likewise John Adams told us his definition of Christianity: If you are a good person, you are a Christian.

Richard Price defined his Christianity specifically as that which rejects the Trinity.

Joseph Priestley -- a promoter of "uncorrupted Christianity" -- defined those "corruptions" as original sin, the trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, and the infallibility of the Bible.

These (yours definition and Adams', Price's, and Priestley's) are two entirely separate and incompatible understandings of "Christianity." So sorry merely identifying as a "Christian" in the Founding era is not sufficient to prove they were Christians as you understand the term.

Eric Alan Isaacson said...

Here's a link to a news story relating to the UU connection in Obama's youth: Isle church honored by Obama's visit
A pastor reminds the president-elect that he went to Sunday school at First Unitarian

http://www.starbulletin.com/business/businessnews/20090106_Isle_church_honored_by_Obamas_visit.html

Betty said...

As a Canadian Unitarian, seeking to know more about B. Obama's Unitarian roots, your discussion has been informative and interesting. Thank you. I'd known of W. Wilson's Unitarian influences and heard that Jefferson was a "closet" Unitarian. Both men I deeply admire. May B. Obama emerge as one of the great presidents.

As for Unitarianism itself, perhaps one basic component is that it attracts religious questers and therefore it might be wise to think of Unitarianism as a phase in the development of these leaders' spiritual journeys. Certainly, in B. Obama's case, Sunday school and the religious identity of the most important adult in his childhood has to be an enduring influence upon the mature man. As the Jesuits say, " give me a child for seven years and ... ."

Pinky said...

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Thanks for your good wishes for our president and nation, Betty.
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