Main Content
A Politics of Respect

I hear a lot of talk about the dangers our country faces from the religious right, and I could probably come up with a strong and righteous condemnation of the Christian Coalition's politics, with a few zingers directed at Pat Robertson and Jesse Helms. We would all go away feeling good about ourselves, and some of my listeners would tell me how good my sermon was.

But that would be a cheap shot. I would feel cheap doing it, and my doing
so would cheapen the impact that we have together. Instead I want to look at what the phrase “liberal religion” means.

First, I want to look at the question of whether liberal religion, specifically Unitarian Universalist (UU) religion, has lost its center and its power to transform individuals. Certainly on the surface one could say that we have opened the doors so wide and set the barriers so low that anyone could find a home here without having to undergo any kind of conversion experience. All you have to do is sign the book. No tests are required, and no challenges are posed.

What is more, many people who find their way to us have the experience of finally having discovered something they had long been looking for. They come here and feel that this is indeed the home they have searched for. Rather than requiring a conversion experience or manipulating them into one, we affirm our new members in being who they are. This is a place of comfort, freedom, and permission.

But becoming a Unitarian Universalist just begins when a person signs the membership book. Typically a person who becomes enmeshed in our community undergoes a slow process of integrating our values, learning what they mean as we live them, rather than as we read them off the page of a book. The result, after many months or even years, is a person who might aptly be described as a deep UU. A deep UU is someone who has tested himself or herself by striving to live up to the idea of the worth and dignity of every human being in all walks of life.

A deep UU is a person who has struggled to discover the complex interconnections that enfold and encumber every person and every nation on this planet. A deep UU has learned the law of reciprocity: that, if they are to have any meaning, the freedoms we claim for ourselves must be extended to all; that any criticism we would level against others must start with reflection on our own role in the controversy under discussion; that the right to be critical must be bought with personal involvement.

Eventually a deep UU moves beyond defending the cause of the day and develops a deep awareness of social ills as well as social strengths. A deep UU gets to the point of no longer being able to remain silent. Integrity, conscience, and compassion all demand personal participation in the political process, as beneficiary, as witness, as speaker for a vision, as worker for change. And through that involvement, a deep UU gains backbone, dedication and courage. This is where I think soul enters into politics.

So, yes, liberal religion is transformative, but the process takes a long time. And that is to the good—beware the zeal of the convert. It may be full of energy, but it has shallow roots and a narrow understanding.

And I don't want to ignore what I would call Unitarian Universalism's blind side, which is our too easy assumption that what we have to teach is too sophisticated for most people, that we appeal only to the well educated or possibly to the well jaded. The corollary of this assumption is that our outreach must either be to others like ourselves, or that it is a form of noblesse oblige or paternalism, something we do out of principle for the benefit of those less fortunate than we.

In order to combat this assumption of elite status, we need to clarify our theological basis, which might best be done by comparing our theology with the Calvinist Christianity we broke away from a two centuries ago. We can start by contrasting our two theories of human nature. Calvinism assumes that human beings are born depraved and in need of redemption. Unitarian Universalism assumes, on the other hand, that human beings are born innocent. Calvinism asserts that we are all sinful by nature, while Unitarian Universalism sees us as capable of good as well as evil actions.

The basic transaction of Calvinism is acknowledgment of humanity's sinfulness, which only increased one's awe at the immensity of God's grace. The basic transaction of Unitarian Universalism is self-expression moderated by learning within a religious community. The goal for Calvinism is union with an utterly transcendent God. This can only be accomplished by the grace purveyed by Jesus, the Christ. The Unitarian Universalist assumption is that we are born possessing grace and that the purpose of life is to become purveyors of that grace to those who don't yet realize that they have it.

Let's move on to our differing understandings of ultimate things: God, Ultimate Reality, or Universal Process, whatever we might want to call it. The God of Calvinism is transcendent and judgmental, while the God of liberal religion is immanent and nurturing. The Calvinist God exists in a static universe, while the God of liberal religion exists in a changing, growing, evolving universe that is constantly becoming more complex. The God of Calvinism is closely identified with absolute rules and absolute ideas.

The God of liberal religion is identified with tentative truths and ambiguities. The God of Calvinism demands faith above all things. Liberal religion's God requires good works above all things.

It's a strange fact that the judging, rigorous, static God seems to inspire zeal, while the nurturing, growing, evolving God often inspires complacency and is, indeed, not transformative. But as I tried to show earlier, conviction comes after long acquaintance with the God of Liberal Religion. It develops out of a growing realignment of attitudes, allegiances and actions with the profound truth of our faith: that salvation is not for the individual, but for the entire world, and that it can come only when we achieve universal recognition of every person's importance and all peoples' interdependence. If we understand our freedoms to be evidence that we are living in a relationship of grace with our God, we can only demonstrate its importance to us by acting in love toward our neighbors.

When we start talking about carrying our convictions into the world, we inevitably enter the realm of politics, because today, especially, politics is the mechanism of organizing society. Its basic questions are: 1) from whom do we extract how much money, and 2) to what ends do we spend it? The answers to both these questions involve some theory of government's role in shaping society.

Again, conservatives and liberals have different understandings of the role of government, and I want to look at the strengths and the inconsistencies of both points of view. Conservatives seem to be most concerned with maintenance of the social fabric. Thus we see such conservative initiatives as trying to establish English as the official language, opposition to pornography and sexual license, and concern for traditional values. I share some of these concerns myself, as do most of us, I would imagine.

Conservatives also seem to harbor a deep discomfort with sexuality, perhaps because it is such a powerful drive and so centrifugal in its pull, impatient of boundaries and disruptive of order.

Conservatism as it finds expression in these United States also encompasses some paradoxes, like opposition to gun laws, even though guns are a great and lasting danger to social cohesion; heavy spending on the military despite the dislocations this causes in our economy and despite the essentially wasteful (or un-conserving) nature of spending on armaments. In addition, conservatism often seems to hold a punitive attitude toward the poor, and a rather narrow definition of who we are as a society.

In addition, conservatives tend to combine a belief in the use of force to subdue disorder with a deep distrust of government, the approved instrument of force. And they tend to combine a belief in an ordered society with a dislike of the restraints that would require businesses to uphold that order.

The Liberal understanding of government is that its purpose is to convey rights and privileges to groups and individuals whom society would otherwise disenfranchise: women, ethnic and racial minorities, the poor, the sick, and the disabled. Thus we see Liberals promoting laws that protect the rights of prisoners, laws requiring affirmative action, laws establishing health care for the poor, and laws regulating safety in the workplace.

Liberalism also has its aberrations and paradoxes: while theologically it sees all persons as possessors of grace and dignity, in policy it acts as though persons were victims of their surroundings; because it is so accepting of human difference, it often experiences paralysis in the face of conflict; where Conservatives would let business act without restraint, Liberalism has a tendency to let agencies act without restraint; and it frequently creates severe disruptions in the social fabric as a side effect of some large, well intended project, the destruction of black communities as a result of integration, being an example.

In addition, while seeing itself as the protector of the individual, Liberalism inherently distrusts what individuals do in large groups and in business enterprises. It sees persons as corrupted or victimized by the forces of society.

So on the far right, we find what might be called a politics of blame, which sees poverty and misfortune as evidence of character defects, and demands self-discipline and hard work as the remedies. On the far left, we find a politics of forgiveness, which sees misfortune as the result of implacable societal forces that make victims of us all. Both are right and both are wrong.

In their place I would suggest that we cultivate a politics of respect, respect for the abilities and determination of individuals, as well as respect for the sizeable obstacles they often have to overcome. But we need to start with respect for what Jim Wallace called the authentic voice of the powerless. True respect for the disadvantaged requires that we let them speak for themselves, rather than assume that we know what they need. It also requires that we honor their willingness and ability to create a meaningful life for themselves, and that we deal in skills and tools as well as in welfare payments and donations of food when those are necessary.

And true respect requires that we impose on those we hope to help (and on governments, institutions and businesses) the duty of honoring the fabric of the whole. We need to return to the notion of the social compact as a universal benefit to which all contribute. This means making the demands of citizenship on the powerless at the same time that we make equivalent demands on business and government. Freedom must be forever linked to responsibility.

Soul enters politics, as I said earlier, with our realization that love of neighbor extends beyond acts of friendship or charity and becomes active involvement in the processes which shape society and extend its benefits. Few of us may have ambitions of holding high public office. If we are involved in politics, we tend to do it at a local level, on school boards, borough councils, and county committees. But all of us here have ways that we can become involved. All of us have a voice which we can make heard. All of us know how to use the pen as an instrument of public opinion. All of us have money, in small or large amounts, which we can use to support values, exert pressure and make our feelings known, and all of us have the power of our presence and the force of a moral vision.

We have the power that comes from reconnecting personal values to political morality. We can put our selves on the line in asserting the convenantal character of our relationships. Soul enters into politics when we enter the fray and bring our convictions and our civilizing values with us. Politics is not something that happens in Trenton or in Washington. It begins here, with us. We create political space by the simple act of living as though there were political space. We need to live as though no alternative vision were possible.

About the Author

Like, Share, Print, or Explore

For more information contact