Democracy and faith

Democracy and faith November 3, 2012

Religious faith consists of our most deeply held values. It is the summation of what is of greatest importance to us, our ultimate commitments. But those commitments are expressed in many different ways, through many different aspects of our lives; they have to be if those commitments really are ultimate commitments. So of course, our faith expresses itself in what we say, in the work that we do, in the things we like and dislike, and our faith absolutely finds its expression in the way we vote, in the causes we support and in the causes we oppose, and our faith absolutely finds its expression in how we feel about our political leaders. So to pretend that politics somehow isn’t relevant to religious life shows, I think, a very limited understanding of both religion and politics. Figuring out where religious liberalism ends and where political liberalism begins is a challenge for us, not because we’re shallow or confused or unwise, but because the line between political convictions and religious beliefs is actually very fine. Our beliefs, our convictions, our identities, our lives are not so easily compartmentalized. We do not cease to be religious when we step into the voting booth, and we don’t stop being political when we come to church. That’s as it should be. How we balance those things, as well as all the other things demanding our attention and provoking our interest — well, that’s the hard part.

Unitarian Universalists are a people of faith that celebrate the creative power of difference respectfully encountered, the redemptive and healing power of different people being truly themselves and sharing of those true selves with others. Yet we know that we cannot and should not expect to accept everything. We should never make a place in our religious homes for abusive and destructive behavior; we can’t be truly ourselves unless we trust one another, and that means we must impose appropriate, healthy boundaries. And of course, no one religious community is going to feel like home to every single person who visits. Some will walk among us briefly and move on in search of something else. But if we actively exclude anyone, we had better make sure we understand how doing so is an expression of who we yearn to be as a religious people. The idea that if we are going to worship together and pray together and be together as a religious community, we must therefore also vote in the same way shows a very limited understanding of what it means for us to be in community. This is not because our political views are unimportant, or irrelevant to religious life; they are important, and they are relevant. It’s because the foundation of our faith lies in the creative possibilities of being transformed and liberated and healed by constructively encountering difference. If we insist upon unanimity, and explicitly or tacitly exclude anyone who falls outside the self-appointed majority, it can only be because we have very little confidence in the religious faith that supposedly binds us together.

Politics is not often conducive to reconciliation, respect, and mutual understanding. We get the message again and again, loud and clear, that there is no middle ground. On any issue at any given time, there are winners and there are losers. You’re for capital punishment or you’re against it. You’re pro-choice or you’re pro-life. Your state is red or it’s blue. Well, we know that the reality is far more complex. And we know that democracy is messy and inefficient and imperfect; it’s an unending series of processes, and we’d just better learn to live with it, because Winston Churchill was quite right when he supposedly quipped that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.” As a religious people committed to love and forgiveness and reconciliation, committed to mutual understanding and respect and being enriched rather than threatened by difference, and yes, as a religious people committed to democracy, the question for us is how we are to participate authentically in the often divisive processes of democracy while still maintaining our religious commitments.

We have a vision for our nation and our world. It is a vision of a world in which different people can come together and learn from one another rather than fearing and hating each other. Our religion calls us to practice that among ourselves, and to bring that healing, saving message to the world. We can only do so if we encounter our own differences with respect and honesty and love.

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