Diana King's striptease during "show and tell" time at a suburban Houston church several years ago drew a sharp reprimand from church authorities.
But the North Texas Assn. of Unitarian Universalist Societies did not mind that it was in church that King, a Unitarian, had stripped down to her G-string.
The objection, said an official, was that the dance was "sexist"--an incident of publicity-seeking "sexploitation."
That reaction was not surprising in the 176,000-member Unitarian Universalist Assn., the nation's most liberal Protestant religion, where a service is often called a celebration rather than worship, the minister gives an address instead of a sermon and a church "happy hour" can substitute for the old-fashioned midweek prayer meeting.
Free-thinking and resistant to the formalizing of religion, Unitarian Universalists have long been pace setters in the liberal stream of American social, literary and political life. Indeed, the non-creedal denomination, with parent bodies dating to the 18th Century, has exerted influence far greater than its numerical strength.
Over the years, Unitarian Universalism has boasted five U.S. Presidents among its adherents, and such notables as Alexander Graham Bell, P. T. Barnum, Susan B. Anthony, Albert Schweitzer, Adlai Stevenson, Whitney Young and Linus Pauling.
Yet, the church remains small. And current surveys show that 60% of Americans know little or nothing about it.
In essence, the founders of Universalism believed in universal salvation by God for all persons. The founders of Unitarianism believed in the unity, or oneness, of God, as opposed to the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity (God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit).
The church today has broadened to a free-wheeling association of theists, deists, humanists, mystics and atheists. Beliefs include tenets from all major religious traditions and philosophies. A survey found that a majority of Unitarian Universalists believe in "God"--20% do not--but that the predominant view is that "God" is best used as a name for "some natural processes within the universe, such as love or creative evolution."
This month, as the association observes the 25th anniversary of the merger of the Unitarian and Universalist denominations, association president William F. Schulz of Boston vowed to fulfill his preelection promise of last year: To make Unitarian Universalism "a household word."
The 36-year-old clergyman, believed to be the youngest president of a major U.S. denomination, already has hired a new public relations manager, appeared on television talk shows and issued a public invitation--which he says so far has been unanswered--to debate well-known fundamentalist television preachers Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on religious freedom issues.
Schulz raised $50,000 in campaign funds and spent two years on the road to win the hotly contested election last June for the Unitarian Universalist post, which pays $62,500 annually plus housing and benefits.
"Most basically, I see Unitarian Universalism at a crossroads," Schulz, a six-footer with dark hair and a beard, said in an interview. "We need to make a decision theologically as to whether we are going to continue to be known basically for what we \o7 don't\f7 believe, or whether we are going to articulate a positive theology for the 21st Century."
Schulz believes that a new form of faith "in contrast to fundamentalism" is the next step "among those religious communities willing to look beyond the simplistic."
By ending Unitarian Universalist obscurity, Schulz said, he hopes to attract those who "are yearning for a religious alternative to evangelicalism . . . blacks and Hispanics and Asians looking for a new religious home; young people looking for a meaning beyond materialism; women and men looking for a church which honors women's spirit."
Unitarian Universalists have been in the forefront of the civil rights, sanctuary and anti-war movements. The church has openly ordained homosexuals to its ministry since 1970, and in 1984 it became the first major denomination to hold religious celebrations for the union of homosexual couples.
The association's recent decision to divest its South Africa-related stocks all at once--rather than gradually, as other church groups are doing--drew wide attention.
Challenge the Scouts
And last fall, Schulz made headlines when he criticized the Boy Scouts of America for expelling a scout who refused to define God as a "supreme being." As a result, scout leaders dropped the requirement and the youth was reinstated and promoted.
Sharing a malaise that affected virtually all mainline and liberal Protestant faiths during the last two decades, Unitarian Universalism suffered a steep membership decline, from a peak of 250,000 in the mid-1960s, to a low of 166,000 in 1980.