Q & R: What about Unitarians?

Here’s the Q:

You proposed in your “Thoughts on the Nones” video (posted November 12, 2012) that the rising number of “Nones” reported in the new Pew Research Centre (released October 9, 2012) may be accounted for by the fact that “they don’t want to be part of a religious community that requires them to hold hostility toward the Other” and may be a real result of the Holy Spirit convicting these people as to the transgression of this hostility.
If this is true, then why hasn’t the Unitarian Universalist Church or those roughly affiliated seen a sharp rise in either the recent survey or any other performed in the last few years? I don’t think I need to remind your readers that the Unitarian denomination has had a long history in the United States (going back to abolitionism) of acceptance of individuals of many lifestyles, as well as a strong identity tied to charitable and political action. If the “nones” have left mainline evangelical churches because of their hostility toward the Other, why have so few of them joined the Unitarian Church? Yet the results of the survey (available on their website http://bit.ly/QPvJii; Appendix 2 Question 71) conducted to poll Americans of all beliefs found that the number of Unitarian members was not a statistically viable number among survey respondents (comparable with those exclusively Buddhist or Hindu in the United States).
And in particular to your thoughts on the data: of the other responses, the one posed to those who specifically said “Religion was Important to Them” but said they did “Not Attend Services” (Question 51 in the same results; Appendix 2 http://bit.ly/QPvJii), 45% said they did not do so for strictly personal reasons (like work or time, none of which having to do with what the Church was like), and of the 40% who did not do so for reasons pertaining to the Church, only 3% chose the response “Religion/churches/leaders too pushy/demanding; too dogmatic; too intolerant.”
If nothing else, I find the responses in the survey given to be very unfair to the Unitarians who have been working for a very long time at an almost entirely un-hostile Christianity, while most in the media can do nothing but place blame on the once-mainstream evangelical Churches. Your thoughts?

Here’s the R:
Thanks for your excellent question. It’s complicated, and I know I can’t give a full answer that does justice to the question. I’ll offer a few thoughts, though, that are “R’s” (responses) without being full “A’s” (full and complete answers).
First, Unitarians have played an important role in American history (and beyond), and they have made historical contributions on many levels that go beyond what their numbers would suggest.
Second, (and this is related to something I posted about yesterday), the degree to which a religious community deconstructs without reconstructing will put it at a disadvantage. It not only must remove negatives that other communities have: it must have positives that other communities lack. My friend Tony Jones wrote about this recently, here, summarizing some thoughts from Christian Smith’s 1998 book on Evangelicals:

Mainline and liberal Christians (Protestant and Catholic alike) are accomodationist, and there is simply not enough difference between them and culture to make a difference to much of anyone. In other words, why join something that looks exactly like what you’re already a part of? All three — fundamentalists, liberals, and mainliners — scored significantly lower that evangelicals in all six characteristics of strength.

Third, Unitarians have distanced themselves from several common characteristics of traditional Christianity that were indeed problematic. One of those – the way many Christians used Jesus as a threat (“you’d better believe what we say about him or God will send you to hell!”) – caused many Unitarians to feel a bit embarrassed about Jesus. Believing, as I do, that Jesus is the best thing about being a person of faith (albeit for different reasons than many), I think Unitarians would gain a great deal by rediscovering Jesus – if not in traditional terms, in terms that would be highly accessible to them and meaningful to others. (I addressed many of these – including the doctrine of the Trinity – in my most recent book.)
Finally, I think you’re right. People are unfair! Many of the best, most humane churches have the fewest members, and many of the worst and most hostile are full and overflowing. Unitarians have set an admirable example in promoting an un-hostile faith. I notice that I have increasing numbers of Unitarians introducing themselves to me at my speaking events. Perhaps, as John Cobb says in his recent (excellent) book, Religions in the Making, the best contributions of Unitarians are in their future, and what they can be has not yet been fully manifested.
Also, you might be interested in something peripherally about me written by a Unitarian. A few details of the post are a little off (I wasn’t raised on the West Coast, my upbringing was not extreme but rather typical for American Evangelical/Fundamentalists, etc.) But it shows that there can be a healthy and needed (by both sides) rapprochement among people who have walked separate paths. As my friend Phyllis Tickle might say, a Great Emergence can catch up unlikely people into something unexpected, unprecedented, and hopeful.