In class a few weeks ago, I was explaining that my religious affiliation, Unitarian Universalism, a very liberal sect which doesn’t even require members to believe in God, is America’s most liberal Protestant faith. The response from one student? Unitarian Universalism isn’t really Protestantism because other Protestant sects don’t recognize it as such.
This argument presupposes the authority to assess and determine the identity of another group of people. Her assumption is problematic because she has no basis for which to tell me what my religious identity is. That identity is mine to discover.
Moreover, other Protestant sects have no basis on which to claim that Unitarians aren’t really Protestants. Protestantism is generally accepted as non-Catholic and non-Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Not all Unitarians are Christians, but Unitarianism grew out of the Protestant Christian tradition. We share the opposition to dogmatic rigidity upon which Protestantism was founded. Moreover, Protestants as a collection of sects have no unifying, higher religious authority like Roman Catholicism’s Pope. Thus, the collective, mainstream Protestant determination of whether Unitarians are actually Christians is largely irrelevant.
The problem here is not that I’m offended that someone told me that I’m not a real Protestant—I don’t get offended by comments like that—it’s that group X is claiming the right to define Y. Identity is fluid, and its discovery is a personal and communal journey. Other Christians have no more authority to label Unitarians than whites have the authority to ask, “Barack Obama is half white, so why does he say he’s black? Who gives him that right?” The President may decide his identity, and Unitarians may decide theirs.
More broadly, it’s important to move towards a broader view of Protestantism and perhaps of Christianity as a whole. Martin Luther’s 15th and 16th century Protestantism was undoubtedly Christian, but it was also protesting the stark ritualism of Catholicism. I believe faith is personal, non-ritualistic, and non dogmatic; I am a Unitarian; I am a Protestant even though I may not believe in a traditional God.
The conversation about what it means to be Christian often turns to Christian values—basic ones like the golden rule, not biblically tenuous opposition of gay marriage. Perhaps if I believe in helping the poor and sick as Jesus preached, I can still be a Protestant Christian even if I don’t quite believe in God the way the Bible says. Maybe if I believe in and live by the golden rule, I can still be a Protestant Christian even if I think Jesus was a regular man only slightly greater than the rest of us, not the son of God.
So much has changed since the foundation of Protestantism. We face so many new ethical questions regarding how to live a just life and how to be faithful to whatever or whoever calls our faith. With our societal evolution, perhaps its time we loosen up our views of what it means to be Christian.
But at what point do we lose the exclusive right to self-definition? At some point, do societal norms kick in and say, “No, there’s really NO WAY you could possibly be [insert identity here]”? The line may barely exist for the intangible, invisible identities such as religion. If you are a Roman Catholic (or Greek Orthodox, sort of), then you are the accepted antithesis of Protestantism—you can’t call yourself a Protestant. Otherwise, the door seems pretty open. The door begins to close as the identity becomes more visible and tangible. If you have no black ancestry whatsoever, you would be hard-pressed to find a way to reasonably define yourself as black unless you somehow change your skin color (is that really a thing?). If you are a woman who is not at all attracted to women, I can’t see how you could call yourself gay unless you get a sex change. I may seem to be contradicting myself, but there is a point when we can’t define ourselves: if no reasonable person would agree with the definition—if the definition seems disingenuous and downright illogical—then it is invalid.
Regardless, in an age of constant political, societal, and theological change, we require extraordinary flexibility, not dogmatic rigidity. Protestantism clashed with what Martin Luther found in the Catholic Church: dogma and impersonal ritualism. With this tradition, Protestantism (and, as much as they are able, all labels) can adapt to today’s more fluid conception of identity.