The Unpopular Principle
Our reading this Sunday was an excerpt from the book, “Healing the Heart of Democracy,” by Parker Palmer.
This is how the story always goes. Unitarian Universalist congregations often hold Intro to UU classes for newcomers, visitors, and those wanting to know more about us. They cover everything you’d expect about our peculiar faith tradition.
Some of our long history, our love of committees and discussions, our self-deprecating humor, and, of course, our seven principles and six sources of faith. There will be ice breakers, members of the membership team present, usually the minister, and whoever just wants to know more.
As someone that has served two churches before this one as a minister-in-formation, I was usually tasked with leading these introductory courses. Almost every time, no matter what we did, after the evaluation forms were handed back in, there would always be one person that said we had way too much history in our presentation and another, in the same group, that said there wasn’t enough.
Now, we’ve yet to have that experience here, though I keep the history to a minimum, so does our membership team. But one thing that I’ve noticed across the spectrum, no matter where the class held, is something that happens when we talk about our principles.
What I like to do, and I’ve yet to do it here, is have people read through the principles and then pair them off into groups. I ask them to talk about which principle struck them and why. Usually, if there’s a good size group, the discussion is lively, often heartfelt, and a wonderful way to get to know fellow newcomers.
After discussing, the groups are gathered back into the wider circle and we would go around and ask each person which principle they chose and why. You get the usual responses: The first principle, inherent worth and dignity. The fourth principle, sometimes called the anchor principle, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
The seventh principle, respecting the interdependent web, and usually, at some point, all the other ones. Except for one. There is one of our seven principles that is, indeed, the unpopular principle. It is left alone and unloved, never uttered in any of the dozens of Intro to UU classes I’ve facilitated so far in my life as a minister.
It’s our fifth principle, which states: We affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large. Just let those consonants roll around in your mouth for a little: right of conscience, democratic process, within our congregations, society at large.
It is the wordiest feeling principle of them all – favoring hundred dollar words over simplicity. And it is bulky, heady, speaking to ideas and structures that don’t necessarily call people to a faith.
You never hear other people of faith saying they love their religion so much because of the type of government they promote within their congregations and in society at large. Sure, maybe some Catholics love the Pope, what’s not to love, but they certainly don’t care about the finer points of theocracy nor do they promote it in society at large.
Our fifth principle is, indeed, odd. And yet a part of me feels really bad for it. It isn’t as shiny as the other principles, there’s not much poetry to it. But we need to talk about it. Because it is so critical to our history as Unitarian Universalists, our history as Americans, and our history that is unfolding in this moment and in two days and beyond.
We are, of course, talking about the upcoming election – and here in Kentucky that involves state representatives, judges, senators, and the big enchilada, President. I don’t know about you, but I cannot wait for this election to be over.
The amount of anxiety that I hold for this day is unlike any other election I’ve been a part of. Part of me is not sure why, but part of me knows there is a larger discussion about the tenor of this election to be had.
But my most idealistic hope is that once election day comes and passes that we will not have to discuss this ever again, but I’m afraid that is not going to happen. It is a vain and selfish hope. Our politics as a nation have taken an ugly and frightening turn.
Everywhere you look there is fear. Fear of the “other” – the immigrant, the liberal, the conservative, the stateswoman, the businessman, the muslim, insert a category, I’m sure there is some fear of this other. There is a divisiveness that I cannot quite put my finger on. It’s almost as if we’ve moved beyond partisanship into fierce tribalism.
A tribalism that sees only enemies in other people – and the diminishing of the worth and dignity of those enemies. At all costs. No matter what. No room for dialogue to be had. This is, in my mind, a very non-Unitarian Universalist friendly election.
And I can’t help but notice that we are not exempt from getting swept up in the divisive tribalism that throws our principles out the window. I have seen how you all have treated one another – it’s one of the dangers of being friends with your minister on facebook. I just lurk there, watching.
We should be having a long hard discussion about what this election, and any election, has done to us, is doing to our nation, and what we can do to at least change how we, in this room, engage our democracy.
Our values, our principles and purposes as Unitarian Universalists, call for unity, respect, listening, the hope of peace and justice, and worth and dignity for all people. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, our principles have the appearance of being sugary sweet, simple, and agreeable to anyone.
But they are truly difficult to live. Sometimes I would rather not be beholden to such principles. Sometimes it would be easier to ignore someone’s worth and dignity. And so, too, with the rest of these principles. As they are not a creed, they are really a framework for living and being in community, not a checklist of what you must believe.
But when we get to democracy, true democracy, the right of conscience, wherever those beliefs take us, and promoting that in our congregations and in society at large – a picture of just how difficult this principle is along with all of the others, starts to take shape.
This principle calls for us to respect liberals of any flavor in this room, along with the conservatives that are here with us. It calls for the Green party supporter, the Republican, the Democrat, the Libertarian, the Independent, and any shade of democracy-affirming politics to be respected and welcomed into dialogue.
And that is where it gets difficult, especially in a culture that would rather affirm and promote demonization of the “other” – especially in politics, over true dialogue. And liberals are not exempt from this. The amount of times I’ve been called one of the “sheeple” for my sincerely held political beliefs in this election cycle is disheartening. Often by dear friends.
The amount of times I’ve seen liberals tear apart other liberals because of their choice of candidate, their understanding of policy, or simply because of political fundamentalism – and that is what it is – it is also disheartening.
This election is so much a reflection of what it is like to not be in right relationship with one another – and that is contrary to the fundamental principles of this faith. And while we should always welcome people back to the table for us to talk about our differences, we should also distance ourselves from any viewpoint that is fundamentalist in its expression.
Just as my values call me to reject a viewpoint that would build a wall and shut out millions of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, my values also call me to reject any liberal or conservative viewpoint that diminishes the worth and dignity of other liberals and conservatives.
This is where we find ourselves in a difficult place. A place that is, sadly, feeling more and more counter-cultural with each passing day of campaigning, punditry, and government gone wrong.
We can blame the millions of dollars flooding our political system from corporations and shady special interests, we can blame our legislators for being more interested in their own well-being than ours, we can also blame pretty much any piece of our government, from the President to the city councilperson.
But we should also blame ourselves. What are we doing, in our own politics, in our own daily lives, that is reinforcing this divisive and undemocratic rhetoric?
What is the small patch of common ground, as Parker Palmer puts it, that we are carving out and desperately trying to find with those whose viewpoints are completely contrary to our own? Finding that common ground, however small it is, requires significant work on our own part.
Do we do this? Are we trying? Are we going out of our way to be good neighbors, good stewards of our values? Inherent worth and dignity means offering the welcome mat to those you especially find it hard to talk to and be with.
I would hope it isn’t laziness that prevents us from doing this. And I keep saying us/we, because I, too, struggle with this. I hope you all know that by now, Unitarian Universalist ministers are on the same journey most of the time. But at the end of the day I truly hope it isn’t apathy that is keeping us apart.
That would be far more insidious to manage than the heartbreak that Parker Palmer suggests is at the root of much of our divisiveness. We can all understand heartbreak. We can hear the stories of pain that lead people to viewpoints we might find appalling. Human stories that lead to human viewpoints – as wrong or as right as those viewpoints might be.
We can listen. We can stop diminishing the intelligence, the worthiness, the dignity of the person before us – even if it is a candidate that has been objectified, often rightfully so, into a monster. He or she or they are still people that have their own heartbreak, their own stories. In Christian circles there is a meme floating around. It says very bluntly: Remember, all of the candidates are made in the image of God. All of them. In the image of God. How would that worldview change our discourse in politics if we started there?
I know, at the end of the day, with all of this listening, all of this understanding, and with the hard work of finding common ground – and believe me, we will need it after this election – but at the end of the day, we need to be reminded of what democracy entails.
In democracy, one side wins. One side loses. That’s how it works. People lose in democracy and no one likes to lose. Some of you in this room will have your candidate lose in two days. Perhaps your candidate already lost and dropped out. And realistically, I might even have my preferred candidate lose. And it will not feel good at all.
But, again, that is how it works. And we see it on a small scale here in our congregations – because we affirm and promote – not consensus – but the democratic principle. A principle that has been with us since the founding fathers and mothers, many of whom were Unitarian or Universalist, ushered in the birth of this nation.
Every budget meeting we have as a community, every major decision before us, every building project, hiring of a minister, or other matter that comes before us – there are often people that lose. Five of you lost when you called me as your next settled minister.
But we, hopefully, have all come back to the table, to the discussion, to the community – we’ve all come to know that I will be your pastor no matter how you voted.
And we would do the same thing, this coming back and finding common ground, if a budget was defeated, a building project was radically changed, or whatever decision we made was different than some of us thought it would be.
We need to come back and find that small patch of ground – because if it can’t happen here, it can’t happen elsewhere. And I worry that that is why we see this on a larger scale in our society – it begs the question — are our opportunities and willingness to find common ground in our day to day lives diminishing?
Is our common ground as empty as The Pit in downtown Lexington? Ask yourself these questions. Ask them honestly and accept the answers in your daily life. Your life on social media, your life at political rallies, your life here, your life wherever you find yourself. I know I have been doing this quite a lot this long long long election season.
As difficult as it has been, I still believe in democracy. I believe in our Republic. I am not a socialist, a communist, or a proponent of a parliamentary system or structure.
And it is weird to me that it feels like a dangerous thing to say…as a minister in a religious tradition whose principles espouse, without apology, democracy, and whose history is anchored in, intrinsically, the history of our Republic.
We need to find the common ground, here. We need to know that with all of the fear and anger and worry going in to this election – and this is not the first nor will it be the last election that is like this – we need to know we can come back here and have our worth and dignity honored.
That we can love our democracy and Republic, and still mourn what has become of it in our politics. We need to welcome those emotions and we need to welcome a diversity of opinions. That is why we tell ourselves that this country is already great.
Do we affirm the worth and dignity of our emotions and the worth and dignity of differing viewpoints? And I say this as an LGBT American that truly fears for some of the politics I hear on a daily basis. Can we welcome the Trump supporter in our sanctuary, and yes, there are some here, and say they have worth and dignity?
How about the Clinton supporter? The Stein and the Johnson supporters? How about the Rocky de la Fuente supporter – if they exist. Can we honor their worth and dignity here as well? Beyond that, there is also a responsibility for us, as a covenantal religion, a religion that is based on our shared promises of being in right relationship.
What that means for us here is that we can nod in agreement with radical welcome and honoring our principles, but being in right relationship means we have work to do – we need to get our hands dirty and not let ourselves be complacent.
Democracy requires effort. We need to listen, we need to share freely our own views, we need to disagree and honor the disagreement. And we need to model, sometimes uncomfortably when faced with vicious opposition, what it means to be a citizen of democracy.
I can assure you all that this election is not over on Tuesday. God help us. I so want it to be over. I know many of you want it to be over as well. But there is a great deal of healing that will need to be done no matter who wins.
The damage is already done to the integrity of our political discourse. And so I ask all of you, as members of this faith rooted in democracy, do not shut out the people next to you – even if you think their viewpoints are from another planet.
Stay curious, hear the stories of those you disagree with. Find out if there is heartbreak behind those beliefs, or perhaps there is joy. But I suspect there is more heartbreak in our politics than we know. Hear the heartbreak. Feel that connection, that undeniably human knowing between two, three, tens, hundreds, thousands of people.
If there is someone here you know you disagree with – especially around politics – it will not kill you to find a small patch of common ground. Be in right relationship. Just try it out. It’s an obligation of being a Unitarian Universalist, but it’s also the right thing to do.
It also goes without saying, vote. Please. For the love of all that is holy, vote.