The Unitarian Example: A Cautionary Tale

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I live in Newport Rhode Island, which was the birthplace of William Ellery Channing, often called “the father of American Unitarianism.” His childhood home is nine-tenths of a mile from my house. If a knife that has had its handle replaced and then its blade is still the same knife, then Channing’s childhood home, after numerous reconstructions (one of which it is undergoing at the moment), is still standing.

Decades ago, in a second-hand bookstore, I stumbled across a big fat volume of Channing’s collected essays. I think it was printed about 1880. I read and enjoyed many of the essays, especially his Baltimore sermon of 1818, which has often been spoken of as “the Unitarian Declaration of Independence.” In this sermon Channing outlines the principles that characterized the Unitarian movement, a movement that from the beginning of the century had been driving Calvinism out of its strongholds in Boston and eastern Massachusetts generally.

The “hard” belief system of Calvinism had been psychologically suitable for those who settled the New England wilderness in the 1600s. But by the 1800s, Boston was almost as far from being a wilderness as were London and Paris. It was a prosperous city dominated by a class of rich merchants. By then, the “soft” creed of Unitarianism was psychologically more suitable.

Channing’s Christianity was as sincere as it was unorthodox. He believed that by getting rid of certain old-fashioned Christian beliefs – for example, the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, and Original Sin – the Unitarians were getting back to the religion of Jesus. They were completing the work that had begun at the time of the Reformation. In breaking from Rome, the Reformers had eliminated some of the accretions to pure Christianity that Catholicism had introduced. Now the Unitarians would eliminate the remainder of these accretions. It is hilarious to think that the early Unitarians thought that Jesus embodied a wisdom of the nineteenth-century Boston Brahmin type. But so they did.

Studying Channing and the early Unitarians gave me a clue to understanding liberal Christianity in general, the Unitarians being the first liberal Protestants in America. Unitarianism did what liberal Protestantism always does: it attempts to blend Christianity with a form of unbelief that happens to be fashionable at the moment.

Now the fashionable form of anti-Christianity in the latter 18th and early 19th centuries was Deism. And so the Unitarians said to themselves: “Too bad the Deists reject our beautiful Christian religion; but still, we have to admit that they make some good critical points.” And then Channing and his colleagues blended what they thought to be the best of Christianity with the best of Deism, the result being Unitarianism.

Portrait of Channing by H.C. Pratt, 1857 [Brown University]

Later in the 19th century, liberal Protestants tried to blend the best of Christianity with the best of agnosticism. And in the last quarter of the 20th century, they tried to blend the best of Christianity with the best of the sexual revolution. It’s always, needless to say, an incoherent blend that results because you cannot really blend unblendables.

When you do this liberal “blending” you have to drop, of course, certain elements of old-fashioned Christian orthodoxy; and as time goes by and you get more and more liberal, the Christian content of your blend gets thinner and thinner; until finally your Christianity is a ghostlike thing, barely distinguishable from atheism.

This downhill slide from Christian orthodoxy to virtual atheism was especially rapid in the Unitarian case. Channing had barely established Unitarian orthodoxy when the Transcendentalists came along – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, and others. And they, inspired by the liberal principle that you should feel free to drop orthodox beliefs in an attempt to realize a better and purer religion, dropped Unitarian beliefs.

Emerson, who started his professional life as a Unitarian minister, soon became a pantheist, not a Christian, even though he still attended a Unitarian church. And from pantheism to atheism is but a single step. I hate to blame Emerson, whom I greatly admire in several respects, for contributing to the de-Christianization of America. But facts are facts.

There is a Unitarian church here in Newport named, fittingly enough, the Channing Church. It is located just across the street from an old stone tower that some Newporters believe was built by the Vikings. The church has a rainbow flag out front, the LGBT flag.

The Unitarian-Universalist Association (for the Unitarians and Universalists merged more than a half-century ago) no longer calls itself a Christian denomination, and it no longer officially believes in God, though in a characteristic spirit of tolerance it tolerates theism in its members and even its ministers. It is now little more than an ethical culture society, but it still tries to embrace whatever form of anti-Christianity is currently fashionable.

So it comes as no surprise that this morning (I’m writing on Monday of this week) our local newspaper has a big front-page story about Sunday’s service at the Channing Church. It had a service for Transgender Remembrance Day. Of course. It was some consolation to me that a photo in the paper showed attendance at the service to be sparse – even more sparse than the very sparse weekend Mass attendance at my own Catholic church.

Why should we Catholics care about any of this? Because the Catholic Church in the United States is increasingly flooded with many persons who would like to “blend” Catholicism with today’s fashionable form of anti-Christianity. What is that form? The ideology of sexual freedom. We have in our ranks many persons – including more than a few priests and even bishops – who are “soft” on fornication, “soft” on unmarried cohabitation, “soft” on abortion, “soft” on homosexuality, and “soft” on transgenderism.

You can spot these “softies” not just by what they say, but also by what they don’t say. Their silence, their very eloquent silence, gives consent.

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and most recently Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church.