By Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho (ngier@uidaho.edu)

Religious Liberalism and the Founding Fathers  

Wondrous Trinities Everywhere   

Religion is our human response to the dual reality

of being alive and having to die.

--Forrest Church


          Frank Forrester Church IV died of esophogeal cancer on September 24, one day after his 61st birthday.  He was Minister of Public Theology at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in New York City, where he served for over 30 years.  When Church arrived in 1978, fresh from Harvard Divinity School, attendance at the services climbed from barely a 100 to sometimes over 1,000.


          It is ironic that I had the privilege of meeting the Rev. Church and his mother Bethine, but never got to meet Frank Church, the equally famous father and husband.  I've lived in Idaho since 1972 so there were many lost opportunities to meet Idaho's great senator, second only to William Edgar Borah.  I had the great pleasure of meeting Bethine Church while serving on the Borah Foundation Committee in the late 1980s.  Mrs. Church was one of the moderators of the 1990 Borah Symposium on "The New Europe."


Forrest Church was born in Stanford, California while his father was going to law school.  He grew up in Boise where the elder Church practiced law from 1950-56.  The young Church then went on to Stanford and Harvard for his university education. His doctoral studies were in the area of early Church history.


          Sometime in 2003 Forrest Church wrote to me praising my book Spiritual Titanism.  I was flattered by the compliments, especially his confession that I had convinced him that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was worth rereading. The last time I saw Forrest Church was in New York City, where I was invited to give a presentation on "The Saints of Non-Violence" to the All Soul's Adult Religious Education class.  I kept up e-mail contact until his death.  I was especially keen on praising him for his amazing NPR interview with Terry Gross on October 27, 2008 and the good reviews that his books were receiving.


        In the Fall of 2003 Church came to Moscow at the invitation of Douglas Jones, a member of fundamentalist Christ Church.  Jones challenged Church to a debate about the nature of the good life, and hundreds of people showed up at the University of Idaho Student Union eager to hear the two men's views on the subject. The invitation, however, was a trap.  Jones' real topic was the Trinity and his grilling of Church was just as bad as John Calvin's interrogation of Michael Servetus, our Unitarian martyr who was burned at the stake in 1553 for insisting on the unity of God.  Calvin's defense of the Trinity, however, was much better than Jones' and I was inspired to do write a critique of his rather clumsy Trinitarian theology. Forrest Church took the evening in stride and good humor, chocking up the whole experience as an interesting "anthropological study" of the world of biblical absolutists, whose fervent commitment to doctrine is sometimes only exceeded by their bad manners.


Church's public ministry focused on the poor and the oppressed and he was responsible for a New York City ad campaign that had the slogan "AIDS is a human disease and deserves a humane response."  He was also committed to the biblical mandate that we must be good stewards of the earth.


Church was also a prolific writer, authoring over two dozen books. His most controversial book was God and Other Famous Liberals.  With half a tongue in cheek, Church reminds conservatives that God "has a bleeding heart that never stops." In a review Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote: "This thoughtful and spirited book reminds us all that the Bible and the flag are not the private property of the radical right."


The Church writings that drew my most attention were his studies of the early American Republic with a focus on the relation between state and religion. As my own contribution to the 1976 Bicentennial, I wrote an essay entitled "Religious Liberalism and the Founding Fathers." Church's thorough research in So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State and The Separation of Church and State backed up my more feeble efforts in the this area. 


          In a review of So Help Me God in the New York Review of Books,  Gordon S. Wood describes the book as "an illuminating and entertaining work of history and the best account of the first five presidents and their relation to religion that we have."  Coming from the dean of American historians, this is high praise indeed.


As a practicing Unitarian, I've always liked the following comment by Episcopal Minister Bird Wilson: "Among all our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of religion, at least not more than Unitarianism" (October, 1831).  Thomas Jefferson was convinced that it would take very little time for all Americans to convert to Unitarianism, but the good Rev. Church was actually happy with America's rich religious pluralism and he criticized Jefferson for being a "fundamentalist of the left" just as he condemned the fundamentalists on the right.


Church's last book was the memoir Love and Death: My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow, which he wrote after his first battle with cancer.  Always rhetorically superb, he admitted that he was not sure if he could "ace the death exam" after counseling dying parishioners for 30 years. In her NPR interview Terry Gross asked Church if his own theology worked when he finally faced death.  Church answered that it did.  He said that if people can make peace with their lives, then they are ready to make peace with their deaths.  In a 2008 New York Times interview Church stated: "I look back without regrets, and I look forward without fear. I have never been more in the present."  He declared that he had no unfinished business, and that freed him to be completely open to friends and family.


          When asked by Gross what he thought of the idea that one's death is God's plan, he firmly rejected the notion.  Church believes that God does not micromanage the universe, and that the idea that God causes everything, including great evils, makes God into an immoral monster.


Church claims that Unitarians are the most humble of all religious people, because they do not presume to have answers to unanswerable questions.  One of those imponderables is whether there is life after death. The Rev. Church once confessed: "I have no idea what happens after we die, and so I go with Henry David Thoreau who, when he was asked about the afterlife, said, 'Madam, I prefer to take it one life at a time.'"


 Let us all take a moment to reflect on the passing of a giant of American liberal theology.