An Easy Fifth Principle Application

The fifth Principle that our UU congregations covenant to affirm says this:

  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
That would include, I believe, two things: a return to majority rule in procedures of the US Senate and making it possible for legislation supported by a majority of US House members to get a vote on the floor.  After all, "democratic process" includes majority rule. Right now, Comprehensive Immigration Reform, which managed to get a 60 vote supermajority to get through the Senate, cannot get a vote in the House even though a majority would be vote for it.  It is only one of many pieces of legislation supported by a majority in both houses which has not only been 'slowed down for deeper consideration', but stopped outright by a minority.

Ed Kilgore, at the Political Animal blog at the Washington Monthly website, makes the point yesterday that the 'partisan gridlock' in Washington is the result of undemocratic procedures in both Houses of Congress.  Minorities have the power to stop the process, and then make demands for concessions, which thwarts the will of the majority.  Both of these obstacles (the filibuster and the so-called Hastert rule, which derives from House Rules which now give the Speaker the sole power to determine what gets a vote) are not in the Constitution.

This raises a point about UU public theology and preaching, and the way that we understand the implications of our theological commitments for the events of the day.

I suspect that many a UU minister has preached a sermon over the last few years which decried the political polarization in Washington and in the general political order.  And I suspect that most of those sermons identified the cause of that polarization in a set of personal shortcomings in the population at large: we need to listen more to each other; we need to have more compassion for each other's experience that lead to our political positioning; we need to learn better conflict resolution skills; we need to stop to listening to advocacy news sources; we need to see how we are all implicated in this behavior.  Oh, for the days of bi-partisanship and sensible centrism. 

I suspect that most of those sermons were considered acceptable UU sermons; after all, they would offend no one in the pews. 

But I doubt that many sermons straightforwardly called for majority rule and democratic processes in our national legislature, a position which is the clear implication of the phrase "in the society at large" of the fifth principle.  But such a sermon would coincide with the political interests of the Democrats in Washington right now, and that would make it offensive to politically conservative minority in our congregations.   

As I inquire into the state of UU public theology, I become aware that different congregations have different standards, and those standards are different than for the resolutions that GA passes.  In some congregations, straight forward advocacy on political issues is acceptable, and even expected.  A GA resolution can advocate explicitly, as well.  In our larger congregations however, I suspect that more caution reigns.  

Either we take our agreements to affirm certain principles seriously, or we don't.  I think we need a serious debate among UU's on the state of democratic governance in the United States today, and what role liberal religion, and the Unitarian Universalist movement, should play in its defense and revival. 


  1. Another thing I wanted to add, Tom. With the passing of Powell Davies in 1957 and the merger in 1961, Unitarianism lost some of its "democracy and free society" focus, I think. Even Davies' Unitarian Advance (which became UU Advance) lost its momentum. But at a time when Unitarianism was pretty relevant, with dozens of public leaders of Unitarian faith (now we have just one in Congress), and I think was prospering in other ways, we lost much of that liberal-religious voice and presence. (It's revealing to me that the two authors of the book "Democracy as a Way of Life", T. V. Smith and Eduard Lindeman, were both Ware Lecturers in the late '40 and '50s.)

  2. Two points: first, this *IS* the democratic process- the filibuster and the Hastert rule are both rules that can be changed by a simple majority vote. If the party in power hasn't the guts to change the rules back on organization day, then it's not a constitutional problem, it's a moral integrity problem.

    Second, The UUA claimed throughout each Republican administration that the 5th Principle needs the filibuster- “To claim that minority-party senators and their supporters are acting ‘against people of faith’ because they wish to preserve the Senate filibuster is an affront to millions of devout Americans."— Rev. William Sinkford, President, Unitarian Universalist Association" In 2005, the UUA staged a "Save The Filibuster" rally. You say, "Either we take our agreements to affirm certain principles seriously, or we don't.", but changing our positions to match the DNC position isn't taking them seriously in my book.

  3. Kim Hampton3:28 PM

    Hi Tom...
    Majority rules has always tended to run over marginalized communities, so democracy isn't really all that great for whole groups of people. (yes, I'm distinguishing between minorities and marginalized communities)

    So the question, for me at least, is how to extend rights and still believe in majority rule, which oft-times are on opposite sides.

  4. We are not talking about whether majority rule in every case is always better.

    We are not talking about whether I am consistent with the UUA in 2007, or even if the UUA is consistent with itself. Hobgoblin of foolish minds.

    What I have raised is whether the procedures of the US Congress are substantively democratic, or whether the procedures have evolved to the point that the Congress does not operate by majority rule, but by minority rule. If so, does this concern us? This is not one institution, but the actual governing legislature of the nation.

    As to Joel's first point: he is right in making my point that none of the minority rule provisions of the Congress are in the Constitution, but rules adopted by the majority in times past. Therefore, they are subject to popular pressure, agitation and blogposts advocating the democratically-minded people to urge Congress to change them. Which I have written.

  5. I don't have a problem with the filibuster. I have a problem with the filibuster being someone standing up and saying "I filibuster this" instead of standing and speaking until they pass out.

  6. Elz Curtiss8:54 AM

    Until we figure out how to create and sustain democratic polity at the regional and denominational level for ourselves -- not the run-down post-Soviet model we now use -- I don't see the UUA having any credibility on this one. Before you criticize the mite in your brother's eye, take the beam out of your own.

  7. Elz, what a deeply odd comment ! The US Congress is where national policies are legislated -- representative of, theoretically, all the people. It fails the most elementary tests of democracy -- operating, as it does, by minority rule.

    Am I to understand you as saying that UU ministers ought not to speak about this scandal because the UUA's internal governance is not democratic enough? Or that no one would be interested in our opinions on the matter?

    I'm sorry, but what you are bringing is classic "old school UU" griping. The Old School carries grievances against the UUA, dating back to whenever, and in their minds, nothing that UU's can ever do can be right until some expiation has occurred. It results in a overwhelming internal focus. For example, looking at the operation of the US Congress through the lens of the UUA General Assembly: saying in effect, "Because our internal governance is screwed up, we have nothing to say about the governance of the country we are citizens of...."


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