The Rev. Peter Morales, 62, was elected to a four-year term as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association last June. He is the first Latino president of the association. He was elected on a platform of growth and multiculturalism, and he is an outspoken advocate for immigration reform and environmental justice.
Before entering the ministry, Morales was a Fulbright lecturer in Spain, a newspaper editor and publisher in Oregon, a Knight International Press Fellow in Peru and a regional manager in California state government.
In his first visit to the Tampa Bay area as president, Morales spoke with Bill Maxwell, a Times correspondent who has been a Unitarian since 1969.
Many people believe that Unitarian Universalism is a new religion — or not a religion at all. How long has it been around, and what are its historical roots?
Our roots go back to the Reformation and beyond. The Unitarians and Universalists were Protestant movements that rejected the view of God as an angry judge who would condemn most human beings to eternal damnation. The Unitarians emphasized reason, freedom and tolerance. The Universalists viewed God as infinitely loving, believing all people would be saved.
In America, both groups emphasized values of freedom and democracy. They played a key role in the American Revolution. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson considered themselves Unitarians.
Later, both groups were involved in antislavery, women's rights and civil rights. Susan B. Anthony was a Unitarian. Today, Unitarian Universalists continue to stand with the oppressed and marginalized on such issues marriage equality, immigration, and environmental justice.
After more than a century of working closely together, the Unitarian and Universalist churches in America merged in 1961. Next year is the 50th anniversary of our united faith.
What do Unitarian Universalists believe?
Unitarian Universalists do not have a creed. We believe creeds are limiting and end up causing conflict. What unites us is not a set of beliefs, but rather common values of compassion, community, freedom, justice and stewardship. I like to tell people that we are united by what we love, not what we think. I would add that all this emphasis on religious belief is a very modern phenomenon. Jesus and the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures cared about what people did, not what they thought. We follow in that tradition.
We have members who consider themselves theists and many members who think of themselves as agnostics or even atheists. We are comfortable with people taking different paths and having different opinions. As one of our founders, Francis David of Transylvania, said, "We need not think alike to love alike."
What are the greatest issues facing you as president?
I am dealing with the effects of this terrible recession. We have had to cut our budget, and that is painful.
What are the greatest challenges facing your movement today?
We live in a time of historic cultural change. The majority of children in America are not white. Our cities typically have people speaking 70 or more languages. A new America is coming into being. We Unitarian Universalists must prepare ourselves to minister to this new America. We need to train a new generation of religious leaders who can transcend cultural barriers.
I believe, because I have experienced it for years, that many people today are hungry for liberal religious community — for a spiritual home where they grow in depth, form strong bonds of community, raise children with strong values, and join with others to help heal our broken world. Our greatest challenge is to realize our potential and our calling.
Can women serve as Unitarian Universalist ministers? What about gays and lesbians?
We welcome all people into our ministry. More than half our ministers today are women. We do not discriminate against gay and lesbian ministers. I am proud that we have been on the forefront of inclusion for some time. We care about the gifts a minister brings and his or her passion, not gender or sexual orientation. Many of our leading ministers are gay or lesbian.
If you don't have one set of beliefs, what are children taught in your Sunday school classes?
We have wonderful religious education programs in our congregations. We teach our children that they are precious. We teach them about our faith and our history. We teach compassion for all people and stewardship of creation. We teach children to respect differences, including religious differences. We teach that other people have their beliefs and traditions and this is just fine. We also teach them to respect themselves. Finally, I am especially proud of our religious education program in human sexuality. We teach about sexuality in a context of acceptance, the importance of relationships and personal responsibility.
What are your worship services like?
We come from the Protestant tradition. A typical worship service has elements that are familiar to those who have attended Christian worship. We sing hymns, we have choirs, we have a sermon, and we take an offering.
How many Unitarian Universalists are there in the United States? How many congregations? Where is your headquarters?
We have more than 1,000 congregations across the country. The adult membership of these congregations totals just under 160,000. However, most surveys show that 600,000 people consider themselves Unitarian Universalists. We are headquartered in Boston.
There are Unitarians and Universalists in many countries, though America is the largest by far. There are Unitarian churches in Romania dating back to the Reformation. There are thousands of Unitarians in Great Britain. However, we also have groups across Europe, in the Philippines, India, Australia, Indonesia, Mexico, Uganda and other countries.