Why it matters...

Ever since the conservative turn in the US political culture in 1968, Unitarian Universalists have
tried to contain their political differences of opinion by promoting a policy of political tolerance within our congregations. Liberal religion could express itself in a wide variety of political opinions; conservatives and Republicans were welcome. It was policy.

The policy had a limitation. Local congregations could not be officially segregated, but even that was controversial for a while.

The political tolerance policy was, and remains, uncomfortable. UU Conservatives are restive in that their opinions are not often reflected back to them from other congregants, or from the pulpit. (I have been amused by the number of times that I hear of my colleagues working on the sermon topic along the lines of "the glories of capitalism" because the topic had been purchased at a service auction.) Conservatives complained that everyone was welcome except them. We said we welcomed conservatives, but, in fact, we did not; we tolerated them, at best. And they may have been telling the truth.

Our policy did not match the reality on the ground. We have become increasingly politically liberal. Or put it another way, our policy, our good intentions, has not been able to overcome the political polarization that is the reality of public life in the United States today.

We will be moving toward a more political polarization in the future.

Three reasons:

One is that unless we dramatically rein in the power of the largest and most powerful industry in
the world economy, the living conditions of most of the world's people, starting with the global poor, will dramatically decline. The fossil fuel industry owns the conservative political movement in the United States lock, stock and barrel. The politics of climate change is going to become more contentious.

The second is that inequalities of wealth and income have taken center stage in our politics. Conservative politics is organized around the continuation of that inequality. Political differences over taxation, spending on social programs, and economic policies, like the minimum wage and medicaid expansion are going to get more polarized.

And third, the political polarization in the
country has already become racialized.  An emerging, multi-racial, progressive, electoral majority is being resisted by a white minority, funded by the financial and fossil fuel industries, and motivated by a white nationalist mythology. It is not just government policy at stake anymore; questions of our national identity and character are being played out.

The conservative movement in the United States is digging in and will resist change as long as they can. As they have become less successful electorally, they are moving toward violent resistance. They have already an insurrectionist wing, and have taken to armed demonstrations of their political views.

What does this mean for Unitarian Universalism?  I think that our experience over the last 40 years tells us that the chances of becoming an oasis above and beyond the political polarization of the culture are slim. (We have tendency to believe that our skill at interpersonal relationships can solve all problems.)

The reason why we have not been able to become an oasis of productive political diversity already is not because we are intolerant people; it is because liberal religion has meaning and content. The reason why political conservatives feel isolated in our churches is that the link between what they believe and liberal religion is becoming more tenuous.

Our theological evolution is leading us to one side of the political divide, and not the other.

We committed ourselves first to the inherent worth and dignity of every person. You can date that idea from the 60's and even before, among us.

Then we understood persons not to be isolated individuals but elements of an interdependent web of all life, which required that we take a systemic view of politics, economics and society. You can date that idea among from the 80's.

And then, having taken a systemic view, we had to recognize that the interdependent system was not evenly balanced and inherently just, but an organized system of oppression, exploitation and privilege. We have accepted this but have not fully grasped it.

We can't unlearn these basic propositions about the nature of humanity. Nor, can we say that they are just political opinions. Nor can we make every UU comfortable in taking political stances that are in contradiction to them.

There should come a point in everyone's life when one's political and social loyalties come into conflict with one's understanding of religious and spiritual truth. At that point, one either changes one's politics, or one's religion. I would not want to be in a religious movement that made a policy of never asking people to confront that choice, because it would turn into a mish-mash of half-hearted politics and lukewarm spirituality.


  1. Joel Miller9:14 AM

    I'm now reading "Capital in the 21st Century" by Thomas Piketty. It appears we have to take sides -- and the cost may be be high. But I'd rather pay them than sell my soul for a faux sense of safety.

  2. Tom, have you read American Nations by Colin Woodard? I'd be interested in your take on it?


  3. You probably have more experience in this area than I do, but I've always assumed that UU "conservatives" were folks whose politics dated back to the 60s or 70s when the GOP was a very different party that today -- one that could comfortably include people like George Romney, Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford etc. who all embraced positions that would make them mainstream Democrats today. I agree with you that, other than perhaps libertarians, few contemporary conservatives would be comfortable in a UU congregation.

    That said, I hope that we keep the policy of formal inclusiveness for two reasons. One is that if we said, explicitly, that political conservatives aren't welcome in our congregations it would create unnecessary kerfuffle as critics would claim that Unitarianism was just a political movement acting under the cover of religion. Second, political parties/ideologies aren't absolute. The current radicalism of the right could dissipate or it could accelerate. I guess my point is that I suspect that the extent to which we can accommodate ideological diversity will work itself organically over time, and that we should try to remain a place where anyone is welcome (while acknowledging that not everyone will find their views affirmed).

  4. Pete, I agree with you about keeping things informal. I guess my point is that whether or not a particular conservative individuals feel comfortable and affirmed in their church is not something we should all worry about. It's something that they are working through, and we should acknowledge their struggle with it, but we can't fix it for them.

  5. My personal recollection of that 60s-70s in Cincinnati was that libertarianism from political conservatives resonated in a positive way with anti-traditional liberalism. We were all trying to escape corporate and gender categories of duty and belief. Marriage equality has succeeded by riding the last of this wave. Nowadays, the emphasis on "saving my family" is dividing the ideologies, in a way that "being myself" did not.


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