By Rev Kate Braestrup
Every now and then, I come across an idea that serves as a fresh new lens that makes what was formerly opaque instantly — though often uncomfortably — clear.
A U.S Air Force veteran, Yale alumni and doctoral student at the University of Cambridge by the name of Rob Henderson recently provided such a lens, in an essay published in the online journal Quillette.
Entitled Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class — a Status Update, the essay recaps the eponymous book (by the famous economist and sociologist), adds in a bit about biologist Amotz Zahabvi’s “handicap principle” plus a sprinkling of Jared Diamond and Emil Durkheim and tops it off with a soupçon of Jordan Peterson and Robert Putnam to make an original and convincing case for the existence of a phenomenon he calls “luxury belief.”
He is not specifically addressing Unitarian Universalists, of course. But his analysis seems applicable. (Does it ever!) Henderson writes:
Luxury beliefs are ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.
Henderson did not begin life in what he calls the Luxury Belief Class.
I was bewildered when I encountered [this]…new social class at Yale four years ago… My confusion wasn’t surprising given my unusual background. When I was two years old, my mother was addicted to drugs and my father abandoned us. I grew up in multiple foster homes, was then adopted into a series of broken homes, and then experienced a series of family tragedies. Later, after a few years in the military, I went to Yale on the GI Bill.
So… Not your typical Yalie. Some 69% of Yale students’ families are in the nation’s top 20% for household income, and only 2.1% come from poor families; they are also far less likely to come from broken homes or to have grown up in rented housing. And for the same reasons, Rob Henderson would not be a typical Unitarian Universalist either.
But I’ll get to that.
First: remember, back in the day, when snooty rich kids wore those expensive Lacoste shirts? If you are young enough to have missed the phenomenon, these were basic, cotton-knit polo shirts. They came in a variety of colors (I longed for the pale pink version, myself) and were distinguished by a small green alligator embroidered on the left breast.
That little alligator cost boo-coo bucks and, Henderson would assure us, that was the point. They were a reptilian advertisement that the owner of that shirt had money-to-waste. These days, however, things that used to be prohibitively expensive have become more accessible to the middle-class. Everyone wears “alligator shirts” if they feel like it and even Bill Gates spends his days in blue jeans.
The elites have not, however, grown past the need to signal superiority. It matters — a lot — to an upper-middle-class person (actual or aspiring) that he or she not be mistaken for a Deplorable. They have a lot riding on their identity: admission to the desired social circles, interesting and lucrative employment opportunities, and access to the choicest of choice mates. Their ingenious solution? Wear jeans, and cultivate luxury beliefs.
Unitarian Universalism is a religion, nest ce pas? We’re in the belief business. And, if I may say so, luxury beliefs are and always have been our market niche.
Like Yale University, Unitarian Universalism has traditionally been an institution for upper-middle to upper- class Americans. Indeed, 1.34 percent of Yale students today identify themselves as UU, a far higher percentage than American Unitarian Universalists can boast of overall. Traditionally, we’ve been proud of our well-heeled, well-educated demographics, bragging as recently as 2008 about the five U.S. presidents we count as “ours” and touting a 2001 ARIS (American Religious Identification Survey) that ranked Unitarian Universalists as the highest scorers on a list of 24 economic indicators.
Our Sunday services are commonly ones in which everything of religious importance — the existence of God, the possibility of miracles, the meaning of suffering, the necessity for behaving well, and the rules by which one’s behavior is or should be judged — all this is deliberately left open to question. Could it be an accident that pews were and are filled with folks who can claim a measure of certainty, control and confidence in their everyday lives?
For anyone whose daily life is, or feels, precarious, the attraction of orthodox religion is precisely the assurance it offers: Even if you don’t have a lot of power and control in your life, someone knows the rules, someone has the formula, and the ultimate Someone — an omnipotent and eternal God — knows and cares about you.
Attending a church that doesn’t offer assurance or supernatural concern and divine help signals that you don’t think you need it.
Like the peacock’s tail, or the lunatic risk-taking behaviors of young men, a UU by being a UU is advertising fitness; social, financial, spiritual and educational. No wonder many more people will, when surveyed, identify themselves as Unitarian Universalists than actually attend our churches!
Fortunately or unfortunately for us, Henderson identifies what we might call a “trickle-down” of luxury beliefs. What were once daring, unusual ideas — that there was no hell or perhaps no afterlife at all; that women could serve as clergy; that foreign, exotic religions could be fascinating and valuable; or that an openly gay person should be welcome in the pews and (later) even in the pulpit — all these have become mainstream. Episcopalians, Methodists, American Baptists, Congregationalists, liberal Jews, even some evangelical Christians are all pretty much on the same page.
From many perspectives, this is a good thing. Still, it does present Unitarian Universalists with a chronic, if unacknowledged, problem. When you can access formerly boutique beliefs at the religious equivalent of Wal-Mart, the bar for luxury religion is raised and, given the unprecedented speed at which ideas travel these days, it will be raised and raised again. And so the UU brand has to be continually updated so as to remain obviously special and expensive.
This might explain why opinions that were once considered normal are now anathema for Unitarian Universalists. Barack Obama was on record as being opposed to same-sex marriage in 2008, and UUs gladly voted for him. Now, opposition to same-sex marriage is a sign of irredeemable evil.
The phrase “a woman is an adult human female” would not have struck even the most progressive Unitarian Universalist as controversial a mere five years ago. It is now morally imperative that you believe that a woman can have a penis because declaring your absolute adherence to this idea, along with ideas about open borders, loose sexual norms, or the malevolence of the police is like wearing a shirt with a little alligator on it. As Henderson puts it: When someone “uses the term ‘white privilege,’ they are engaging in a status display. They are trying to tell you, ‘I am a member of the upper class.'”
No, you aren’t imagining it: The rules for verbally signaling your membership in this luxury-belief class are indeed becoming ever more arcane: “Your typical middle-class American could not tell you what ‘heteronormative’ or ‘cisgender’ means… When someone uses the phrase ‘cultural appropriation,’ what they are really saying is, ‘I was educated at a top college…'”
Or maybe they’re saying they’re prosperous enough to be UUs. After all, writes Henderson:
Only the affluent can afford to learn strange vocabulary because ordinary people have real problems to worry about…
The economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell once said that activism is “a way for useless people to feel important, even if the consequences of their activism are counterproductive for those they claim to be helping and damaging to the fabric of society as a whole.”
Advocating for open borders and drug experimentation are good ways of advertising your membership of the elite because, thanks to your wealth and social connections, they will cost you less than [a middle or working-class person].
I’ve always been irritated by Unitarian Universalist clergy who believe that service to the world means donning a clerical collar and getting “arrested.” It bugs me that these thespian self-sacrifices have often been arranged ahead of time, the fine already paid, the whole experience choreographed so as to take no more than an hour or two.
Obviously, I’ve been missing the point. The demonstration isn’t about solidarity with the less-privileged (for whom getting arrested is a very different thing) nor the salvation of the planet. This is why there is no obvious connection between the demonstration (let alone the arrest) and the stated goal. The true goal is to let folks know that Unitarian Universalists are affluent. We’ve got time on our handcuffed hands, emotional energy to spare for vicarious outrage, and money to blow on airfare and fines. Rob Henderson’s well-heeled, woke elite-college classmates (white, black or brown) are our target demographic, not the drug addicts, graduates of foster care or military veterans, whatever the color their skins might be.
So the next time a UU assures you that ours is a white supremacist organization, just picture her, him or Xher popping the collar on a polo shirt with an itty-bitty but very visible alligator embroidered just above the left breast.
Copyright 2019 © Kate Braestrup