In the summer of 2018, a celebrity diversity consultant published a book that would soon take the nation by storm. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism—a work equal parts racial theory and manners guide for white progressives navigating multiracial environments—was released to instant fanfare, immediately landing and sticking a spot on The New York Times bestseller list. Robin DiAngelo’s book compounded her fame, winning her innumerable high-profile speaking engagements and workshop appearances at up to $15,000 a showing. And after protests and riots swept the nation following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, she became a kind of court philosopher for the American corporate and political class, offering trainings on racial etiquette to clients as diverse as Levi Strauss & Co., The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Amazon, and the City of Oakland, California.
Trying to understand DiAngelo’s success leads to two psychological temptations: that her trajectory must have been either cynical or organic, the machinations of a wily grifter or else a stroke of good fortune. There is some truth to both interpretations. DiAngelo is a ruthless and ardent self-promoter. But even though she coined “white fragility” herself in an academic paper in 2011, DiAngelo’s book deal would never have happened if the term wasn’t used in an article published three years later in Seattle’s biweekly newspaper The Stranger, condemning the subtle racism of a Gilbert & Sullivan production. Now in the public consciousness—or at least in the consciousness of journalists—the term made appearances in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The New York Times as early as 2015, where it was used to describe Dylann Roof, Bernie Bros, and Brexit, respectively. Precisely the kind of lucky break you hope for when you’re in the business of winning attention.
But DiAngelo did not engineer her own celebrity, nor was it merely an act of fate or chance. Rather, her meteoric rise was aided in large part by her publisher, Beacon Press, the more than 150-year-old storied publishing house that helped popularize such luminaries as James Baldwin, Howard Zinn, Herbert Marcuse, and Cornel West, and which operates as a branch of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
DiAngelo may have been new to the American reading public with the publication of her book, but she was a known quantity to the Unitarian Universalists. Congregations all over the country have employed her services since at least 2017, and various UU-specific guides to “white fragility” can be found of roughly the same age. Nor were the UUs strangers to the now-vogue concept of “anti-racism” more broadly: The UUA had passed a resolution in 1997 to form a “Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committee,” tasked to “monitor and assess the work of the Association toward becoming a genuinely anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural institution.” Anti-racist celebrity Tim Wise has been a regular speaker at UUA events, including at its general assembly in 2011.
Much of the UU’s mid-20th-century history was, however, admirable. During Jim Crow, in a climate of total hostility, UU fellowships gladly welcomed Black Americans into their ranks. Meeting halls were lent to civil rights meetings, and bodies to marches: UU Minister Donald Thompson, leader of the only congregation in Jackson, Mississippi, was shot by the Klan in 1965 for integrating his parish, just months after Minister James Reeb was murdered in Selma by a white mob that attacked him and three other UU clergymen. When the chips were down, Unitarians proved willing to put their lives on the line.
But even accounting for their courage, Martin Luther King Jr., who began his career in ministry as a staunch liberal inspired by Unitarian Pastor Theodore Parker, felt compelled to renounce the flimsiness of unitarian liberal theology in a 1960 essay: “liberalism’s superficial optimism concerning human nature caused it to overlook the fact that reason is darkened by sin. … Liberalism failed to see that reason by itself is little more than an instrument to justify man’s defensive ways of thinking.” The delusional optimism of liberal theology, according to King, could not stand up against the hard, grim reality of human chauvinism and cruelty.
From its inception in 1825, the American Unitarian Association—formed from a schism within the Congregationalist church, with the Unitarian contingent leaving behind those committed to Calvinism—was as much an institution for social reform as a religion. Theologically, however, it could never really get its act together. “The spur to Transcendentalism in New England,” a 1954 Boston Public Library dispatch notes, “[Unitarianism] had become the catch-all for a variety of liberal and humanitarian beliefs that would in time range from abolitionism to woman’s rights.” Unitarians never put much emphasis on having a coherent doctrinal position. Rather, their unity flowed from their activity—their commitment to changing the world through moral activism.
But with many of the highest-profile Unitarians coming from the most elite families in New England, and with the support of a number of powerful early American institutions, the movement quickly became one of the most significant vehicles of liberal religion in the United States. The founding roster of the Unitarians is a veritable who’s who of influential 19th-century WASPs. Among the ranks of Unitarians one finds the Eliots (the poet T.S. was but one famous member) and the Emersons (Ralph Waldo was a Unitarian minister before joining the priesthood of Reason), both of Boston; the Wares of Sherbourne; the Channings of Rhode Island; the Nortons of Hingham; the Adamses (John, Abigail, and John Quincy) of Braintree. Most early Unitarian ministers were educated at Harvard, and the Harvard Divinity School was from its inception a largely Unitarian project: “the natural place” (according to historian Samuel Eliot Morison) “for training Unitarian ministers.”
As Michael Lind has written about extensively, America’s political and economic elite has long drawn its members from the ranks of Northeastern liberal Protestants with a penchant for social reform. “The culture of what might be called the NGO-academic-spook complex,” Lind points out, “remained deeply rooted in the Social Gospel wing of Northern mainline Protestantism of the early 1900s.” The children of elite Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, he also argues, dropped any pretense of theology in favor of a liberal moralism that nonetheless retained the energy of religion, culminating in “the secular religion of wokeness, the orthodoxy of the universities and the increasingly important nonprofit sector.”
Unitarianism—both in its original form and after its 1961 consolidation with the Universalists—has functioned as a kind of middle phase between orthodox religious belief and secular progressivism. The Unitarian rejection of the Trinity and the demotion of Jesus to “a being distinct from, and inferior to, God”—in the words of William Ellery Channing’s “Baltimore Sermon,” which codified what existed of the denomination’s theology—made it very easy for the Unitarian faith to develop, in only a few generations, an almost Masonic devotion to reason and empirical science. “We think that much which is called piety is worthless,” Channing declared: “We cannot sacrifice our reason to the reputation of zeal. We owe it to truth and religion to maintain, that fanaticism, partial insanity, sudden impressions, and ungovernable transports, are anything rather than piety.” Dispense ye with tongues of fire and the beatific visions of desert fathers and saints: Liberal religion was a staid, worldly affair, devoted to sober virtues and reasonable practices.
The course of Unitarianism’s century-and-a-half lifespan is a story of the constant, almost maniacal proliferation of institutions for social engagement. Congregations around America established societies for promoting education, temperance, women’s suffrage, and abolition; Beacon Press, the association’s official publishing house, was founded in Boston and quickly grew into one of the country’s most important printers of books on politics and social criticism. The press’s early output consisted mostly of sermons, hymnals, and other denominational necessities, but works on “social reform” soon became commonplace. When the affairs of the press were taken over by the Harvard-educated Unitarian ministers Samuel Atkins Eliot and Charles Livingston Stebbins in the early 1900s, the press took a sharper turn toward social engagement.
Beacon began to sideline the Psalters and sermon collections in favor of philosophy and social science: John Dewey and Alfred North Whitehead appeared in its catalog toward the middle of the 20th century, along with works on anthropology and history by Albert Schweitzer, Bronislaw Malinowski, Arnold Toynbee, and Lord Acton. “In these days of regimentation,” Unitarian association President Frederick May Eliot wrote in a report from the publications division, “we feel that it is essential that there should be a press in this country to combat the forces that would destroy liberalism.” And of Mel Arnold, Beacon Press’s first director under Eliot, an assistant once wrote: “To [Arnold] the essential thing for western civilization was that the liberal spirit should prevail; and liberal religion, at that time drowsing at the switch, should take leadership.”
Beacon began its rise as one of the most audacious publishers of social and political books in the country. The press’s mettle initially motivated the publication of books criticizing both Soviet totalitarianism (in its series Studies in Soviet Tyranny and Power) and Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade (Studies in Freedom and Power). But alongside such anti-totalitarian volumes were published the decidedly illiberal works of Herbert Marcuse, including his now-infamous 1965 anti-free speech treatise A Critique of Pure Tolerance, and Paul Blanshard’s infamous 1949 bestseller American Freedom and Catholic Power, a speculative account of what the United States might look like if it allowed too many Catholics into politics.
Indeed, Beacon’s output has long reflected the intellectual incoherence of its parent organization. Its sense of liberalism is, in the end, schizophrenic: The tolerance and positivity it has projected outward has always been met by a deep, abiding paranoia about enemy subversion. It’s a liberalism with a bunker mentality, one as convinced of its perfectly reasoned plan for the world as of the insidiousness of those who might reject it. And in lieu of having commitments to theology or anything identifiable as the divine, the Unitarian Universalist church has functioned for decades as primarily an organized vehicle for this neurotic progressivism: Most major progressive developments in the last few decades of American culture have been prefigured in the annals of the Unitarian Universalists. The UUA is a machine that transforms avant-garde, inchoate moral sentiments into certitudes, complete with study guides, discussion questions, bulleted lists, and worksheets.
The product that has persisted the longest is the UUA’s sexuality education program. Its first attempt, “About Your Sexuality,” was launched in 1971. Made in the image of the sexual revolution and founded upon the age’s doctrine of sexual liberation, it treated 12- to 14-year-old junior high school students to graphic photographs and videos of adults engaged in various sexual acts (including masturbation) and asked them to write on a sheet of paper how much they liked or were bothered by the images. A component called “Touch Talk” introduced them to the notion of “heavy petting.” The approach was “sex positive,” emphasizing the benefits of pleasure (alone or with others) and the naturalness of sexual activity. Eventually it was discontinued and replaced with “Our Whole Lives,” a less controversial program more amenable to the moral tenor of the less libertine decades that followed, updated with units on gender identity and 21st-century sexual orientations.
The UU attitude toward issues as diverse as immigration, environmentalism, disability, and even economics follows this same pattern. Whatever progressive response to a given cultural dispute is treated as dogma and given the imprimatur of truth through its promotion by an organization considered a “religion,” despite the near-total absence of any genuine religious content to its activities. The German political theorist Carl Schmitt famously said that all modern political thought occurs through “secularized theological concepts.” Unitarian Universalism does it backwards: Instead of secularizing theology into politics, it has attempted to consecrate liberal politics into a theology.
In doing so, it walks several steps ahead of the rest of American popular culture. But the Unitarian story is less a guide to the “woke tent revival” seen in last year’s Third Great Awakening—with its mass absolution rituals, public square miracles, holy incantations, and revealed, unquestionable truths—than to the proliferation of anti-racist elementary school curricula, Smithsonian infographics on rational thought as “white culture,” and statements on “diversity, equity, and inclusion” from Blackrock, Northrop Grumman, and the Federal Reserve. Of course, a fringe, post-Protestant liberal religious movement consisting mostly of aging baby boomers has very little real control over the shape or trajectory of American society, and the history of the Unitarian Universalists doesn’t tell the entire story of wokeness. But nonetheless, something of the Unitarian spirit has become hegemonic.
Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Smith in 1822, “I confidently expect that the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States.” He only got the timeline wrong: Wokeness is indeed a religion, as the saying goes, with its own liturgy and sacraments. Instead of something radically new, then, we’ve likely encountered a creed a couple of centuries old—and perhaps one of the true names of this latest nonreligious religion is Unitarian Universalism.
Joseph M. Keegin is a former schoolteacher, currently writing for Athwart and The Point and blogging at www.fxxfy.net. He lives in Chicago.