THE INTERNET AND GOD
The week of December 14, 2014
Issue-19-UniversalLifeChurch_2500px

Inside the Universal Life Church, the Internet’s one true religion

By Aaron Sankin

Last year my friends Jeff and Veronica sat me down and asked if I would do them the honor of officiating their wedding. Jeff was my college roommate and had been a groomsman when I got married a few years prior. I agreed immediately and quickly went into logistics mode: I’d have to plan the ceremony, write a speech, and do some kind of registration to transform myself from a dude in jean shorts drinking beers in Jeff and Veronica’s living room into someone the state of Texas deemed worthy of performing a ceremony uniting two people in holy matrimony.

I thought back to my own wedding. It was officiated by a close family friend, someone my parents had known since before I was born. She did a great job; by the end of her speech, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. I called her up and asked for advice. Recounting the process she went through preparing for the ceremony, one of the steps caught my ear—going online and becoming ordained as an official minister of the Universal Life Church. It was quick, painless, and only cost a few bucks.

I first heard of the Universal Life Church over a decade prior. In high school, a friend of mine had stumbled across its website. As a sophomoric 15-year-old, the idea that one of my idiot buddies could become an officially licensed clergymen in an actual religion—with a printed-out certificate thumbtacked to his bedroom wall to prove it—was just about the funniest thing imaginable. I wanted to sign up myself, but I made the mistake of telling my parents first. They freaked out that I was signing up for a cult and would end up with my name on “some government list.” My plan of joining the Universal Life Church stopped there; I couldn’t do anything without access to their credit card.

In retrospect, they had little reason to worry. While hard numbers are difficult to come by, one branch of the church estimates that the religion has ordained some 20 million people as ministers since its founding in the late 1950s. Another says it inducts about 35,000 new people into the fold each year.

I was one of those people. According to one church website, so are Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien, Lady Gaga, all four of the Beatles, George Takei, Sammy Davis Jr., Hugh Hefner, and Vanilla Ice.

The Universal Life Church is possibly the most quintessentially American religion of the Internet age. It’s one based on equal parts sincere religious devotion, shameless hucksterism, and a radical belief in near total openness.

It’s also fraught with controversy. As much as the Universal Life Church is a story about religion, it’s also a story about SEO.

Dawn of a new religion

“It’s a thin line dividing genius and idiot,” Universal Life Church founder Kirby Hensley was once quoted as saying. “I think I’m on the genius side.”

The second of seven children, Hensley was born in the small town of Lowgap, N.C., in 1911, a few miles south of the Virginia border. He grew up Baptist and was ordained as a minister in the faith but quickly grew dissatisfied and started looking elsewhere for a pathway to God. He began attending a local Pentecostal church and met a woman named Nora. They soon married. Hensley converted to her religion and had three kids.

Now a Pentecostal minister, Hensley traveled the country. He preached in Oklahoma before settling in the dusty, agricultural town of Modesto in California’s central valley. Functionally illiterate all his life, Hensley hired people to read the Bible to him and dictated his own thoughts for others to transcribe. But he was still unfulfilled.

The Universal Life Church is possibly the most quintessentially American religion of the Internet age.

“My dad became disillusioned with the hierarchies of these established churches he was a part of. [They were] preaching one thing to their congregations and then doing something entirely different themselves,” explained Hensley’s son Andre when I reached him on the phone earlier this year. “He wanted to create a place where people could worship whatever they wanted.”

Hensley founded the Universal Life Church out of his garage in 1959 and started ordaining ministers into his fledgling religion a few years later. It was a offer that proved popular beyond his wildest dreams.

Most religions place strict requirements on their clergies. Officials typically have to believe in very similar things as the religious officials who came before them. At the very least, they are expected to believe in God. The Universal Life Church was different. Hensley’s innovation was a religion with no official doctrine other than the vague, if admirable, “do only that which is right.” If ministers accepted Jesus Christ as their lord and savior, that was fine. If they wanted to worship Satan, that was OK too. If they didn’t have a spiritual bone in their bodies and simply found the thought of being a minister kind of funny, something I could relate to, more power to them.

It was an utterly egalitarian religion that required nothing more from its clergy than a small registration fee.

‘Jesus was a good actor’

Even in its early days, the Universal Life Church didn’t exist in a vacuum. It was the 1960s, and the era’s swirl of political events suddenly made a lot of people think a becoming a minister was a great idea. After the U.S. instituted the draft during the Vietnam War, rumors began circulating that becoming an Universal Life Church minister would get a young man out of service when his draft number came up.

In his iconic counterculture manual Steal This Book, radical anti-war leader Abbie Hoffman recommended readers—especially those who, much like future Vice President Dick Cheney, had “other priorities” than dying face-down in the muck—become Universal Life Church ministers. He called it, “unquestionably one of the best deals going.”

By 1969, the church was ordaining over 100,000 ministers a month, which netted Hensley enough income to move his flock out of the garage and into the nearby building it still occupies today.

However, the deal wasn’t quite as good as advertised. Becoming a minister didn’t exempt anyone from being drafted, but it did raise raise the group’s public profile. The church was featured in an article in a still-young Rolling Stone, and Hensley kicked off a long career of giving outlandish media interviews, which consistently generated a flow of amazing quotes. As compiled in a Modesto Bee profile of the church, Hensley has been quoted saying things like “Jesus was a good actor,” “[The Bible] is full of lies from one end to the other,” and “I always stand for freedom, food and sex. That’s all there is. It sets people free.”

Hensley’s innovation was a religion with no official doctrine other than the vague, if admirable, “do only that which is right.”

In the mid-1980s, Hensley proclaimed himself the sovereign of the Kingdom of Aqualandia and offered people citizenship, which came with a gratis Universal Life Church ministerial certificate, for the low, low price of $35.

Hensley ran for president of the United States twice, and governor of California once, on the platform of “civil treatment for visitors from other worlds.” Needless to say, he lost, but he did get attention—both from the public and from the IRS.

Starting in the early 1970s, the IRS launched a full-scale assault on the church. The feds argued the Universal Life Church wasn’t so much a church as it was a business selling ecumenical snake oil and revoked its tax-exempt status. Both parties eventually settled in 2000—one year after Hensley passed away, leaving control of the organization to the remaining members of his immediate family. The church agreed to pay the government $1.5 million in back taxes.

It wasn’t a bad deal for the Hensley’s direct disciples, which now consisted for a few dozen people who shuffle into that same Modesto church house every Sunday morning, but the multi-decade ordeal had dashed the Universal Life Church’s dreams of worldwide physical expansion.

But for better or for worse, what Hensley birthed was more than able to expand on its own.

A religious war for clicks

What comes up from when one types “Universal Life Church” into Google is, without a doubt, my favorite SEO battle on the Internet. (What, I’m the only person who has favorite SEO battles?)

Opening up private browsing window on Firefox to avoid skewing the results based on my own personal search history, this is what comes up:

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You’ll notice that, other than the Wikipedia entry, pretty much all of the links listed go to different websites. This cornucopia of Universal Life Church options is a result of those sites all being operated by completely independent Universal Life Churches.

Hensley didn’t just believe in letting anyone who so desired become a minister in his religion. He allowed those people to subsequently set up their own congregations—once again, for a price. There’s a $35 registration charge and then a $60 annual renewal fee. Just pause for a moment to let that sink in.

Even excluding Cauley’s World Headquarters in Boca Raton, there are dozens of different Universal Life Churches all boasting their own websites, many of which also offer to induct new ministers into the fold. My personal favorite is the Universal Life Church of Russell, Ky., which accepts Bitcoin donations and can be found at bitcoinchurch.org.

It should be noted that becoming a minister is generally free—it’s getting a physical certificate proving it that costs money. But what good is becoming a Universal Life Church minister if you don’t have anything to hang on the wall, or present it to state bureaucrats, right?

Hensley didn’t just believe in letting anyone who so desired become a minister in his religion. He allowed those people to subsequently set up their own congregations.

For the average person doing a Google search for “Universal Life Church,” the differences between each of the churches probably doesn’t matter. In fact, the reason they’re doing that search in the first place is likely because religion isn’t all that of an important part of their lives. They probably just want to be able to officiate the wedding of a friend or a family member.

“[B]oth [Universal Life Church] ministers and the couples who use them self-describe as non-religious, usually as agnostic, atheist, apathetic, secular, or spiritual,” researcher Dusty Hoesly noted in a presentation at Lewis & Clark College. “Similarly, they describe their weddings in non-religious terms, emphasizing the personalization of the ceremony to match their particular beliefs and tastes as well as the conscious exclusion of most religious language. These secular or spiritual wedding ceremonies reveal non-religious couples’ desires for an alternative apart from bureaucratic civil ceremonies or traditional religious rites.”

Basically, most of the people officially joining the Universal Life Church are doing it as a method of extricating their wedding process from organized religion as much as possible. Therefore, they’re probably just going to go with the Universal Life Church group whose site Google decides is the most relevant.

The group doing the best job of convincing Google that it’s important is called the Monastery. Its websites attract some 15,000 visitors a day, and its history is one fraught with controversy.

‘What a church should be’

Monastery founder Martin Freeman didn’t have an easy childhood. He came from a broken home and spent time in an orphanage. One of his happiest memories involved getting to go to the Davenport Hotel in Spokane, Wash., and enjoying a meal in the beautiful banquet room.

For someone who grew up often deprived these creature comforts, the experience left a major imprint. Sometimes just getting to be alone with someone in a setting designed to temporarily transport you away from everyday cares can be a revelatory, if not a religious experience. It’s a philosophy that guides Freeman to this day.

“Food, freedom, and sex are our mandate,” he told me, echoing Hensley’s line. “If you have them, you’re in heaven; if you don’t have them you’re in hell.”

Freeman started down the road that would lead him into the Universal Life Church by organizing epic, all-night dance parties at a hotel in New York City. “I discovered there was a different attitude inside of the nightclubs in the early disco years. Everyone was together; there weren’t cliques,” he recalled. “I thought about that for a long time and realized that it was a lot like being in church. It seems to say that the language of heaven is music.”

Freeman eventually relocated back to the Pacific Northwest and opened up a nightclub in Seattle called the Monastery. In 1977, he became an ordained Universal Life Church minister and incorporated his club into the church. To Freeman, a self-admitted “old hippie,” the line between spending all night grooving to the beat on a sweaty dance floor and worshipping in a cramped church pew is immaterial. They’re both transcendent pathways to communicating with a higher power.

“Besides,” he said with a laugh, “if you take a head count, you’ll find more people out in the clubs on Saturday night than in church on Sunday morning.”

The movement of the Universal Life Church, in all of its iterations, onto the Internet took what Hensley was offering and made it accessible to anyone in the world at a click of a mouse.

Freeman operated the Monastery as a hub for Seattle outcasts who didn’t quite fit in. It was a haven for the city’s LGBT youth at a time when society wasn’t quite as accepting of sexual differences as it is now. During daylight hours, the Monastery functioned as a youth counseling center; at night, it was a West Coast version of Studio 54 that labeled its parties religious services. The Monastery developed a reputation as a den of underage iniquity—a place where teens could partake in a little bit of sex, drugs, and disco.

These rumors caught the attention of local authorities, who also weren’t too pleased that Freeman used his affiliation with the church to avoid getting a business or liquor license for his establishment. Cops eventually raided the club and, reportedly shouting homophobic epithets at the patrons, arrested all 225 people in attendance.

Authorities only ended up charging three of the people detained that night, but Freeman remained in legal trouble. He lost in a civil trial resulting in the Monastery having to close its doors. At the trial’s conclusion, a judge called Freeman’s house of worship, “a dangerous nuisance and a breeding ground for drug and alcohol abuse that attracted many of the weakest, most confused, and disturbed children in our society.”

Freeman never stopped insisting what he was doing at the Monastery was, at its core, religious. He even filed suit against several Seattle news outlets, including the city’s venerable alt-weekly, the Stranger, for describing the Monastery as a club rather than a church.

As it turned out, the Monastery’s shuttering reverberated across Seattle for decades. In wake of the closure, the Seattle City Council passed the Teen Dance Ordinance in 1985, which mandated all public parties admitting minors unconnected to a school needed to have an adult chaperone for each teen, in addition to carrying a million dollars in liability insurance.

The law effectively outlawed all concerts in the city that welcomed young people. Ironically, during the ‘90s grunge era that was dominated by Seattle bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, a large number of alternative rock shows were held outside the city limits in order to accommodate the bands’ sizable teenage fan bases. Former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic led a crusade to get the law repealed, even going as far as unsuccessfully suing the city on First Amendment grounds.

The ordinance was replaced with another, which is considerably more relaxed, in 2002. By that time, Freeman had turned much of his attention to the Internet. He now operates over half a dozen separate websites like TheMonestary.org and UniversalLifeChurchMinsters.org, detailing the history of the Universal Life Church and selling not only certificates ordination but also some 200 products ranging from black T-shirts emblazoned with the word “Minister” to handbooks on how to lead the perfect wedding.

Becoming a minister is generally free—it’s getting a physical certificate proving it that costs money.

Freeman even sells holy water, but he admits its power is entirely in the eye of the beholder. “Can ideas and intent be transmitted through water? That question is up to the believer,” he said. “If someone wants to buy it and it does them some good, good for them. There are products we sell that even we wonder if they have value [for people], but we hope they do.

“We get our money from people who are ordained and buy our products,” Freeman added. “We don’t pass the plate. We’re proud of that and think it’s what a church should be.”

The Monastery isn’t exactly on good terms with the Universal Life Church in Modesto. Andre Hensley charged that, because Freeman’s group isn’t registered with the original church, it isn’t technically allowed to ordain ministers—though Freeman does it on a daily basis anyway. “Our attorneys are watching them carefully,” Hensley said, adding that he has a great relationship with most other branches of the church, including one based in Illinois that eventually split from the religion his father started entirely.

For his part, Freeman admitted the relationship between the two camps is frosty. “I don’t talk to them and they don’t talk to us,” he said.

Free but not cheap

Most of the Universal Life Church’s continued success for over six decades is largely based on being a large enough tent to include anyone—especially people who want to easily obtain some of the benefits society affords to religion without having to carry the rest of its baggage. From the church’s earliest days, Kirby Hensley surveyed the market, identified a niche that wasn’t being served, and filed it ably.

The movement of the Universal Life Church, in all of its iterations, onto the Internet took what Hensley was offering and made it accessible to anyone in the world at a click of a mouse.

Seminal technologist Stewart Brand famously said that information wants to be free. The 21st-century iteration of the Universal Life Church functions by applying that same axiom to religion. (Well, not quite free—it’s still going to cost a few bucks.)

That there’s internal conflict should be all that surprising, even in a religion founded on the idea of letting people pretty much whatever they want. Hell hath no fury like SEO scorned.

“Food, freedom, and sex are our mandate. If you have them, you’re in heaven; if you don’t have them you’re in hell.” —Monastery founder Martin Freeman

I found this out the hard way after reaching out to a bunch of different religious organizations with “Universal Life Church” in their names and corresponded with a Boca Raton–based group called the Universal Life Church World Headquarters.

After going back and forth for a while over email, I eventually got World Headquarters official Bishop Michael Cauley on the phone. He ordered me not to include his church in this story because he didn’t want to be associated with the other groups. He said that the only thing his church had in common with the other Universal Life Church is a name that technically dates back centuries—although his website does also ordain people as ministers online. He said his church is exclusively Christian, while the others welcome everyone from Buddhists to Pastafarians. He insisted everyone would think I was an “idiot” if I ran the story and even subtly threatened legal action.

The conversation went on for about 15 minutes before I said I had to go. Cauley had called at an inopportune time. My wife’s grandfather had recently passed away, and I had to leave for his funeral. “Maybe your grandfather’s death is a sign from God not to do the story,” he suggested.

I was aghast at what seemed like a cartoonishly manipulative attempt at leveraging a perceived spiritual authority to achieve decidedly selfish, earthly ends. I hung up, fuming. The conversation had briefly pushed me from an easygoing, agnostic Jew into militant, rampaging atheist for a span of about five minutes.

I huffed and puffed around my in-laws’ house before collapsing into a fit of uncontrollable giggling. I was just threatened with eternal damnation over how someone’s website might come up in a Google search. That’s goddamn hilarious.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified where Dusty Hoesly’s presentation took place. It was at Lewis & Clark College.

Illustration by J. Longo