Friday, January 17, 2014

Some Ideas that Are Past their Expiration Date


Political Practice and Spirituality are two separate spheres.

The liberal critique of orthodoxy was that it valued creeds over deeds.  We countered with "deeds, not creeds." Somehow, that turned into a creed itself: a belief that liberal religion had no particular political or social implications. Nice thought, but untrue. Our spirituality is expressed in what we do, how we act, who we see as friends and allies, and who we see as adversaries. Our spirituality is embodied; we are people living in bodies, in a particular time and place, among other people. Our spirituality is how we deal with those people, just as much as how we relate to flowers, plants, stars, the invisible and the infinite. 

The imbalance in Unitarian Universalism is that we are too political. 

Not quite true. The imbalance is that our political thought is not spiritual enough. We have not thought through the political implications of the basic tenets of liberal religion, so our commitment to political causes often seems to be shaped by party loyalties, or by the attractiveness of social movements. We are in a self-perpetuating cycle in which our ministers and theologians are inhibited from thinking and speaking deeply about social issues.  Our public theology often takes the Seven Principles as the authoritative and normative texts; but they are only summary statements of a much longer and richer liberal theological tradition. We need more theological reflection on the social situation and our social practices, not less political engagement.

The political polarization in America is a problem that Unitarian Universalism is called to try to bridge, or overcome, or ameliorate. 

The present political polarization is the result of long-standing conflicts coming to the surface, sharpening and intensifying. The reason why political conflict is so heated now is because these issues are approaching a resolution. The majority of the population want a society governed by principles that reflect the basic assumptions of liberal religion. There is tremendous resistance to this by a coalition of forces that do not respect the worth and dignity of all people, who do not favor equity and justice, who are empowered by undemocratic practices, who are willfully blind to the effects of our economy on the planet. The political polarization of the country is uncomfortable, but it is a good thing, because basic issues, our issues, are on the table. This is the moment when we need to be bold and brave and engaged.

The separation of church and state, and our tax-exempt status, prevent us from political  engagement.

The separation of church and state protects us from the government; it should not inhibit our political and social activity. And we should recognize that our tax-exempt status is a financial bribe to keep religiously-motivated people from acting together in the public square. We may have to abide by it, tactically, but we should not internalize it as a moral value. Isn't it telling that a corporation has the right to instruct its employees how to vote and to donate corporate money to candidates, but a church cannot endorse a candidate as being expressive of its mission?

UU churches should be a space of civil dialogue where people who disagree about political issues find common ground. 

Who are our dialogue partners? If we choose to engage the largely middle-class, white, political conservatives in dialogue, we will shape the results. We should remember our experience with the Welcoming Congregation programs: gay and lesbian people should not be expected to engage in continuous debates about their right to exist with people who do not respect them. The terms of such discussion had the impact of excluding them, even though the invitation may say otherwise. Apply that lesson to current issues: who would be excluded, in practice, from a discussion in which we seek the common ground with those who believe that there ought to be no minimum wage and that unemployment is caused by laziness? The very terms of the discussion are so disrespectful of the working poor that none would want to be in that dialogue. Better to have dialogue with the working poor over the conditions of their lives, than to prioritize making peace with a handful of Libertarian ideologues. 


UU Republicans are uncomfortable in our congregations because UU's are intolerant of opinions with which they don't agree. 

Yes, UU Republicans are often uncomfortable in our congregations. They are a minority and the majority is not reticent about expressing their views. Yes, there are some rude people among us, just like in society in general. Almost everybody has had the experience of being on the receiving end of someone's insensitivity or insulting assumptions in a UU coffee hour. But the discomfort that arises from grasping that most of your co-religionists have a different view of a political or social issue is a moment that Dr. King called a "creative tension." If some UU's find a contradiction between their political loyalties and the demands of their religion (particularly as their covenant partners have understood it), it is their problem to work out. May they grow spiritually from it.

8 comments:

Clyde Grubbs said...

A lot here to ponder, and then develop.

:The political polarization in America is a problem that Unitarian Universalism is called to try to bridge, or overcome, or ameliorate."

There seems to be a notion that conflict is something to be conciliated, "that finding the truth" is a matter of finding the agreement "in the middle." I don't think that is an old idea, but it is related to old idea of Mill's 'the free marketplace of ideas." But we didn't find a middle "truth" during the Vietnams anti war movement or the civil rights movement. So we will soon see a compromise business resolution on Fossil Fuel devestment which found the middle between two polarized positions. (Coming soon to GA near me.)

Amy said...

I'm with you on most of this, Tom, but not on this:

The separation of church and state protects us from the government; it should not inhibit our political and social activity. And we should recognize that our tax-exempt status is a financial bribe to keep religiously-motivated people from acting together in the public square. We may have to abide by it, tactically, but we should not internalize it as a moral value.

No, we can scrap it if we wish and lose the tax exemption. But I don't want to be a political organization masquerading as a church (even though some members might prefer that). That is what the IRS rule prevents. We all know the kind of "church" I'm talking about. We can be a church--a deeply politically engaged church--or be an arm of someone's political campaign. I don't want us to be the latter, so I have no problem with the rule that we don't endorse candidates.

Tom Schade said...

Amy, if other churches choose to sell out their religious truth to be arms of political parties, then what is that to us? If we do, then the IRS is not going to save our soul from ourselves.

And I don't think we should make a deal which disempowers us because we hope that people who don't agree with us will take the same deal.

Liberals worry about the conservative evangelicals' support of conservative politics. I think that in the long run, they are discrediting themselves by associating Jesus with starving the poor. Jesus will outlast them.

Clyde Grubbs said...

I think our members are smart. I haven't "endorsed" a candidate so far, but congregants know from the values applied to the issues which candidate for public office is the liberal religious pick.

If one says "then are no perfect candidate but we make choices based on the issues that count." that isn't an endorsement but they know who is who.

Secularism was an invention, the word was first used c.1850. The First Amendment protects the church from the state. The IRS is the state. But we may refrain from partisanship so that we can give priority to values and issues. The Democrats don't do that very well.

Mark E. Hoelter said...

These are worth doing a nationwide conversation around - dialogue pieces for moving forward.

Loosed Mind said...

Great response. I would add on the idea that we have some call to bridge political polarization- that if we do have some duty to which we are morally bound in some way it would be to combat the artificial polarization created by a combination of politicians working up sexy issues to obscure deep common core convictions of the voters, overwhelming conservative and business control of the media, the campaigns to promote apathy and hopelessness in potential voters, and the criminalization of the poor and vulnerable in our society which often strips them of their voting rights. That is the way we achieve a highly constructed polarized public debate. But there is no inherent moral or faithfull call to centrism furthermore this virtue is a recent creation to further advance the impotent state of the american voters. There is no great historic tradition of cooperation among parties or political ideology in our nation.

Fred Wooden said...

On Political Practice and Spirituality are two separate spheres.

Not sure is this is so widely assumed as before. JLA’s lovely phrase, “we deny the immaculate conception of virtue” speaks to this. I will say, and relevant to your second point, that our social thought is not religiously grounded. By focusing so frequently on doctrinal distinctions over the years, something where social implications are less clear, our culture became spiritually abstracted. That also reinforces the academic and esoteric reputations we have.

On The imbalance in Unitarian Universalism is that we are too political.

You make two points here, or use two points to illustrate. One could, noting your comments, mount a serious anti-choice position based on the first principle. But that principle is not a true ‘principle’ meaning primary premise. It is a conclusion, like the rest, arising from prior ideas. Why should every individual have dignity and worth? Is this self-evident? If people do not agree are they blind to its obvious truth or are we blinded by our devotion to it? Because we do not have a tradition of theological discourse (criticism but not conversation) and have rejected a common narrative or mythology, all we have are the survivors of past quarrels.

On The political polarization in America is a problem that Unitarian Universalism is called to try to bridge, or overcome, or ameliorate.

I disagree with your analysis that “these issues are approaching a resolution.” One could say the same about the run-up to the American Civil War, or the end of the French monarchy. Yes they were resolved but created in their violent wake issues that haunt us now. I am also not sure that the population wants the principles you say. They want the outcomes, but I am not sure they share the values so thoroughly. In all, I think you are too optimistic in this assessment.

On The separation of church and state, and our tax-exempt status, prevent us from political engagement.
I agree here, but the example at the end doesn’t feel right. Churches can take all the stands and give all the instructions they want, if they surrender their tax exempt status, as another commenter observed. Maybe that should be a question we should ask ourselves, to wit, are we in Caesar’s employ?

On UU churches should be a space of civil dialogue where people who disagree about political issues find common ground.

Again, I am not sure this best illustrates your point. First of all, the premise is two fold – space of civil dialogue and finding common ground. These are separate matters. I value Parker Palmer’s work on “Healing the Heart of Democracy” which speaks to the first. Finding out why precisely we do not agree would be as useful as finding common ground. Your illustration does make the point that we default to an abstracted norm – discussion about issues, yours and mine – rather than witnessing (in this case the listening sort of witness) the world beyond ours.

On UU Republicans are uncomfortable in our congregations because UU's are intolerant of opinions with which they don't agree.

We forget that ours was a politically conservative movement most of its history. Perhaps a study of that change would yield insights into how minds changed. For the present, I suspect that the Republicans in our midst would be less frustrated if we learned how to express our convictions religiously. Moreover, they find an arrogance in us that really can be there. Dr. King demanded personal humility from himself and his followers. They were in service – and accountable – to something beyond their own anger. That was what elevated King and others above being just protesters. Are we capable of being like that?

OD/HR Min said...

Great post Tom.

I agree that we are heading toward a resolution. I disagree that we are too political. Rather, we do not appear to be political enough considering that a massive die off, if not extinction, is in the cards if we fail to act forcefully.