Class Isn’t Out

A talk at church from Aug. 4, 2008 …


So you heard me with the kids, and I hope those of you with children will entertain the questions of family history seriously – because I do believe it’s one avenue toward understanding class that makes sense for kids.

But really, the story was a fairly simple one, telescoped from a complex family history to one I could share with them in three minutes. And now we’ve got 10-15 minutes to tackle class. No problem.

And I could tell you that UUism has a class problem, but you know that in your bones. We’re a boutique religion born of two boutique religions, religions whose adherents have been largely white, largely professional, largely intellectual, and – honestly – largely elitist for nearly 200 years.

In this century, paradoxically, we’ve become a religion that articulates itself as being for the working poor, for the unempowered here and around the world – and here you sit, next to the engineer, the professor, the minister, the doctor, the scientist, the financier, the salaried … while the working poor remain across town in pews that offer next-world proscriptions or this-world prohibitions for their longings and their concerns.

So let’s agree that this isn’t a talk about class guilt. Let’s all breathe easy. We’re not here to eradicate class, to pick at class at if it were a scab until we make it bleed. But we are here to acknowledge it – as we acknowledge race, as we acknowledge sexual gender, gender identity, and sexual preference, as we acknowledge the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

And let’s agree that class is a squishy term for a squishy thing – it’s not about dollars in the bank account. Did you catch the commercial last winter for one financial services firm in which each person had a number, a six or seven digit number, attached to them like a sandwich board? Class keeps score, but the score isn’t solely about money. In fact, in my own admitted limited understanding, class is less about actual dollars and sense and more about choice and about power. It’s about the expectation that I will be heard – or that I won’t be heard. It’s about the expectation that I will be given more than one choice – or not, as rapper Eminem, who wears his working class cred on his tattooed sleeve, says in a popular song of a few years back, “Lose Yourself”:

You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime

And still, what those opportunities look like and how one should pursue them is tricky stuff.

Several years back I caught a report on a study that compared the behavior of children of working class and professional class parents. The working class kids hewed very closely to the traditional expectations of chidren – respectful but non-challenging toward adults, with very strong intrafamily relationships. These kids knew their aunts and uncles and cousins. In a word, they were likable.

The professional class kids were pushy and whiny. They wanted things, and made that crystal clear.

And the researcher’s surprising conclusion: These kids were doing exactly what their parents expected of them, even as it exasperated them. Because these parents had grown up with a healthy skepticism for authority, and had inculcated it in their children – even at the price of diminishing their authority over their own kids. And, the researcher said, the strategy made sense: these children had learned the lesson of the squeaky wheel – that nothing gets fixed without a request, that the system can be bent to your will … if you’re willing to stand up and engage the system. The working class kids – polite, respectful … and willing to be walked over by any number of bureacracies.

So why in the world am I telling you about this? Because I went to GA this summer. For visitors, General Assembly is the national convention of Unitarian Universalists. This year it was held in Fort Lauderdale, in late June. Shockingly, some people were willing to come anyway.

On Thursday, there was an hourlong session called “Dialogue on Classism Within Unitarian Universalism.”

The dialogue was really between two ministers – one a co-minister with her husband to a congregation in New England, who was descended from, I believe, three signers of the Declaration of Independence; the other minister grew up poor on a farm in North Dakota. He shared stories of eating at restaurants with explicit instructions from his parents to order nothing more than soup. He said that even as he left his upbringing behind and headed into ministry, where he is now successful, he has often felt as if he were “class-passing,” making believe he is one class when he’s really another. He was the first minister I’ve ever heard say, “I make more money than I could ever have imagined making as a child. I have to pinch myself: I can’t believe my good fortune.”

The other minister appeared, for the most part, to have never given class much thought, even though she had agreed to serve on a panel called “Dialogue on Classism Within UUism.” She said she never considered herself very privileged—even though she went to an Ivy League school and gave her daughters the same opportunity, even though she and her husband were in effect splitting a single full-time job (and with all due respect to our and other congregations’ ability to pay ministers, a not very lucrative job) and enjoying a comfortable, if not ostentatious life.

Stranger still, she made a point of stating that she had slept in a cot at a hotel with some friends, while the other minister had, God forbid, ordered blueberry pancakes, from room service, at his hotel room. Room service!

Later, when she realized that she had been outflanked by the somewhat pained awareness of her session-mate, she changed the subject. Of course she knew about classism, because she, like so many other women, had suffered sexism. For years. And it hurt. She was like, like … Hilary Clinton. That’s it, she was a victim of sexism.

It was a cathartic experience, watching someone wrestle so awkwardly with her class identity in front of 100 people, many her professional colleagues. And it made the point to me that I needed to come back here, to our community, and encourage us to look at what we do and why we do it through a filter of class. And to think it through so we are not caught in a position where we look, well, unexamined.

In an influential essay “Not My Father’s Religion,” Doug Muder writes about why his working-class dad would have a hard time finding someone to talk to at the typical UU community. The gist of his argument: UUs have a professional class bias. They’re are good at discernment, at the balancing of multiple goods (family, career, church) whereas more conservative faith practices that appeal to the working class are more polar, and about positing good vs. evil.

Me? I think our problem is we have a history of overthinking the entire subject. And that’s not an the local level. Do you remember a recent UU marketing campaign, one on which hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent?

The Uncommon Denomination

Uncommon? God, I HATED this. Because it was a loser any way you looked at it—either we were uncommon because we were weird, strange, something different from other religions. Or we were uncommonly good – better than the rest, by golly. And neither of these are where my faith rests.

And thankfully for me, it’s not where our faith rests, either. The leader of our movement, the Rev. William Sinkford, recently announced a new formulation:

Nurture the spirit and help heal the world.

To me, this repudiates Uncommon Denomination. Uncommon? Heck no, we’re just like every other religion, here to save lives, in our community and in our world.

And what does this mean about class? We’re here for everyone. Through love, all are healed, all are made whole.

And, as it’s getting late, here are a few tips if you want the nice person you see in the lobby to come back again:

  • Don’t start by asking what the person does. Many people who aren’t in the professional class don’t want to be defined by their occupation. Let people tell you who they are. You’ll be astonished.
  • If they don’t want to talk profession, don’t jump straight to the Eagles. People come to a religious community for spirituality. Ask where they’ve been and what they’re looking for. Let them tell us. And let’s try to provide it.

That’s it. Unitarian Universalism is a faith with room for all people. So, if you are a member here, prepare space for people from all classes. And if you are visiting and looking for a spiritual home, know this is a place where you will be welcomed and you will be valued.

The events of the last week demand from us a loving response. Go in peace.

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