Religious Liberalism and the Role of Government

Jake Morrill commented, in response to my call that politically conservative UU's "show their work:

..... I [know] good number of folks whose libertarianism connects to ultra-Protestantism through "right of conscience" AND through caring relationships sustained through personal commitments (and expressly NOT through what they see as government "coercion"). Collective action through a voluntary association is seen as the positive alternative to government intervention in curing social ills. Except for gun laws, these folks tend to be social progressives. I believe they share the same vision of the Beloved Community, but differ from my more-traditionally-liberal view of government's role in achieving that dream.
Jake says that  political conservatives argue that they are not less indifferent to the conditions of others.  They are just prefer private voluntary actions and personal charity to government programs, which are based on the coercive powers of the state.  They have the same levels of compassion, but just prefer other methods.

I think that I have stated their position accurately.  I am sure someone will help me out if I have not.

"The role of government" is not a pragmatic question: what is the best way to address the problems of people.  The dispute over the "role of government" has been the "presenting problem" of US history since the founding of the Republic.  However, religious liberals have theological commitments about the underlying systemic issues.

Without going into a long historical recap, I would say that the "role of government" question has been, since the time of the 1789 Constitution, a cover for the question of the role of African Americans in our system.  Our present constitutional regime was created by wealthy people who wanted a stronger and more stable government, but one whose powers were limited in one crucial way.  The new government would not have the power to restrict or interfere with slavery.  How to create a strong national government that was institutionally incapable of regulating slavery.  In other words, how to institutionalize governmental indifference to the conditions of the slaves.

One side saw the new government as a potentially coercive body with the power to overturn private property arrangements (slavery); the other saw it as instrument of self-government.  And the understanding of self-government has been a dynamic process, pushed forward from below, often led by African Americans and other people of color.  And at every step, the popular demand to use the instrument of self-government, the state, to meet the needs of the people have been resisted primarily by the argument over the "role of government."

Those who say that they would prefer non-governmental compassion have always had the opportunity to build those systems.  "Small government" conservatives hold overwhelming political power in many parts of the country.  You would expect those areas to be havens for the poor where collective action through voluntary association would have had little competition from the overbearing state.  If the politically conservative ideology were accurate, there would be no poverty anymore in Mississippi because a vigorous system of private charity would have ended it long ago.

No, I think that, however it works in individual lives, opposing private charity to government programs is a pretense that obscures a policy preference for indifference for those in need.

Liberal Religion has long been committed to democratic self-government as a theological good.  It's an immediate consequence of our understandings of human nature, soteriology and providence.  Human beings have innate capacity for the good, are equal in moral worth, and are creating the conditions for human life together in a world which is not pre-ordained, but responds to our efforts.

Yes, democratic self-government creates a state, and states, by definition, have coercive powers.  While there may be some strains of anarchist thought in religious liberalism, our tradition has not been in the main, anti-state.  Our beliefs have always seen coercive powers can be balanced and tempered by covenantal relationships.  On an intellectual level, it is simply inconsistent with the mainstream of liberal religious thought to give a higher priority to not working through the state over and above the improvement of the lives of people.

Further, 21st century Unitarian Universalism has committed itself to anti-racism, which ought to include   uncovering the racial history of the ideas we hold.  That is the work that we have done with the Doctrine of Discovery.  While it may be that many Unitarian Universalists are loyal to ideas of libertarianism, we should be aware that the intellectual origins of many of those 'libertarian' ideas are the justifications put forward throughout US history for oppressive social relations.

And again, because apparently this disclaimer cannot be made often enough: to criticize a political and/or theological position is not to want to exclude people who hold that position.  It is an invitation to think more deeply.


  1. Is there a way to share these by e-mail or on facebook? I particularly like these recent posts.

  2. If you subscribe to my facebook postings -- they show up when my twitter feed posts them. You can share that posting which links to this blog. You can also just copy and paste to your hearts' content.

  3. One small quibble, Tom: The difference between anarchism and libertarianism is like the difference between night and day. Anarchism is primarily left-wing with large helping of hard-to-pigeonhole individualists. Libertarianism is primarily right-wing in nature.

    They agree somewhat on methods, but disagree incredibly on ends. (Oddly enough, grassroots non-movement libertarians are usually anti-war.)


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