Thursday, February 23, 2006

The UU-FAQ VIII: Politics

I’ve heard that Unitarian Universalism is an optimistic religion. What does that mean?

In the late 19th century, Unitarianism and (to a lesser extent) Universalism were radically optimistic about the course of history. Many Unitarian professions of faith listed “the progress of mankind, onward and upward forever” as one of the key principles of the religion. This optimism was based not just on science and technology, but also on the unprecedented wealth created by industrialization, the recent abolition of slavery virtually everywhere, and the spread of literacy to the masses. In view of these startling advances, it was not hard to imagine that perennial problems like poverty, war, and injustice might soon be overcome as well.

The 20th century was hard on this kind of optimism. While technology and science did indeed progress onward and upward throughout the century, developments in other fields created room for doubt about the direction of history. The Great Depression caused many to question whether economic progress is inevitable or will ever eliminate poverty. The atomic bomb opened the possibility that we are heading towards an apocalypse rather than a paradise. Worst of all, the genocides of the 20th century undermined the case for humanity’s moral progress. In the face of the Holocaust or the killing fields of Cambodia, can we really claim to be morally superior to our ancestors? And if not, then why should we believe that future generations will be any better than we are?

Today, Unitarian Universalist optimism is more restrained. Few would argue that Heaven-on-Earth is humanity’s unalterable destiny, but UUism is still optimistic in two important ways. The great majority of UU’s would agree that:

*Life can and should be enjoyed. This world is not a vale of tears through which we must pass on our way to a paradise after death.

*Human beings can and should make the world better. We need not and should not wait for a higher power to solve our problems for us. We do not believe that any human problem is forever beyond the reach of human action.

More importantly, Unitarian Universalism is still a forward-looking religion rather than a backward-looking one. We do not have a fixed vision of some golden age or Eden in the past. Instead, we have an evolving vision of what humanity can become.

I’ve heard UUism described as a "liberal" religion. Does that mean conservatives aren’t welcome?

The term liberal religion has been around for centuries, and isn’t connected to the way liberal and conservative are used in politics. This sense of the word liberal is related to the word liberty, and means free. A liberal religion is one that respects the individual conscience and does not demand submission to a central authority or set of dogmas. Reformed Judaism is another example of a liberal religion, and various Protestant denominations – Congregationalists and Methodists, for example – are referred to as liberal Christians.

What makes this confusing is that members of liberal religions in the United States have a statistical tendency to be politically liberal as well. But the distinction is meaningful and worth understanding: The UU commitment to individual conscience is a core value, something we couldn’t change without completely abandoning our identity. The tendency of UU’s to be politically liberal, on the other hand, is at least partly a matter of circumstance. In a different era, the major political issues could break differently and a majority of UU’s could be conservative.

The fact that political conservatives are a minority among UU’s does not mean that they aren’t welcome. While Christian Right conservatives are rare in UU circles, economic and libertarian conservatives are not uncommon. There is no reason why a UU cannot support conservative values like limited government, strong national defense, the free market, and a preference for the private over the public sector. Conservative UU’s have their own UUA-affiliated organization, the Conservative Forum for Unitarian Universalists.

In some congregations, political liberals are such a vocal and visible majority that political conservatives may feel isolated or unwelcome. This is unfortunate. The ideal UU church is a place of diverse opinions and lively discussions – not an echo chamber.

So UU churches aren’t political?

There is no political dogma that everyone is expected to support, but many individual UU’s are very politically active and bring that activity to their UU community. If you spend much time at a UU church, other members will frequently ask you to sign petitions, write letters, attend rallies, and so on. “No” is a perfectly acceptable answer, and you are free to promote your own petitions, letters, and rallies even if they oppose the positions taken by other members.

Sometimes you will hear politics from the pulpit. UU ministers tend to have strong political convictions and are not shy about saying what they think. (For example, UU minister and former UUA president William Schultz is now the executive director of Amnesty International.) But, unlike ministers in some religions, UU ministers have no special authority and you should not be intimidated by them. Many UU churches have a “talkback” tradition – a discussion after the Sunday service in which anyone can comment on the sermon, or even disagree with it completely. In general, UU ministers are intelligent, well educated, and well read – but so are a lot of other people; that doesn’t mean you have to agree with them.

Similarly, the annual UU General Asssembly passes resolutions, many of which take political positions. Though a position endorsed by the General Assembly is certainly worth considering, these resolutions are not in any way binding on individual UU’s. If you like, you may continue your own political activity (or lack of activity) as if nothing has happened.

Do the UU Principles have political implications?

They wouldn’t mean very much if they didn’t. However, the Principles are general goals, not detailed political agendas or lists of candidates. Even people who support the UU Principles whole-heartedly may disagree about how goals like “world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all” are best achieved.

In general, the Principles push us to expand our radius of compassion. And so UU’s usually are on the side that favors extending human rights to more people. Historically, that has meant supporting women’s suffrage, the abolition of slavery, and the civil rights movement (though none of these positions were unanimous). Today, for example, large majorities of UU’s support gay rights and oppose torture.

Our commitment to individual conscience also leads most UU’s to support the separation of church and state. Consequently, UU’s often wind up opposing the agenda of the Christian Right.

But even if the Principles do have political implications, they are not a creed. The member congregations of the UUA are pledged to affirm and promote these principles, but they are not binding on individual members.