Friday, January 11, 2013

Religion and Democracy

One of the UU Principles is that we affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society, at large.

Is this the commitment to democracy a religious value, something ultimate, or is it a temporal secular preference?

The Bible mentions nothing about democracy or human rights.  If you adopt a 'biblical' standard for what is religious and what is not religious, democracy is not a religious value.  And indeed, people have been good Christians, exemplary Christians without ever voting, or participating in any process of self-government for thousands of years.  Some of the people who have most responded to God's call in life in the Bible were kings and queens and patriarchs and owned slaves.

Democracy, voting, human rights, equality before the law are all post-biblical concepts.  They are not mentioned in the Bible because they did not exist at the time the Bible was written and gathered.

Does that mean that they are not religious values?

Of course not.  We instinctively know that these are, in some ways, ultimate values.  If they are worth dying for, and people have died for them, and not in vain, then how could they not be ultimate values?

Religious Liberalism has long argued that religion is much bigger than the box traditionalists have put it in.  Accordingly, we see that democracy, voting, human rights are the very stuff of religion.  Our understanding of human nature and of the universal love of God logically result in concepts of democracy and self-government.

Indeed, if you look at the history of both Unitarianism and Universalism, both spring up in the early 19th century as the Republican ideology of the Revolution percolates throughout the intellectual life of the country.  Unitarianism introduces into religion concepts of liberty and conscience that the Revolution depended on.  Universalism is a Christian interpretation of the Republican ideal of the equality of citizens.  Just as there was no pre-ordained aristocracy, there will be no body of the saved, chosen by pre-ordination.  You might say that we are descended from "small-r" republican Christians.  I would say that commitments to democracy, human rights and self-government are part of the revelation of the ultimate truths that we have witnessed.  (When James Luther Adams said that "revelation is not sealed", he was arguing that certain truths continued to be revealed to particular groups of people through their encounter with their historical moment.)

Religious liberals have been following out the logic of these theological concepts throughout our history -- yes, inconsistently, but we build on the times that we understood them in the issues contemporary to the times.

So, I would argue that the principle about democracy is religious commitment, that flows from our theological history, and so, it makes demands on our present thinking.

Right now, we have a political party, the Republican Party, which is quite openly seeking to restrict the democratic process in the society at large.

  1. They enact Voter Id laws in states where they can which they know will restrict access to the ballot for people.  Republican Secretaries of State and State Legislatures have sought to restrict early voting, absentee voting with the aim of reducing voting participation. 
  2. They have gerrymandered the House districts such that they have a 7% structural advantage in House elections.  Right now, for the first time in decades, one party has a decisive majority in the House after losing the majority of votes cast for House members across the country. With the present districts, it appears that Democrats would have carry the national House votes by 7% to get a majority in Congress.
  3. They are now proposing in states where they control the legislature to award electoral college votes according to House districts, rather than on a state-wide basis, which would leverage their gerrymandered districts into Presidential elections.
  4. They have used the filibuster process to make the Senate operate on a 60 vote super majority to get anything done.
The question is not whether these tactics are illegal, or impermissible under the Constitution.  The Constitution contains biases against democracy, but the present GOP is seeking to maximize minority power through out the system. It appears that they are within the letter of the law.  

But, legality and constitutionality aside, there is no question that their purpose is to thwart the democratic process in the society at large, to which Unitarian Universalist congregations covenant to affirm and promote, on the basis of long-standing theological commitments.

I would now say that supporting the GOP in their anti-democratic efforts is inconsistent with religious liberalism.  So what if they are constitutional, or technically legal?  It doesn't really matter if one suspects that the Democrats have done, or would do, the same at other times.  In the present historical moment, the GOP is seeking to thwart and stifle democracy.  If you are a religious liberal and a Republican, what should you do about that? 

I don't think you should stop being a UU.  This is not the time to rethink your religion; it's the time to rethink your political loyalties.  

2 comments:

Tim Bartik said...

Rev. Schade:

These are good examples of political positions that I think under any reasonable interpretation of the empirical evidence are inconsistent with UU principles.

(One minor quibble: gerrymandering is only part of the issue with the current 7% House of Rep advantage of the Republican party. The other part would occur under neutral districting, because it so happens that Democratic votes are more spatially concentrated in cities. This advantage would be maintained unless we moved to some system such as statewide allocation of Congressional candidates by political party. Whether this is a good idea is a more problematic issue. I think it would be good, but I can see legitimate arguments against such an approach.)

But what are examples of political issues that you think UU values do not dicate positions. For example, one of the burning issues of our time is whether overall federal spending as a share of GDP should be significantly reduced or increased, or should be stabilized. This is closely related to issues such as what the federal government policy should be about Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and health care more generally. Do you think UU principles lead to specific political positions on these issues, or do you think that UUs might be able to take varied liberal vs. conservative positions on these issues, as long as they are guided by the principles of respecting individual worth and dignity, etc. ?

Tim Bartik said...

Rev. Schade:

You've provided some good examples of political positions that I think under any reasonable interpretation of the empirical evidence are inconsistent with UU principles.

(One minor quibble: gerrymandering is only part of the issue with the current 7% House of Rep advantage of the Republican party. The other part would occur under neutral districting, because it so happens that Democratic votes are more spatially concentrated in cities. This advantage would be maintained unless we moved to some system such as statewide allocation of Congressional candidates by political party. Whether this is a good idea is a more problematic issue. I think it would be good, but I can see legitimate arguments against such an approach.)

But what are examples of political issues for which d you think UU values do not dicate positions. For example, one of the burning issues of our time is whether overall federal spending as a share of GDP should be significantly reduced or increased, or should be stabilized. This is closely related to issues such as what the federal government policy should be about Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and health care more generally. Do you think UU principles lead to specific political positions on these issues, or do you think that UUs might be able to take varied liberal vs. conservative positions on these issues, as long as they are guided by UU principles such as respecting individual worth and dignity, etc. ?