Weddings, Religion, and the Universal Life Church: An Interview with Dusty Hoesly
Wedding season is upon us! If you attend a wedding this summer, you might notice that the officiant is not a professional clergyperson but a friend or relative of the couple. In preparation to officiate a wedding this summer I, like millions of other non-clergypersons, was ordained by the Universal Life Church. (In closely related news, send your congratulations to Cara Burnidge and Mike Graziano!) But what is the ULC? And how does it fit within the landscape of contemporary American religion? To find out, I turned to Dusty Hoesly, a PhD candidate in American religions at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His article “‘Need a Minster? How About Your Brother?’: The Universal Life Church between Religion and Non-Religion” provides a helpful overview to and insightful analysis of the ULC. Today, RiAH welcomes him for an interview that might be just the wedding-season prep scholars of religion need.
Hi Dusty. Thanks for doing this interview. Let’s start with some history. How did the Universal Life Church begin? In what context did it arise?
Thank you for inviting me to share my work with you and the RiAH readers.
|The ULC logo|
Kirby Hensley (1911–1999) began “Life Church” in his home garage in Modesto, California, in 1959, then incorporated it as the Universal Life Church in 1962. Although he was illiterate, he had served as an itinerant minister and church planter for Baptist congregations and then the Assemblies of God, working in North Carolina, Michigan, Oklahoma, California, and other states. However, his views were seen as too idiosyncratic, so he did not remain at any church for too long. Frustrated with theological orthodoxies imposed on him by denominational authorities and congregations, he decided to create a church that would allow anyone to believe whatever they wanted. The ULC’s sole creed became “to do that which is right,” as each determines for themselves what that means. Hensley also sought to ensure First Amendment freedoms for all people. If everyone has their own religion, as he claimed, then everyone should benefit equally from religious liberty protections and enjoy the same benefits accorded to more established religions and to their clergy. Thus, the church ordained anyone for free and for life, with no theological commitments required. It became the most famous and the largest mail-order ministry in America, ordaining over one million ministers by 1971 and spawning thousands of charter churches under its auspices. It also held mass ordinations on college campuses, organized annual national conventions, and published periodicals and other materials.
The social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s are the primary context for the ULC’s growth. During this era, many people explored new and immigrant religions, developed their own eclectic spiritualities, demanded gender equality, insisted upon personal spiritual experiences as authoritative, dropped out of religion altogether, and effected other changes that upended conventional conceptions of religion in America. For those dissatisfied by established religions, the ULC provided an avenue for spiritual growth via correspondence courses for honorary theological degrees. However, the church became more well-known for ordaining men who wanted to avoid the Vietnam War draft and, later, for providing ministerial credentials and chartering churches to people who wished to avoid paying taxes. While a federal judge declared the ULC to be a religion deserving of tax-exempt status in 1974, the ULC’s embrace of the tax protest movement of the 1970s and 1980s resulted in the IRS and local tax agencies investigating the ULC and, ultimately, revoking its tax-exempt status in 1984. Courts upheld this determination and the ULC finally settled with the IRS in 2001. In other contexts, state and federal courts issued contradictory rulings about the ULC’s status as a religion, the religious status of its ministers, and the validity of weddings conducted by ULC clergy. Like many new religious movements, the ULC faced greater government scrutiny than more established religions. The ULC also garnered attention for ordaining celebrities, such as The Beatles, the Rat Pack, Norman Lear, and renowned atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Also during the 1960s and 1970s, for couples seeking to have a “new wedding,” one that eschewed traditional religious elements and placed greater emphasis on the couples’ desires, the ULC provided a vehicle for a friend or relative to get ordained and then to perform the ceremony legally in most jurisdictions.
Three developments have shaped the ULC’s history since the mid-1990s. First, the internet made ordination simpler and expanded access to news media that highlighted ULC weddings and online ordinations. The ULC created its website in 1995 and by 1998 it had ordained over 16 million ministers. Second, the rise of the “Nones” and “spiritual but not religious” self-identifications since 1990—alongside factors such as increased education levels, delayed first marriage, rising rates of interfaith marriage and premarital cohabitation, and the legalization of same-sex marriage—resulted in the rapid growth of couples seeking personalized, nonreligious weddings. Such trends were advertised on TV shows like Friends, Felicity, and others. Third, after the deaths of Kirby Hensley (1999) and his wife Lida (2006), the Universal Life Church Monastery, which had been a branch of the ULC headquarters, took control of the ULC web domain and registered hundreds of other similar domains. The ULC Monastery, led by George Freeman and based in Seattle, Washington, owns most of the websites related to the name Universal Life Church and to associated search phrases such as “online ordination” and “internet minister” (e.g., ulc.org, themonastery.org, and getordained.org). The original ULC is led by Andre Hensley, Kirby’s son. Altogether, the ULC and its offshoots have ordained over 23 million people.
The ULC (and various spin-offs and affiliates) seems to function primarily to ordain people for the purposes of officiating weddings. But does it—or did it, at some point—exist as a more comprehensive community or movement? In other words, are there people who are ULC members for reasons other than officiating a wedding?
Yes, for some people the ULC is a spiritual home. Its open organizational structure and ordination process allow people to obtain credentials for their independent spiritual learning, to take affordable/accessible religious courses, and to create their own ministries. For people who cannot finance or do not have time for traditional seminary training, or whose beliefs are too unorthodox for other religions, the ULC allows them to become ministers with the same legal authority as other clergy. It also ordained women and LGBTQ people from the very beginning, in an era when most religions refused equality in these areas (as many still do). The ULC chartered over 60,000 churches and until the early 2000s it held annual national conventions where hundreds of ULC ministers would meet. Today, thousands of people participate actively in online forums on ULC websites and social media. At the ULC church in Modesto, about 15-20 people gather every Sunday for regular worship.
That said, most ULC ministers are not seeking regular communion with the church or other members. The vast majority of ULC ministers over time have joined for a particular purpose, such as honorary diplomas, draft resistance, tax avoidance, prison allowances, practicing spiritual healing techniques (such as Reiki) legally, and officiating weddings. They are seeking the same benefits that are granted to more established religious institutions and clergy. This does not necessarily mean that their motivations are disingenuous or fraudulent; utilitarian motives underlie much religious activity, from addicts seeking successful drug treatment programs to new parents who return to church to raise their children with the morals they think that religion provides. So, while some people have created or participated in ULC communities, most ministers’ involvement with the church is a one-time transaction that serves a pragmatic purpose.
The ULC has had some battles with the IRS regarding its status as a tax-exempt religious entity. Also, some states and counties have hesitated to recognize ULC ordainment. What are these arguments about? How have critics characterized ULC, and what is their defense?
These arguments spotlight questions of what counts as a religion or church, and who counts as a minister, under purportedly secular law. Due to its unusual ordination process, minimal doctrine, and lack of required rituals or shared texts, government officials have struggled over whether to accept the ULC as a religion and its ministers as bona fide ministers for purposes of recording marriages and allocating marital, tax, and other benefits. Critics have characterized the ULC as a tax dodge, criticized how “casually” and “cavalierly” people become ordained, and asserted that any religion that does not have regular meetings in a house of worship is not a religion. This has resulted in some states, such as Virginia and North Carolina, ruling that the ULC is not a religion, its ministers cannot solemnize marriages, and that weddings performed by such ministers are void.
The federal judge who ruled that the ULC is a religion in 1974 wrote that, “Neither this Court, nor any branch of this Government, will consider the merits or fallacies of a religion,” declaring that to do so would violate the First Amendment. The judge then analogized ULC ordinations to “mass conversions at a typical revival or religious crusade.” A federal court of appeals in a different jurisdiction similarly likened the ULC to the “anticlericalism of the Protestant Reformation and ultimately to the words of St. Paul that the church is a ‘priesthood of all believers.’” The Supreme Court of Mississippi ruled that a ULC minister was “enough of a ‘spiritual leader,’ and the Universal Life Church is enough of a ‘religious body,’” that the wedding performed by the minister was legal according to Mississippi’s marital relations statute. Thus, arguments in favor of the ULC’s religious status fall into two types: reluctance to define religion (and hence to exclude the ULC from that definition), and comparing the ULC favorably to established religions.
For his part, Hensley claimed that the church acted as a “buffer zone” against religious encroachments on freedom of conscience and state infringements on religious liberty: “We don’t need the church to tell us our religion. We are free to express our own religion. We don’t need the state to tell us if we are, or are not, a church. We know, we practice, we are!” Today, nearly all jurisdictions in the United States recognize the ULC as a religion and its weddings as legally valid.
These arguments reveal what Winnifed Fallers Sullivan has termed “the impossibility of religious freedom.” They demonstrate the inconsistency in governmental rulings about what counts as religious, and how newer and unconventional religions are frequently disenfranchised. They also highlight the Protestant basis for American legal conceptions of religion. As long as governments grant benefits to religious organizations and officials, they are entangled in deciding which groups count as religions and which people are recognized as authorized clergy.
You’ve interviewed a number of ULC ministers, couples married by ULC ministers, and even denominational leaders. If you’re able to summarize, what commonalities, similarities, or trends do you see among them?
ULC leaders share Hensley’s view that everyone has their own beliefs, and thus their own religion, and should be able to be a minister of their own religion however they see fit. Individual spiritualities should be treated no differently under the law than long-standing religious institutions. They also acknowledge that today the primary reason people become ordained is to officiate weddings.
Most ULC ministers and couples describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” or as secular. The vast majority of ministers liked that ordination was easy and that they could officiate a friend’s wedding legally. Ministers felt honored to be asked and they described performing these weddings as deeply meaningful. Couples valued that someone close to them performed their wedding ceremony, someone who shared their values and beliefs. Few couples considered having a standard religious or civil ceremony. Most ULC weddings evacuated all religious content, although their format followed that of a conventional Protestant ceremony.
Almost all the people I interviewed said that ULC affiliation was a means to an end, a way to create a legally-valid personalized, nonreligious wedding ceremony. Very few knew much about the church other than that it allowed people to get ordained online for this purpose and that its tenets were not objectionable. When apprised of the church’s doctrine, ministers and couples were glad that they agreed wholeheartedly with its simple ethical precept. They valued the freedom the church afforded to create lifecycle rituals tailored to their own needs and desires.
|A banner from the ULC Monastery |
(they sent me a bumper sticker with this image as part of my ordination packet)
The ULC is a religious institution that is growing rapidly precisely because it embraces diverse non-institutional spiritualities and even secularities, and because it offers people a workaround for state regulations that dole out certain benefits to religious institutions and clergy. Its popularity indicates a continuing trend away from conventional religions and toward personalized spiritualties as well as nonreligious identities. The ULC centers the pragmatic choices embedded in religious belonging and behavior, and it reveals the interpenetration and mutual construction of the religious and the secular.
Given that the ULC has ordained over 23 million people, and that many Americans are familiar with the church (or online ordination), it is surprising that scholars of religion have largely ignored it until now. While often seen as a joke, the fact that the ULC has escaped scholarly attention perhaps says more about the blindspots in our own analytical frames than in the kinds of activity taking place on the ground. When we pay attention to contestations over what counts as religious, instead of taking this category for granted, new vistas of human activity become sites for investigation.
In closing, I’m curious about how this work relates to the rest of your scholarship. What is your larger project, and how does the ULC relate to it?
My work focuses on the relationship between social trends and spiritual and secular formations in post-WWII America, such as new religious movements, incorporation of Asian religions, “spiritual but not religious” phenomena, and secular identifications. I am interested in processes of valuation regarding what counts as religious, spiritual, or secular; who decides; and how those decisions affect people, groups, ideas, and actions. The ULC is an ideal site for me because it lies at the nexus of all these interests and because it has effected a wide-scale transformation of American cultural life.
Awesome. Great stuff, Dusty. Thanks again for this fascinating interview!