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Home » Unitarian Politicians and Other Oxymorons: Lessons from the Life and Times of Adlai Stevenson

Unitarian Politicians and Other Oxymorons: Lessons from the Life and Times of Adlai Stevenson


The Harvard Square Library is excited to present in time for this election season a special collection of documents pertaining to Adlai Stevenson and his Unitarian faith.   These documents have been made available courtesy of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington, Illinois (Joan Banks and John Muirhead, congregational historians; the documents are all available in the “links” column on the left).

Many Unitarian Universalists have heard what can often feel as tired jokes about the tradition:  that UUs follow Moses’ “Ten Suggestions,” or that you can drive UUs out of town by burning question marks on their lawns.  What likely fewer know is that these jokes were developed by comedian Mort Sahl as a way of poking fun at what many people felt were the wishy-washy attitudes of Unitarian politician Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965).  Stevenson himself was sure that what others misread as lack of conviction on his part was in fact the expression of his most profound commitments.  Even Mort Sahl, a personal friend of Stevenson’s, made it clear that joking aside, Stevenson was the finest person he had ever known.

Stevenson remains a fascinating and divisive figure.  He won the 1952 democratic national party nomination for president–without any campaigning–only to lose the general election to Eisenhower by landside.  He would again win the nomination in 1956 only to lose to Eisenhower once more.  Most voters were put off by his minority religion, intellectual demeanor, patrician class, and unconventional marital status (divorced).  Yet many people felt that the only problem with Stevenson was that he was actually too fine a person for politics.  Of course, this was an impression that he himself cultivated, especially in his 1952 acceptance speech, where he reluctantly accepted nomination for the greater good, saying that otherwise, he would “let this be a cup that passes from me.”

Stevenson’s mixed reception among the American people foreshadowed the way that politics would change over the next six decades.   In many ways people in midcentury America expected polite and dignified behaviors from their presidential candidates.  When the first televised Presidential debate was held in 1956, Eisenhower and Stevenson did not appear personally, but rather appointed representatives (Stevenson, interestingly enough, asked a woman to speak on his behalf). Everyone simply understood that such a direct adversarial process on TV media was beneath the dignity of presidential candidates.  Stevenson’s gentlemanly behaviors worked within this milieu.  He always advocated holding differences lightly, and maintaining the public sphere as a place hospitable to many opinions.  He found aggressive partisanship morally repulsive and personally vulgar.   And yet the fact that it was possible to mistake Stevenson’s respect for moderately expressed difference for a refusal to take a stand suggested that the political climate was already changing.  As he himself said: “I’m not an old, experienced hand at politics. But I am now seasoned enough to have learned that the hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning.”

Stevenson explained his concerns about political and ideological polarity in his address to the UU Church Bloomington on its 90th anniversary (full text available in the link in the left column):

quotationsCan it be that a chief cause of discord in human affairs is not so much the undesirable nature of beliefs as it is the prevalence of competitive indoctrination among them?  Alfred Adler one offer the opinion that “it is easier to fight for one’s beliefs than to live up to them.” In effect, this is what we have across the entire fabric of human affairs: rents and tears caused by the constant vendettas carried on by competing faiths: religious, social, and ideological.

 If there is anything that the whole idea of liberalism militates against it is the notion of competitive indoctrination.  And therein lies our potential strength in this current era of grave.  When we start with the premise that we want human brotherhood just as soon as everyone gives up his faith and accepts ours.  That day will never come.  The richness of human diversity cannot be abolished.  Difference is in the nature of life.  It is part of our moral universe.  It should be gladly and enthusiastically welcomed. 

There is no doubt but what that Stevenson saw these beliefs about difference as an expression of his Unitarian faith.  Stevenson first signed the membership book at the Bloomington Unitarian Church in 1952, thus joining the congregation founded by Stevenson’s own great grandfather.  His mother had been a Unitarian Republican, and his father a Presbyterian Democrat, so he often joked that his expedient solution was to join his party and her church.

While Stevenson maintained both publicly and privately that his commitment to Unitarianism was unwavering throughout his adult life, he did face controversy regarding his religious identity in 1955, when he signed the membership book of the Presbyterian church in Lake Forest, Illinois.  Stevenson always asserted that he saw no conflict in joining the church in a town where there was no Unitarian option, and maintaining his primary membership in the Bloomington Unitarian Church.  Others were not so sure, and while the Unitarians were quick to note that they allow dual memberships, they were also put out to think Stevenson would not see a conflict between Unitarian theology and subscribing to the creed required for Presbyterian church membership.   Even the American Unitarian Association President, Frederick May Eliot, wrote in private correspondence that if Adlai thought he could reconcile these two things, he needed a crash course in Unitarianism.

Eventually, four ministers, two Unitarian and two Presbyterian, issued a formal statement saying that the dual membership was perfectly legitimate and that all understood Stevenson’s Unitarian identity to be uncompromised.  Apparently, Stevenson had been allowed to join the Presbyterian church in Lake Forest without having to attest to the truth of the Westminster Confession.  But the rumors that Stevenson had joined the Presbyterian church in order to soft-peddle his Unitarian commitment for political purposes persisted for years.


President John at Adlai Stevenson's memorial at the Unitarian Church in Bloomington, IL.  Photo courtesy of the McLean County Museum of History.

President Johnson at Adlai Stevenson’s memorial at the Unitarian Church in Bloomington, IL. Photo courtesy of the McLean County Museum of History.

When Stevenson died in July of 1965, Rev. Robert Reed, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington, officiated at the final funeral service for Stevenson at the church, which was attended by then President Lyndon Johnson. Reed was assisted by Rev. Martin D. Hardin, an associate minister of the Presbyterian Church of Buffalo, New York, and a cousin of Stevenson’s, and by Dana McLean Greeley, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Greeley gave a laudatory but rather abstract eulogy for the statesman.  Greely said privately that he was surprised to be asked to do the service, because he felt that Stevenson had deliberately snubbed him and Unitarianism by not attending his worship at Arlington Street Church when campaigning brought him to Boston.

Unitarian Universalist historian Susan Ritchie is convinced that Stevenson did not soft peddle his commitment to Unitarianism so much as that commitment itself cultivated his highly tempered nature.  Of course, not all Unitarians of the time would have understood moderation as a necessary part of the faith.  Unitarian ethicist James Luther Adams, first a fervent supporter of Stevenson, withdrew that support when he realized that Stevenson, while in favor of integration, wanted even that important justice process to be moderate and gradual.

Finally, we cannot know what was in Stevenson’s heart, of course.  But the questions about whether it is possible to hold political, religious, and ideology difference in politeness are ever more in the fore.  And there is no doubt but what it is easy to look back at Stevenson’s time in nostalgia, and wonder just a little about a political process that presumed and attempted to enact the highest standards of human decency, goodness, and potential.  And there is no doubt but what his words were prophetic.  Stevenson always claimed that the greatest weakness of democracy was in cultivating the sort of leadership democracy requires and deserves, and that “in America, anybody can be president. That’s one of the risks you take.”