Religion and Political Identity

I have argued (scroll down on this blog for the series of posts) that there is an inconsistency with Liberal Religion and contemporary political conservativism in the USA. People have read that as saying that I think political conservatives have no place in UU congregations.

I don't believe that and have said so, but let's look at the premise of framing the problem that way.  The premise is that one's political commitments are primary and religious commitments are secondary.  If your church does not accommodate your political views, there is something wrong with your church.

The discomfort that political conservatives feel in UU circles is evidence, therefore, of a shortcoming in Unitarian Universalism.

Politically conservative UU's could be raising hell within the Tea Party groups about their racism, their anti-gay prejudice and their active contempt for most of the poor, but they don't appear to be.  I will lend them my yellow t-shirt if they are ready to challenge hate and indifference from within.  Instead, they are voicing their discomfort at the UU church, that they feel marginalized at church.

What a small and inconsequential religion they want Unitarian Universalism to be!  To them, being a UU is less important than any other aspect of one's life.  If it is in conflict with their politics, then it must reassure them that it's OK.  Political identity comes first; it is the highest loyalty.

Shouldn't it be the other way around?  Religion is about Ultimacy, the values and commitments that are above and beyond the workaday and pragmatic.  Ultimate concerns should be the place from which we evaluate lesser concerns.

UU political diversity has not led to greater political wisdom, or better work.  Everybody does their own thing.  Liberal UU's are often hyperactive, glib, and presumptuous of the opinions of others.  They don't have to show their work.  Conservative UU's are resentful and passive aggressive.  The argument goes on and on about the place of politics in church, but never about the political implications of UU theology.

I think that our public theology has become flabby and lazy, even though it has become more vigorous and better branded.

What does it mean to "stand on the side of love"? What is "love" as a concept in public theology?

Does our faith tradition really call for us to be "above the fray", the religious expression of Sunday Morning Talk Show bi-partisanship?

As the class situation in the USA becomes 1% vs 99%,  who are we?

Why do we read the seven principles as bland and irenic platitudes, when, in fact, they are actively contested in the political sphere everyday?  What if we decided they were principles worth 'fighting' for?  What kind of conversation would that require?


  1. The problem with your framing of the question is that it presupposes the truth of your claim that conservatism is incompatible with UU. For those of us who see no such incompatibility, we find that there is de facto no place for us in many UU congregations because a series of political stands have become a dogma more fervent than most church's religious one. For example, over the years I have been completely consistent in my stand on a president's judicial nominations: elections have consequences; he gets to pick them. Unless they've done something worthy of impeachment, they should be confirmed. Sometimes I've had to wince to say it, but I've said it through Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama. But both the UUA Washington Office and the congregation I belonged to took a more flexible stand, and whether for or against an appointment, for or against the right to filibuster, each time they flipflopped it was in defense of the seven principles. I have written complete explanations on every stand I've taken, but there's never any true debate, just the simple syllogism: I stand on the side of love; you disagree, therefore you stand on the side of hate, and therefore are inconsistent with UU. I guess that is a consistent argument, as long as you get to define what the side of love truly is.

  2. "What if we decided they were principles worth 'fighting' for? What kind of conversation would that require?" More conversation--and more challenging conversation--than we're currently having, for sure. And it would start among ourselves, in our congregations. I'm not sure we have the skill set to do it, though--I think we're going to have to learn some new strategies, practice them, and then teach them outside of church. Blogging about that later today.

    In the meantime, I hear and can get behind your call for a clear and conscience-driven public UU identity, one that draws strength from rather than avoids the underlying theology. Can we address that through branding, or does it have to come through a greater awareness and engagement at the congregational level? ('cause that second thing is gonna take awhile . . . )

  3. @Joel, I can see your frustration and I agree with your call for consistency in how we approach political issues.
    It is, however, not my "presupposition" that political conservatism is inconsistent with liberal religion. It is my analysis, which I would be happy to defend and discuss with any conservative who wants to engage the issue. But really, I have yet to read a conservative UU who makes the case in any detail. All they do is talk about how they are the victims of the UUA.
    My analysis is that they are displacing their discomfort onto the UUA. It's the UUA's fault that my political views are not shared by most other UU's.

  4. Rev. Schade:

    I agree with you that a serious religious liberalism should have serious consequences for our attitudes towards political issues.

    However, I think you underestimate the extent to which many important political issues may be legitimately contested by different people with different views of what the empirical evidence shows.

    My own view is that religions should be very careful about taking political positions on issues where a different reading of the empirical evidence can lead to different political positions that might all be compatible with the religion's values.

    To take two extremes, I think that it is hard to see how UUism can be reconciled with an opposition to gay rights or civil rights under any reasonable reading of the empirical evidence.

    On the other hand, I think different readings of the empirical evidence might lead to different views of the appropriate long-run federal government share of GDP, an appropriate level of the minimum wage, free trade agreements, right-to-work laws, single-payer health care, etc. I suspect it is possible to reconcile a variety of positions on these issues with UU values.

    Your position in this debate might be usefully clarified if you picked some specific current issues on which you think that UUism necessarily, under all plausible readings of the empirical evidence, leads to certain political positions, and if you ALSO picked some specific current issues on which you believe that a variety of political positions can be consistent with UU values, because of legitimate disagreements about the facts. In other words, the debate is hard to move forward if it is too abstract in its content.


    Tim Bartik

  5. Tom- the only person I know who talks about being a victim of the UUA hails from Montreal, and is hardly representative of conservatism. If you don't know any conservatives who can make a case for their views being consistent with their UU principles, you don't know many UU conservatives. Which would be understandable, there being so few of them.

    Tim- You said a great deal of what I was going to say, and said it better. One of the problems with labels like "liberal" and "conservative" is that the working definition is frequently "The things I do/don't like".


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