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Unity as American Religion

From an historical perspective, it is not surprising that a religion like Unity would be established and flourish in the United States. Scholars have long argued that certain conditions in America — the separation of church and state, the diversity of religions, and the availability of religious and political freedoms — paved the way for a different kind of religion than the state-sponsored traditions found in the countries from which American settlers came. In The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, Harold Bloom (1992) argues that the United States has become a post-Protestant nation of religious seekers who claim to be Christian but have abandoned many of the traditional "Christian" aspects of religion. The concepts of the "crucified Jesus" and the "Jesus who ascended again to the Father" have been replaced by the resurrected Jesus who conquered death (p. 32). Rather than viewing God as an outside force, Americans discover God within the self. This personal salvation is "a one-on-one act of confrontation" with God rather than salvation as a result of participation in a community of believers (p. 32). Bloom further describes the American religion as Biblical, creedless, pragmatic, experiential and individualistic. The American Religion outlines how these characteristics are present in five American churches: Mormon, Christian Science, Seventh-Day Adventist, Jehovah's Witness and Pentecostal. Although Bloom's work is controversial, his insights regarding American Gnosticism and his investigation of Christian Science and New Age make his theories particularly pertinent to this sociological study of Unity.

Bloom contends that the American religious continuum has opposite poles, which he describes as "the 'positive thinking' aspect of our optimism, and the Gnostic despair of society that is our even more persistent pessimism" (p. 55). At the Gnostic end of the continuum, Bloom places Mormons and Southern Baptists, which he describes as being similar in spiritual temperament and "sensibility of belief (p. 35). In his opinion, these are the "best" examples of the American religion. Describing himself as a "Gnostic Jew" (p. 258), Bloom expresses contempt for the positive thinking end of the continuum, which he exemplifies by Christian Science and the New Age movement. His specific arguments with these movements center around what he calls their inability to accept reality, specifically the reality of death (p. 131). He contends that the healing of Christian Science "remains very much a revelation of what we should call the American will" (p. 138) because of its refusal to accept disease and death. Regarding New Age, Bloom writes that

God, for the New Age, is rather too purged of the anthropomorphic for my taste ... A God immanent both in outward nature and in consciousness evades the intervening space of incarnation. Christianity therefore is mostly irrelevant to the New Age, except insofar as Christianity already has been modified into the American Religion, of which the New Age is sometimes a charming parody, (p. 184)

Unity rightly belongs on the optimistic pole, and is a not-so-distant relative of both Christian Science and New Age philosophies. Bloom would no doubt find fault with the movement, especially the belief that each individual's thought processes create the reality in which he or she lives. Regardless of Bloom's likely opinion of Unity, this growing religion certainly displays all the characteristics Bloom uses to describe American religion. In the following sections, this chapter delves more deeply into the characteristics of American religion as described by Bloom and various sociologists, how Unity displays these characteristics and the implications they have for Unity as a movement.

© 1997, Rebecca Gittrich Whitecotton
All rights reserved by the author.
Reprinted with permission.