Unitarian president would be U.S. tradition
I received a most curious phone call last week. A reporter was in town checking out a story about Sen. Barack Obama's past. He did live here in Hawaii for part of his growing up and attended Punahou. The reporter said there was a tip that his parents had been members of the Unitarian Church at the time. I couldn't find their names in the old membership book, but then no one printed in those days and many signatures are illegible.
But it raises several interesting questions. What if it's true? The last Unitarian presidential candidate whom I know of was Adlai Stevenson. What would happen if Obama gets painted with that brush? I've no idea what his religious identification is these days, if any.
Punahou was a long time ago. That would have been the period when we had AWOL servicemen living in the church. There's a fat FBI file on us, I'm sure. That might well put a kink in any appeal to an evangelical cross-over vote.
"What? A Unitarian? Why, they're not even Christians. It might not even be a religion. They're 'secalar whomanists" -- that's the Bible Belt pronunciation -- "at best." A court in Texas did try to jerk our Unitarian Universalist congregations' church tax status a few years ago.
Are we Christians? Well, the National Council of Churches says no, but they let us sit in. The Tampa Ministers Association said years ago I was, but they weren't sure about my church members. Again, membership denied, but I could sit in. Many Unitarians are quite insistent that they are not. Others, particularly from the Universalist side of the merger, still cherish that identification. And several of our members so identify.
For myself, I'm quite comfortable letting God -- if She exists -- worry about my label. All I can do is try to be honest with myself about what I do and don't believe. But I'm not running for high public office in an era when half the electorate wants its president to have a direct line to deity.
It's an interesting twist on something Jefferson said in a letter to Adams. He acknowledged that neither of them believed in hell, but it was important that the people do, or they wouldn't tell the truth in court. Now it's the presidents who need to believe in it. What if we did have a Unitarian president? That would certainly put us back on the religious map. One less than half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were either Unitarians or Universalists.
Most would-be churchgoers these days want a neatly wrapped package with a bow on top. We don't offer one. It's wrap-it-yourself here and a slip knot is OK. Interestingly enough, the values we cherish today are the ones that motivated those 18th-century revolutionaries. That's pretty conservative, in the old sense at least.
Still, it would have been fun to have found Obama's parents listed on the church rolls.
The Rev. Mike Young is minister of the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu, a Unitarian Universalist welcoming congregation.