Talking about the 'L-word'
by Christopher L. Walton
It was an illuminating, uncomfortable moment for me. In 1990, during the lead-up to the first Gulf War, I had been active in the local antiwar movement. In December, when the group decided to call for the immediate total withdrawal of the U.S. from the Middle East, a position that seemed reckless to me, I dropped out. But the truth was that I also resented the nostalgia for the culture and politics of the anti–Vietnam War protests.
In my congregation, there were differences of opinion about the Gulf War, but I doubt that many of us saw a meaningful distinction between our liberal religion, our social liberalism, and our political affiliation. Being a liberal of any sort in a religiously and politically conservative society like Utah is a lonely business, so we found little reason to grow introspective about our worldview. We were happy to embrace the “L-word.” But my friend's answer in our Generation X discussion revealed a gap: She thought of herself as a liberal, too, but not in the way of Unitarian Universalists who lived through the 1960s. Which aspects of liberalism properly belong to Unitarian Universalism? How much must we “believe in the sixties”?
Late nineteenth-century Unitarians believed in “the Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever”—the inexorable liberalization of the world. But history didn't go the way they expected. By the 1940s, war, totalitarianism, and economic calamity clearly showed that other trends were on the rise, too, leading the Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams to announce: “Liberalism is dead. Long live liberalism!” You might say that Adams asked the religious liberals of his day, “How much must we believe in the 1880s?”
One could take a philosophical approach, weighing different ideas against each other to see which are more truly liberal. Liberty or equality? Democracy or minority rights? Adams cautioned that any ideal turns all too quickly into ideology—as a theologian, he called it idolatry—but few of us arrive at our political opinions by way of philosophy.
George Packer, a writer for the New Yorker and Mother Jones, writes in his memoir Blood of the Liberals: “Everyone is born into a given historical constellation of ideas, formulations, alternatives, and for most people they become the four walls of available thought.” He explores the constellation of ideas we recognize as modern liberalism by recounting three crises in his family history. His mother's father, George Huddleston, was a populist Democratic congressman from Birmingham, Alabama, from 1915 to 1935 . Mentally of the nineteenth century, Huddleston could not square his Jeffersonian ideals and commitment to “common people” with the emergence of big government; he entered Congress as a Southern progressive, but left twenty years later calling himself a “hidebound conservative.”
George Packer's father, Stanford law professor Herbert Packer, was the son of Jewish immigrants, but Herbert never discussed his parents, ethnicity, or religious heritage. He was “a procedural, civil-libertarian, John Stuart Mill, Adlai Stevenson, Eugene McCarthy liberal.” As provost at Stanford during the student revolutions of the late sixties, Professor Packer was also the target of radical students' outrage. In 1969, at the age of 43, he suffered a stroke that ended his career. George was 8 . Three years later his father committed suicide. Blood of the Liberals is a son's attempt to understand a personal and generational tragedy.
In the final third of the book, Packer describes his attempts in the 1980s and ' 90s to find the stirrings of a new, popular liberalism. “By the time I entered adolescence, liberalism seemed able to thrive only in the rarefied world of college campuses and eccentric city precincts,” he writes. He joined the Peace Corps and the Democratic Socialists. He even checked out the Promise Keepers. “I did not want to accept Christ as my savior,” he explains, “but I wanted to be part of a great mass of men of every color, from every corner of the country, joined together in a flicker of community.” He came away disappointed. By the end of the book, finished just before George W. Bush became president, he wonders, “What if the great causes lie in the past?”
Throughout his memoir, Packer focuses on the tension between the rise of an elite caste with its own interests and values—the intellectuals, bureaucrats, and experts who dominate modern institutions, and who incidentally make up the social world from which almost every Unitarian Universalist congregation draws its members—and the popular movements, sometimes progressive and sometimes reactionary, that drive American democracy. Although he never mentions Unitarian Universalism, Packer's portrayal of the liberal middle class of the fifties and sixties gave me more insight into the worldview of mid-century liberal religion than anything I've read. Modern Unitarian Universalism was, like Packer, “born into a given historical constellation of ideas”—and as that constellation of ideas has been eclipsed in much of our public life, we have sometimes grown doctrinaire and defensive in our political thinking even as we proclaim the tolerance and diversity of our theology. Perhaps we would be served by thinking through the “specialized notions” of liberalism we take for granted. Perhaps it is time for us to ask each other: Which aspects of liberalism really do belong to Unitarian Universalism?
Since September 11, 2001, Packer has written extensively on the prospect for citizen reengagement in an age of terrorism. The new anthology he edited, The Fight Is for Democracy: Winning the War of Ideas in America and the World (Perennial 2003 ; $13.95 ), argues that “citizens of a democracy need to know what they're fighting for, and to believe in it,” but he sees Bush's approach as dangerous and distorted. The book attempts to chart a liberal path between “Cheney and Chomsky,” as American Prospect editor Michael Tomasky puts it in his essay on foreign policy. Although hardly unified in its argument, the book is a helpful model of self-critical liberal thought.