One of the things that the Unitarian Universalist movement as a whole does very badly — and I include our own congregation in this — is distinguish between liberal religion and liberal politics. Although we understand intellectually that there is a difference, it’s hard to be a political conservative and feel a real inclusion in our community. Though we give the idea lip service and even have wholly honorable intentions our assumptions slip out in casual conversation and we have even in the past been asked to announce meetings of the Democratic Club, though no such request was ever made for the Republicans.
This would be wrong even if it were true that we are one in politics though not in theology, but there are reasons for the feeling that Unitarian Universalism is the religious wing of the Democratic Party at the present time. Though it may be hard for you to believe, it was only sixty years or so ago that all the leadership of the Unitarian movement was Republican and so were the vast majority of its members. There are many reasons for the change, but it is primarily because of changes in the parties themselves. It is the issues that they embrace that sway us, no matter what the label. Adherents of liberal religion are statistically significantly more likely to adhere to liberal politics. Some years ago there was a careful study that put the correlation as high, if I remember correctly, as 70%. I’m actually being conservative there in my desire not to exaggerate. It may have been much higher, but it was certainly no lower than that. When you find yourself in a large majority it is easy to forget that although our religion does and must influence our politics, it will not necessarily do it in the same way for each individual. And besides that, the words that we use as labels both for our religion and our politics no longer mean what they used to mean.
From its inception Unitarianism meant much more than a belief in a single god, and the humanity of Jesus, though important, was by no means its most significant nor controversial doctrine. Universalism, though it began as the belief that all people would eventually become reconciled to God went through so many changes that by the time of merger its most popular expression was one of universal religion. Unitarian Universalists today have little concern with most of those doctrines. We do sometimes hark back to them in an attempt to draw the lines that relate us to our great forebears, but in general we do not concern ourselves with our differences from our religious ancestors. Liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat have changed even more. At least we can trace how liberal religion developed from its beginnings in the Radical Reformation to what it has become today — at least most of the time. On the other hand liberals are often illiberal, self-styled conservatives wish to make radical changes and conserve nothing except, perhaps their own worldly goods, and the founders both of the Democratic and Republican parties would not recognize them today.
The word liberal has become so tainted that even liberals won’t use it. Probably progressive will be the next to reach the proscribed list. One wonders how we allowed that to happen. It is such a wonderful concept. In its original meaning of generous, it included open-handed, open-hearted — even open-minded, and surely that is its meaning in liberal religion. Politically it accrued to itself the concept of a willingness to consider and use new ideas and to spread the blessings of freedom, prosperity and education to a wider and wider populace. Now it has been used to mean a refusal to consider consequences, a politics of victimization and a rejection of the right of free speech in its rigid political correctness.
I did nearly laugh myself into stitches about the NCAA ruling that schools whose mascots refer to American Indians could not play in their conferences. I’m not actually sure of those details, or for that matter even the name of the ruling body since I am not a football enthusiast, but the issue was clear. The indignation of the Seminoles, FSU and tribe both, was lovely to see. A poll indicated that in general not just the Seminoles but members of other tribes are more prone to like than dislike such names. They probably have the ordinary common sense to realize that people don’t ordinarily name their sports teams for groups of people whom they do not admire. Of course, American Indian itself is a problematic term among the politically correct though I have recently been seeing it used without protest. The problem with “Native American” is that it is merely a matter of date of immigration. A 10,000-year difference is huge, of course, but still most of us have little ethnic identity left except a sort of generalized American. Those whom I have asked have said that their tribal identity is far more important than what outsiders call them en masse.
I always liked conservative, too. It hasn’t been rejected as a word, but it has been completely redefined. It used to mean the honoring and conserving of the institutions of the past and a cautiousness about trying out new ideas. Conservatives were particularly concerned with issues of individual freedom and privacy and with property rights as well as economic responsibility. I loved the liberals, but I loved the conservatives, too. Now it seems that it is the so-called conservatives who are invading our bedrooms and our doctors’ offices, spending public money like drunken sailors while cutting taxes to insure government instability, making every effort to destroy our public schools (government schools they’re calling them since they’ve managed to make government a dirty word too) and trashing the constitutional separation of church and state.
It is amazing to think what has happened to the Republican Party since the days when all the Boston Brahmins who led Unitarianism were Republicans. It started back when the Democratic Party actually started to take civil rights seriously and began enforcing voting rights and the integration of the public schools — among other things. The Solid South de-solidified and southern racists bolted the Democratic Party to create the Dixiecrats. I suspect that if it had been the Republicans who had been in power at the time they would have done the same as the Democrats about civil rights and wouldn’t have been tempted to desert the principles of the Party of Lincoln to formulate their “southern strategy” to woo the Dixiecrats. Nonetheless it was an incredible reversal of their historic positions. I sometimes wonder how the people who so vigorously assert their “southern heritage and tradition” by flying or otherwise displaying the Confederate battle flag can get the word Republican out of their mouths when asked their party affiliation. Nevertheless, it is again the “solid south.” That was the wedge that allowed their traditional conservatism to be taken captive by the “neo-cons”.
The neo-cons are by no means true conservatives. Not only do they seem (and this appears to be well-documented) to feel that they have an imperial mission to bring the rest of the world into American style democracy, if necessary through force, but they also appear to be eager to bring down some of our most cherished institutions, particularly the first amendment to the constitution and the public schools. At first I believed that they were simply wrong-headed in believing that free market competition was the best way to improve the public schools. It is respectable, if naïve to think that such competition necessarily increases quality. We see over and over again places where this does not hold true as in the news media and the experiments in private management of prisons, but competition in some areas does improve performance. However, with the present onslaught on the public schools from the right-wing pundits and the starvation of those schools whose students most need help, I am beginning to think that it is intentional destruction. A free society requires that free secular education be available to everyone. It seems to be the goal to have children placed only in religious schools where they can be indoctrinated with the false history and values of the fundamentalists.
I can still laugh at their efforts to replace the teaching of science with the teaching of religion in biology classes, suggesting that at least the theory of intelligent design brings them up to the 18th century, but in some places it is beyond a joke. It shows an inherent lack of understanding of what science is and what it is not. I do not have to tell you that to set a faith statement up as a matter to be taught by scientists in science class is not only ludicrous but frightening in what it says about the ignorance of our leaders. Even with the present tentative, nervous teaching that we presently have, a large percentage of our college students reject the findings of evolutionary theory.
It is also scary to imagine how many people, ignorant of our history, (and it’s amazing how many of our citizens have avoided learning anything whatever about it) will believe the propaganda that the neo-cons are spreading about our original establishment as a Christian nation. They cite references to God in
The neo-cons took over the leadership of the Republican Party in the same way that the fundamentalists took over the Southern Baptist Convention. They took responsibility, did the volunteer work, accepted leadership that others were too busy or too uninterested to do, and ended by shaping its practice. This rise of fundamentalism is, I believe, a direct consequence of the electronic revolution’s shrinking of the earth, but the Republican Party’s weakness gave the fundamentalists power. An equivalent and equally dangerous result, however, can be found at the other end of the spectrum and housed among the Democrats. It has become the home of the diversity wonks and the politics of victimization which turns empowerment into entitlement. Democrats are still supported by the unions, but the unions have opted for protectionism rather than the free and open trade that used to be the hallmark of the liberals, and so the party with otherwise support only among the marginalized goes along with protectionism. Instead of the hope of one world it is the Democrats who are raising the barriers to trade to protect our affluent businesses and their unions.
I am not, in this polemic about the dangers to us posed by our political parties’ desertion of the ideals that made them and us great, suggesting that we desert them. We should maintain our affiliations and work from within to bring them back to true liberalism and true conservatism, honoring and supporting those institutions that have made us free, practicing generosity and compassion with wisdom, putting the good of the nation and of the world ahead even of votes. I suspect if we did the votes might even come.
We need, though, to understand that the labels we use today, Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, no longer have any meaning attached to them, and the labels we give to those with whom we agree or with whom we disagree no longer work. When we are surprised to discover that a fellow member actually disagrees with us on a political issue, we should not either feel insulted or dismiss the other, but stay in dialogue to learn that the influence of liberal religion on politics, whether they be liberal themselves or conservative is very real. In a discussion you will be reminded that all of us still believe, as we have always believed, that character is far more important that gender, ethnic background or sexual orientation. You will hear not assertions from authority such as the Bible or the statements of the president but cogent, reasoned arguments for why the person with whom you disagree believes as he or she believes. You will note that whatever the opinion there is a dependence on evidence, on knowledge and the democratic process. These are the values of liberal religion that translate into politics, whether those politics are liberal or conservative. We need not think alike to love alike, as Unitarian bishop Francis David said over 400 years ago, but the love that we share must be based on respect and understanding of one another, whatever our political differences. It is, after all, based on the same religion with its common goal of a world of freedom, plenty and peace for all people.