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The joke about Unitarians is that they’re where you go when you don’t know where to go. Theirs is the religion of last resort for the intermarried, the ambivalent, the folks who want a faith community without too many rules. It is perhaps no surprise that the Unitarian Universalist Association is one of the fastest-growing denominations in the country, ballooning 15 percent over the past decade, when other established churches were shrinking. Politically progressive to its core, it draws from the pool of people who might otherwise be “nones” – unaffiliated with any church at all.
But within the ranks of the UUA over the past few years, there has been some quiet unrest concerning a small but activist group that vociferously supports polyamory. That is to say “the practice of loving and relating intimately to more than one other person at a time,” according to a mission statement by Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness (UUPA). The UUPA “encourages spiritual wholeness regarding polyamory,” including the right of polyamorous people to have their unions blessed by a minister.
UUA headquarters says it has no official position on polyamory. “Official positions are established at general assembly and never has this issue been brought to general assembly,” a spokeswoman says.
But as the issue of same-sex marriage heads to the Supreme Court, many committed Unitarians think the denomination should have a position, which is that polyamory activists should just sit down and be quiet. For one thing, poly activists are seen as undermining the fight for same-sex marriage. The UUA has officially supported same-sex marriage, the spokeswoman says, “since 1979, with tons of resolutions from the general assembly.”
Conservative opponents of same-sex marriage have long used the slippery-slope argument: If states are permitted to let two men or two women marry, then what’s to stop them from giving the same privilege to two men and one woman, or two women and one man? Or six? Or 12? Once you legitimize same-sex marriage, sociologist Peter Berger wrote on his blog in 2011, “you open the door to any number of other alternatives to marriage as a union of one man and one woman: polygamous (an interesting question for Muslims in Germany and dissident Mormons in Arizona), polyandrous, polygenerational – perhaps polyspecies?”
The Unitarians are so liberal that they’re playing right into conservative hands. And the conservative blogosphere has responded predictably: First Things has taken disapproving note of the trend, as has the American Conservative.
The debate also makes the whole denomination look silly. “Unitarian Universalism is so broad-minded that it has become flat-headed,” Michael Durall, then an editor of a UUA magazine (he no longer works with UUA groups), wrote in 2004. “This is an abdication of leadership leaving Unitarian Universalism vulnerable to ridicule. Jay Leno would have a field day with this one. Do we truly want to send the message to children, youth (especially!) and adults that having multiple sexual relationships is condoned by UU churches?”
The UUPA has received its share of attention over the years – a PBS interview, a San Francisco Chronicle article – but mostly it has caused anguish and dissent among Unitarians. In 2007, a Unitarian congregation in Chestertown, Md., heard a sermon by a poly activist named Kenneth Haslam, arguing that polyamory is the next frontier in the fight for sexual and marriage freedom. “Poly folks are strong believers that each of us should choose our own path in forming our families, forming relationships, and being authentic in our sexuality.”
Over coffee last week, a friend of mine who is studying to become a Unitarian minister wondered aloud how she would feel if folks in a future congregation asked her to perform a polyamorous commitment ceremony. She is a traditionalist; she’s glad, she says, that the issue hasn’t come up.