"Every day, people are straying away from the church and going back to God."

- Lenny Bruce

universal life church Hello there, I'm a religious zealot. No, really. I mean, I may not carry my propaganda with me, and I certainly will not thump you with anything, but I don't mind a little pulpit action now and then.

What religion do I preach? None in particular, actually. I just enjoy the subject, and I love seeing people either squirm away from the subject, or join in with enthusiasm. If I preach anything, it's tolerance. I love learning about not only the different religions people practice, but also how people actually practice their religions.

America is a funny country. It is one of few nations that does not have an officially recognized or sanctioned religion. This has a lot of great perks; of which my favorite is there's no such crime as "heresy". Think about it. Isn't it liberating to know that you cannot be hanged or burned at the stake.. at least not by the government? I know it helps me sleep at night.

Not only that, we work really hard to keep it that way. There's always some argument going on about the "separation of Church and State" or "the establishment clause". This all boils down to what the Constitution of the United States has to say on the subject. Well, actually, the first Amendment of the Constitution. See the framers of the Constitution took a few things for granted, believing we had certain inalienable rights. They eventually decided to write ten of those rights down, calling them the Bill of Rights, and added them to the Constitution in 1791.

In any case, the First Amendment says the following: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Now if you ask me, truly, the First Amendment says all of the really important stuff that governs the freedoms we all enjoy. I can worship whomever I want, or no one at all if I should choose. I can say whatever I want, and write whatever I want, criticizing or praising anybody I choose. I can hang out with a bunch of my close personal friends who share my beliefs. Finally, I can register my complaints about anything to the government, when other people, including the government, try to mess with my rights. What a country.

What blows my mind, though, is the fact that it isn't the free speech part, or the petition of grievances part that comes first. It's the free exercise of religion. This was a pretty revolutionary idea at the time, literally. Sometimes, it still seems to be a radical concept to this day. This brings me to my whole zealot status I mentioned.

I love religion. All of 'em. Old, new, reformed or orthodox. Pick a god, any god. They're pretty cool by me (and the goddesses too). Wow. Love 'em. Problem was, I use to think they were all mutually exclusive. This belief of mine coming from my upbringing, as I'm sure is similar to yours, especially if you belonged to one of The Big Three religions; Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The First Commandment says, "You shall have no other gods before Me."

Again, amazing how the biggies are listed first to get the most attention. My point being, in my youth I took this to mean that all other religions were false. As I grew older, and perhaps more cynical, I realized this is a statement of jealousy. More over, it acknowledges other gods exist; this one just wants to be praised first. Well more power to Him, I say.

So I started wondering, are there churches, or other religions, out there that broadly embrace all religions, or at least as many as they can list. The answer, it seems, is a big fat YES! The biggest, or at least, the most readily available and accessible, is the Universal Life Church.

You may or may not have heard of this church before. What you may have heard may also be positive or negative about it. I'm all for listing the good and bad sides of everything, because I personally want to know all sides of an issue and want to help everyone make their own decision. Free exercise. Gotta love it.

Headquarters for the Universal Life Church
Modesto, California
The Universal Life Church, or ULC, was started in 1959 by Kirby Hensley in Modesto, California. The ULC is a non-denominational and interfaith church. Its goal was and still is to legally ordain anyone as a minister of the ULC regardless of sex, race, age, creed, or religious belief. That's right, no matter what your personal religious beliefs are. The idea being that not only do you not have to shed your beliefs and ties to your current church, but you could legally preach and administer your beliefs.

The practical purpose of this is to legally ordain a person to be able to perform marriage ceremonies. For anyone, no matter his or her beliefs. This ordination is legal in all 50 states because an organized church has decreed it. Many county and state governments have regulations that require the minister to be 18 or older, or that they be licensed in that state. However some states do not.

Arizona, for example, states that "any licensed or ordained clergy" must perform the ceremony. Put simply, if you are ordained by the ULC, that is good enough for them. Nevada on the other hand, which is famous for its weddings, has stricter rules. A minister wishing to perform a marriage must have a congregation or church established in the state of Nevada, and they have a complex set of forms to file in advance. This should not be considered a setback of course, because as an ordained member of the ULC clergy, you can set up your own congregation.

Stephen Colbert
Ordained Universal Life Church Minister
In fact, as a ULC minister, you can officiate one wedding ceremony or make it your business. You can minister at funerals, baptisms, and house blessings, whatever. You can form your own church, hear confessions, offer counseling, grant absolution, and even ordain others.

They only ask that you promote the freedom of religion and that as a minister you "do that which is right." So long as you believe it is right, it is not illegal, and does not infringe another's rights, then you can do what you will. Essentially they follow a legal version of the Golden Rule.

So what's the catch, right? How much does an ordination cost and what do you have to do to get one? Time was, when the church started, it was a mail order organization, and they did ask a small fee for the Certificate of Ordination. Now, thanks to the internet, anyone can get online, visit www.ulc.org, fill out a form, and become ordained for free. The credentials pop-up on screen with your name, you print them out, and voilĂ  you are an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church.

Heh, it can't really be that easy, I thought. Fact is this is both the blessing and the damnation of the ULC. It is just that easy. There is no formal indoctrination, no schooling, no anointing, and no swearing allegiance to uphold an ancient dogma, which has served as the instrument of persecution.. ahem, I mean, no oaths. And no nice red uniforms, oh damn. Sorry.

Since it is an automatic process, it is therefore quite easy to take advantage of the ordination process. People have been ordained as a practical joke, using false, profane, or silly names; people have ordained their pets, dead people, famous people, fictional characters, etc. The ULC lost credibility in the past because of this, but has instituted controls in filing their ordination requests. Legal names must be used in order to be valid, and people actually go through each request and only record those that are not suspicious.

Even though these processes are in place, and the ordinations are legal, there are still those who deride the church and its members. Granted, the idea of going online to become a priest so you can perform a marriage ceremony is humorous. It makes for great comedy material. For example, on the NBC show Friends, when Chandler and Monica were engaged, Joey went online and got ordained so he could be the one to marry his best friends. While this is funny, I personally also think it is very sweet. The fact that this is legal, and most people don't believe it is, is what makes it funny to me.

Conan O'Brien
Ordained Universal Life Church Minister
The idea appealed to me back in October of 2001. Sorry, I just had to stop and realize that was over two years ago. So much has happened since then. For me, I did it, believe it or not, in response to the September 11 attacks. I personally suffered a crisis of Faith, as I think many people in this country did. A holy war brought about the deaths of many innocent people on American soil. Things like this happened all the time in other countries. But now it was personal.

Until that day, I considered myself unofficially to be an apathetic agnostic. But even I had the question cross my mind, "How could God let this happen?" This question either shored up or decimated the faith of many people. At first, I wobbled unsteadily upon the picket fence I had until then balanced effortlessly along.

After the attack, I saw and heard things that made me feel the gamut of negative emotions. Horror, Fear, Anger, Sadness, and Confusion in the beginning as my TV witnessed the destruction in NY and DC. Then I had begun to feel Pride, Charity and Love again as I watched the bravery and humbleness of those at Ground Zero, NY. Then I watched the negative sides of my fellow Americans emerge -- Hate, Intolerance, Pain, Ignorance, and Prejudice. To hear stories of violence and persecution against Arabian or Muslim Americans disgusted me beyond words.

Then, when I honestly thought things couldn't have seemed worse, Jerry Falwell came onto the scene. At a time of our darkest hour, when what we needed to see was the light at the end of a tunnel somewhere, his words caused a cave in. He said, "The pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians... the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen'."

To put it politely, I snapped. I wanted to do something, anything, to affirm my personal belief that in this country, people had the right to say and believe anything they liked. I found the ULC online, became ordained, and decided to form my own "church".

I created a website where anyone could come if they chose, to speak their minds, share their ideas and ideals, their hopes, dreams, and prayers. Where all gods and goddesses could be worshipped, discussed, and analyzed. A place where questions about rituals, beliefs, doctrines could be answered. I don't have all the answers, so the more people who visit and communicate, the better. It's my personal effort to snub the Religious Reich.. er, Right, and proof that I finally shed my apathy.

I do believe in the Divine. Those internal and external forces that elude our five senses that make us fail to prove their existence. But proof does not deny faith as far as I'm concerned, neither does lack of proof. I agree and disagree with the tenets of many religions, so I do not consider myself a follower of any particular path. But the path I am on is one of enlightenment. Enlightenment is not a destination, but a journey.

Richard Branson
Ordained Universal Life Church Minister
A "minister" is not the same as a "preacher". Many times the terms are interchanged, and sometimes people may take what I do as preaching. I call it "rambling". I'm espousing my own beliefs. You may share them or not. I am not hurt if you choose not to agree with my points of view. In contrast, the goal of a preacher is to encourage you to do more than share their beliefs. They tell you what is right and wrong, and what the consequences of your choices are. I am an advisor, or counselor, by my nature. I am happy to give advice and help to those who ask me for it. But I do not tell people that they have to do what I say.

The Universal Life Church granted me the opportunity to be recognized for what I have been all my life: a Minister. Ordained and recorded by their Registry in Modesto, California. Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona. Chartered by the Divine on a special quest: Life.

In my mind, the ULC represents the great alternative religion. It has stood up to even the playing field for everyone. This is what ultimately upsets the established religions that have made their churches into exclusive clubs. Or perhaps, more accurately, have turned the Afterlife into the Ultimate exclusive club. We all pay the same admission fee to get there.

Pick one, pick none, pick all of the above. If you like, take a peek at my website, www.AquariusChurch.org, the Aquarius Church of Enlightenment. I'll end this with one of my favorite quotes by Thomas Jefferson.

"Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth."

- Thomas Jefferson

Originally published in Acrimony Magazine Issue #7 March 2004