Big Issues/Ultimate Values

Earth Day, Blah-Blah

I am not going to preach about Earth Day -- or let’s say, I really hate preaching about Earth Day. 

In the liberal church, it is a waste of time and energy and a subtle reminder of our acquiescence in our powerlessness.  It is humiliating. 

Let me say what I am thinking on this: 

I believe that the human civilization has using the energy resources of the planet at a pace and in ways that will be life-threatening to billions of people and great numbers of other species.  Climate change is a part of this.  Encroachment onto other species habitats are another part of this.  Pollution another.

This is our global economic system, involving the livelihood of every person on the planet in our core economic and social roles.

Human civilization is a machine that extracts resources from the Earth, uses that energy to create other kinds of wealth, and spreads that wealth around to the Earth’s population.  How does this machine perform?  Well, it is very successful at extracting energy sources from the Earth, moderately successful at creating other forms of wealth, goods and services with that energy and unsuccessful at distributing that wealth throughout the world’s peoples.  Vast inequalities exist on a global scale. 

These are all systemic decisions and arrangements.  They are the stuff of politics, war and diplomacy.  This system works as it does because of decisions made in corporate board rooms, and Congressional Committee rooms, and lobbyists offices and international conferences of business and public sectors officials.

When I was a political science major at George Washington University, back when the world was young and all the animals spoke the same mother tongue, our working definition of politics was the decision making process by which a society, a country, a group of people, decided how to create and allocate their commonly held resources. 

Using that definition, how we find and use our energy resources is at the very core of our political life.  It is some of the core issues of our common life together. 

We are called by this religious tradition to embody certain virtues in life: I think that when we think about energy, we are called to honesty (looking at the facts straight on -- not engaging in wishful thinking), humility (knowing that the world does not revolve around ourselves and our desires -- standing in humility before those 8 and 9 year old girls who spend hours everyday collecting water that seeps from a muddy well and carrying it for miles in 5 gallon cans back to their families) and empathy, compassion and solidarity and reverence, holding this world with some kind of tender awe and forebearance.  We are called by this religious tradition to think outside the box of how we make economic decisions -- outside the box of economic utilitarianism and pragmatism. 

But our present ways of thinking about church, about religion and about spirituality stand in our way. 

You have to understand that what I am about to say is not something that I would have said 5, 10 or 15 years ago.  It is not the traditional practices of the Free Church tradition.    What I am about to say, I would have considered as heretical as anything a UU minister could say.  Lots of my colleagues would not agree with me.

But on Earth Day, it is so clear to me that the way that we draw the boundary between the political and the spiritual is a declaration that we intend to be irrelevant.

The way that we draw the boundary between the political and the spiritual is a declaration of our intention to be irrelevant.
All the big issues now about how we shall live together today -- how we use energy, how we create wealth, how we distribute the wealth humanity creates -- are political issues, and must be addressed in the political processes that govern the nations of the earth.  They are controversial and tough and complicated, but they are also the decisions where we, as humanity, move toward the values that we hold, or where we do not. 

Because they are so-called political issues, we withdraw from discussing them, announcing to the world that Liberal Religion has nothing concrete and current to say about the actual issues that must be decided.

What does that leave us to talk about on Earth Day?

Well we can talk lyrically about the glories of the natural world.  We can read Mary Oliver poems and go with Wendell Berry into the woods near his Kentucky farm.  We can mourn the trees.  We can attempt to gain wisdom from the observation of nature, we can build up our sense of wonder and joy in that.

We can talk about our personal life style choices -- do we recycle?  do we turn off the lights?  do we eat meat? 

A long time ago, when I was in seminary, it seemed that every time I would talk with UU’s about the environment, we would end up exchanging vacation recommendations.  “ Go here, or go there -- you can really get away from civilization at this park, or in this place.”

Now, it seems that the same discussion results in recipe suggestions -- how to cook Kale (why, dead God, why?) and is there something like an environmentally friendly meat source possible?

These are not the locations in which change will either happen or be frustrated. 

The future is being brought into being by government policy, by corporate actions, by tax advantages given and withheld. 

We spend millions of dollars, probably billions, subsidizing corn production, with the result that corn syrup is below market cheap, and becomes filler in our foods and everyone is getter fatter and fatter and diabetes is everywhere, and all of this are political decisions, but here in this room, we don’t talk about that.  We talk about individual self-control; we talk about individuals resisting corporate food. 

How did this happen?  Over the long haul, Unitarian and Universalism have been known for for their social engagement.  But now, especially here in New England, the UU clergy have become strangely quiet.  Groups of laypeople are active in this cause or that cause.  Some ministers have issues that are their heartfelt causes.  And yes, on the issues of transgender rights, marriage rights for gays and lesbians, UU ministers have been in the forefront of a significant social movement that has gone through the political process. 

But immigration, energy, taxes, economic development strategies, wealth distribution: not so much.

One gets the feeling that some things are too important for church.

Church is an hour of peace.
Church is for serenity.
Church is for listening to beautiful music.
Church is for thinking about unicorns and fuzzy puppies.

But is church the place where you are challenged to consider the big issues from the point of view of ultimate values?

Our country is much more harshly polarized than ever before.  With the economic transformations we have undergone just in my lifetime, it is to be expected that big issues will be on the table.

And we have an alignment between political ideology and political parties now.  For the most part, for national politics, conservative Southern Democrats became Republicans.  And moderate North Eastern Republicans because Democrats. 

And New England Unitarianism was, for decades and decades, Moderate Republicans at prayer, or at least, respectful and agnostic silence.

So New England Unitarianism could share a broad moderate political consensus that crossed party lines.  A church could contain both loyal Republicans and loyal Democrats but they still shared a lot of political opinions. 

And so the clergy and the ministers adopted a strategy of being non-partisan, or bi-partisan.  It was gauche and unnecessary to talk about partisan politics in the church: everybody was for civil rights, everybody was for voting rights, everybody was for equal rights for women, for choice on abortion, for environmental protection, for a fairly generous social welfare system, for an internationalist foreign policy.  The partisan differences were much smaller here in New England. 

Now, the political reality is that almost every political issue is harshly polarized along partisan lines. 

Is there global warming and climate change?  Understand my position here:  were I to unequivocally say from the pulpit here that there is human-created climate change would be seen as many people as having made a statement indicating a partisan loyalty.  If I were to say that the scientific evidence is convincing that there is climate change, would likewise be seen as a partisan statement.

Were I to raise the question of whether it is just or fair or even smart to conduct our immigration system as we do -- partisan statement.

Can I talk about whether we need to increase spending on the poor and vulnerable -- feed the hungry using our tax dollars --  beep !  Don’t go there.  It’s OK to raise money for Carty Cupboard -- but challenge the idea that Food Stamps should be phased out over the next decade -- Don’t Go There, Tom.

Unitarians and Universalists have a history of discussing, debating and taking stands about race and racial prejudice, subjects. But to talk about how race  is affecting how people see the President, who is the first African American to hold that post -- way over the line.

It’s real simple: if we live in a harshly polarized political environment, where the political parties take diametrically opposing positions to the other -- no, scratch that, this is a false equivalence -- it is the stated policy of the Republican party to draw a line in the sand between themselves and President Obama and the congressional democrats -- a no compromise, all opposition stance -- in order to keep things clear for the voters -- i

In a situation where every issue is polarized by party -- and UU ministers are supposed to be non-partisan and above the fray -- it is inevitable that UU ministers will not talk about anything but personal matters, poetry and whether fuzzy puppies are cuter than kittens playing with strings. 

It is not as though you, the rank and file UU’s in the pews are politically uninterested.  I read your passionate debates on social media.  I hear of your activities in the community.  I know that you care. 

And maybe that is OK.  Maybe that stuff is for there, and maybe this room is for something else.  That’s how we have drawn the lines.

But the way we draw these lines means that for big stuff: the important stuff: there is one set of values at play:  economic efficiency, expedience, utilitarianism and yes, group loyalty. Most people decide these civil and political choices by a process of “elite signaling”.  You are persuaded by the people who are usually persuasive to you.  You stick with your team.

The Liberal religious values are for other parts of your life.  Reverence, humility, honesty, gratitude, compassion, open-mindedness, self-possession -- they are not the values that you need to embody in political and civil affairs.

Life can go on that way for a long time.  What will happen, most likely, though, is that group loyalty will take over your thinking about those subjects.  What’s good for our side? 

But there will come a time, though, when your side is wrong. 

I think that the conservative movement and the Republican party crossed that line in regarding to the environment and climate change long ago -- that the economic interests of the energy business is in the drivers seat, and most of the Republican party is riding along out of group loyalty. 

Take it from me:  I know the paths and pitfalls of excessive political loyalty.  At sometime or another, you will have to judge your allies and your parties positions against ultimate values.  I remember a time when I was deep in my ultra-leftism, when I read a line by Pope John Paul II -- a pope I have very little sympathy or agreement with -- he said that the foundation of all society was the single irreducible human soul.


Our principles say the same thing when they talk about the inherent worth and dignity of each person. 

I compared the way that I was thinking to that statement and it started a process that changed my life. 

I think my life would have been different if I had been hearing a voice all along that stood on ultimate values, and helped me measure my loyalties and activities against those ultimate values.  It would have strengthened my self-possession, my ability to tell right from wrong on my own.  But I had cut myself off from the religious life, partly because it was irrelevant to the big issues of the time.  The church I grew up avoided much discussion on Civil Rights and the War in Vietnam.

They were too controversial for the church to talk about.  And so I went elsewhere.

They were too controversial for the church to talk about.  And so I went elsewhere.

And it was a long journey back. 


  1. Bravo, Tom. You've shed some light in an environment where what we mostly get is a lot of heat! How ironic that the irriducible human soul should connect UU faith and a Catholic pope in affirming the bedrock of truth. And yet, there are some issues so intractably confounding (abortion, for one)that consensus still illudes us. But mutual love compels us to honor those whose conscience leads them to opposing does our hope lie there ultimately, after all the clamor of board rooms and congresses?


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