Headquarters staff at the Unitarian Universalist Association were gathered around the big table in the library over pizza and discussing pop culture.   The lunch topic questions were, “Where in American popular culture is most exciting? Does Unitarian Universalism have a place there? And what could that look like?”

People mentioned various environmental causes.  There was a lot of energy around the TED Talks. Electoral issues. Voter registration. Public school reform.  School boards. While these were good ideas, I wondered if the folks gathered (some of our best minds) were too nerd-leaning to really know base, pop culture. I was thinking more along the lines of getting Jason Shelton to try out for American Idol.

Interestingly Stephen Colbert had just mentioned the us on his show earlier in the week.  There we were in the middle of pop culture, and it wasn’t our intentional effort.  The Simpsons and Garrison Keillor regularly mention us. And not always in favorable light, rather in sarcasm caricature. Search either of their names and “Unitarian” and up will pop entertaining and frustrating evidence.

I had the opportunity a couple years ago to talk to one of the writers on the Simpsons team.  He’s the brother-in-law of a Unitarian Universalist minister.  I puffed up self-righteously and asked how he could in good conscience make such fun of our faith.  He chuckled and said, “I am in a position to get Unitarian Universalism into the pop culture light. That’s my job.  It’s your job to change the public’s opinion.”

So how do we do that? How can we start acting like the vibrant, transformational religious community that we are, out in the public square?  Rather than showing up unintentionally on radio and late-night shows, where could the voice of Unitarian Universalism be, shining light on justice and love?  I’m not talking about showing up and waving the banner of your congregation.  I’m talking about showing up in popular culture and important public conversation in a way that represents Unitarian Universalism.

Please tell me in the comments, “Where in American popular culture is most exciting? Does Unitarian Universalism have a place there? And what could that look like?”


Tandi Rogers is the UUA’s Growth Strategist.  She voted for Philip Phillips on American Idol and dreams of Macklemore providing the worship music at General Assembly.

About the Author
Tandi Rogers


  1. Amanda Aikman

    Without a doubt, to me the most exciting thing is these massive online collaborations — whether for purposes humane (millions of people digitizing books or sequencing genomes) or artistic (online YouTube orchestras). Couldn’t uu’s invent an artistic way of using massive numbers of people online to create something both incredibly cool and incredibly, dramatically, VISUALLY useful?

  2. Sheryl Macy

    That giant creaking noise you hear is the sound of UUA opening the door to the 21st century. We are shocked, shocked to discover Unitarian Universalism being discussed in “pop culture.” It seems that in many UU minds, there’s capital C culture, which has to do with Ivy League colleges, proximity to the original 13 colonies and columns in the NYT. And then there’s “pop culture” (and yes, one always uses the quotation marks, just make them in the air with one’s fingers). Religion, being serious business, of course belongs to big-C discussions. When it shows up on The Simpsons, the earth shifts.

    I contend there is no such division. There is only culture, the ocean of human experience in which we all swim; much of it is stupid and all of it is meaningful. And we are helplessly a part of it.

    We operate in popular culture whether we choose to or not. Our only options are to be active or passive. Our congregation agrees with you, it is essential join the conversation and make ourselves known. By choosing to be an active part of the public conversation, we can offer people meaning and rationality in lives that often lack direction.

    But can we throw away the air quotes? They’re just so last century.

    Yours in beloved community,

    Sheryl Macy
    President, Board of Trustees
    Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Washington County

    PS. School boards as an exciting part of American pop culture? Oh my, you really do need to get out more.

  3. Andrew Mertz

    Well, a few years ago at Meadville Lombard there was a group of us in a dorm living together during class intensives. We all remarked that a reality TV show could be made about the dynamics that were going on there. Though, not sure that would put us in a good light. Come to think of it, so much of pop culture is downright disgusting. I hope we could avoid the Snookie and Honey Boo Boo divergence of pop culture. I would hope that we could become a household name like the Red Cross. I also hope that the UUs out there can ware their identity with pride. If your faith informs or motivates your actions, let others know about it. Do you know that UUs are over represented in politics by 10 fold [at least they were in 2001 when I worked at a lobbyist firm in DC]. UUs are aware of many of the famous UUs out there, but no one else is. I know WAY more Latter Day Saints members in public due to Romney’s run. I believe that when we are known widely for our stance on Love, other things will fall into place. How will we be known for that? Internet Memes….. lets create videos of some of the ‘radical’ things we do in worship that are funny [to us] and eye opening [to the unchurched].

  4. Kim Hampton

    I think Andrew Mertz shows why UUism will always be the butt of popular culture jokes. As long as so many UUs think that “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” and “Jersey Shore” are disgusting, there can’t be any kind of THEOLOGICAL engagement with the rest of the population.

    But I’ve figured out something…that’s the way most UUs want it. They don’t want to engage theologically with the rest of the population. They want to sit in their ivory tower churches and have boring, lecture-type sermons and get involved in only high-brow social justice issues. To engage with those who might like Honey Boo Boo means dealing with real issues of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, education, culture and just about everything else.

    But to answer your question, Tandi, the way to “start acting like the vibrant, transformational religious community that we are, out in the public square?” is to start acting like popular culture might not be as bad as the old puritans and prudes want you to believe it is.

    One of my favorite lines is “Sometimes we are what we pretend to be.” It’s time for UUism to start pretending; pretending that it is a part of the culture; pretending that there are pop figures that give us a great opportunity to talk theology; pretending that it understands that what is appealing to one person might not be appealing to all; pretending that it understands that culture is organic and that in order to reach out to people it would behoove them to not denigrate their culture; etc. etc. etc.

    Until that happens, UUism will continue to be the butt of Colbert, Stewart, Simpsons, and Keillor jokes.

    • Sheryl Macy

      Kim, One of my favorite Unitarians, Kurt Vonnegut, said that. “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” I agree wholeheartedly with your point — we need to get out there and participate in the culture, even if we have to pretend we’re not uncomfortable.

      As it turns out, I watched “Honey Boo Boo” and beneath all the culture clash and silliness, there were some important issues of family loyalty, faithfulness and friendship. but I’ll admit I was embarrassed when I turned it on.

      My takeaway from all this is that we can’t consider ourselves above the culture. That sort of condescension is very easy for others to spot.

      • Kim Hampton

        I actually got the line “sometimes we are what we pretend to be” not from Vonnegut, but from a book by Joy Fielding. But I’m glad Vonnegut said it too. It’s a really good line.

  5. Rev. Renee Ruchotzke

    I agree with Andrew about “so much of pop culture is downright disgusting” i.e. when it gets its traction by demeaning and degrading the many shades and nuances of humanity. If Unitarian Universalists hold up authenticity as a shared value (and I would hope that we do), we should wear all of our core values with pride, without irony or apology. I love it when I see my fellow UUs in our local community speaking out with “Well my experience has been different…” “I saw the same thing but came to a different conclusion which was…” “I believe that ______ is actually a good thing because…”

    If there are places in pop culture where we can model that, we should!

  6. Anna Shade

    I personally love the actions of the Occupy movement. I like that it’s grassroots and it’s focused on the people solving the problems. Maybe Occupy isn’t “mainstream” popular culture, but it’s these little cultural shifts in how we look at relating to one another that will allow the people to change the world for the better vs. us always looking to politicians or other people to change it for us (I can see the school boards as an example of this in a way). Occupy Sandy is a perfect example as is Occupy Debt Strike.

    We as UUs we certainly “Occupy Love” with the Standing on the Side of Love campaign. I think it’s maybe our best vehicle to navigate us into popular culture. I think it is beautiful and can be so much more beautiful. How? More toolkits for congregations to get themselves out there. As a newer UU, I find folks sometimes not willing to “get out there” and “be visible” (sorry if this is a narrow vision of my own congregation). We need to be an active faith and insert ourselves and Standing on the Side of Love more into the public forum. We need to have press conferences, toot our horns, celebrate our successes in a public way.

    We do this work for others and our spiritual growth but the only way we grow is for people to know about what we do and to create a desire for them to want to do this work with us. An insatiable desire to “JOIN US”. Occupy has captivated that in me from the beginning in their actions and use of new media to communicate. So, that is another key way for us to be in the game – use the mediums available to inject ourselves into the conversations. I think Growing UU is an excellent resource to help us crack this nut.

    Just some random musings on a Friday. Great question! I’d love to see what others think!

  7. Mandie

    Good marketing knows its audience. If the UUA is comprised of geeks, maybe that IS where the focus should be. Those are the sort of people likely to be attracted to UUism for myriad reasons. Stephen Colbert is not pop culture. The people who watch Colbert & Stewart are the same people who watch TED talks. Instead of trying to reach out to a large mass of people who are either otherwise religiously oriented or don’t care to be in any way religiously oriented is a waste of resources. Know your base, and focus your energy.

    • Kim Hampton

      If you think that Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are not popular culture, then we are living in two different universes. Of course they are popular culture. Many people who have never heard of TED talks watch Stewart and Colbert. (I happen to know quite a few; and what about those who don’t like TED talks?)

      But to say that UUism is only going to attract certain types of people is the same bullshit that has been said for almost a century. There is a reason that UUism has only attracted certain types of people…any time somebody different walked through the church house doors they were ignored or told that they might be more comfortable elsewhere. UUism has gone out of its way to only attract certain kinds of people, which is why they are the butt of Colbert/Stewart/Simpsons/Keillor jokes.

      UUism has been marketing itself out of existence. It’s time for that to stop. If UUism stopped being condescending towards those who might like Honey Boo Boo but couldn’t care less about TED talks, then maybe we could get somewhere.

      But I’m not holding my breath.

  8. Anne Heller

    Hmm. Well, why can’t the UUA stage a flash mob at the next GA? Don’t we all just love to sing and dance? Relate it to the GA “topic”? Send out the word ahead of time to learn the song? etc etc etc…come on, Tandi, you can pull this off if anyone can!


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