Why the Seven Principles Must Change

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, at 10:00 a.m. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2011 Daniel Harper.

Sermon — “Why the Seven Principles Must Change”

I’ll be talking this morning about Section C-2.1 of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, or the UUA. That section is titled “Principles,” and I’ll be talking about the first half of these principles, which have come to be known as the “seven principles.” If you’d like to see these principles while I speak, you can find this section of the UUA bylaws in the gray hymnal, on an unnumbered page just after the preface.

Let me tell you a little bit of the story of how the seven principles came into being. The first set of UUA principles were adopted in 1961 when the Unitarians and Universalists consolidated. In the 1970s, the feminist revolution swept through us Unitarian Universalists, and we came to realize the extent to which we had always envisioned liberal religion in male terms. By the late 1970s, it had become clear that the old UUA principles were clearly sexist in their language, and even in their assumptions. It was time to revise them.

In 1981, a revised version of the principles was presented to General Assembly, which is the annual meeting of elected representatives from congregations. This first revision had removed gender-specific language and, not surprisingly, given the preponderance of humanists within the UUA, had also removed all references to God. As you might imagine, this revision ignited one of the innumerable battles between humanists and theists, which threatened to mire the whole process in endless and acrimonious debate. So General Assembly voted to create a special committee to come up with another revision of the principles. That special committee sent out innumerable questionnaires, got lots of good suggestions, developed another revision of the principles, and then sent out that revision to be reviewed again, and got more good suggestions. They presented their findings at the next General Assembly, in 1982, and they led scores of small group discussions. They wrote another draft, sent that draft out to all congregations, created a new draft that was debated at the 1983 General Assembly, and then finally presented a final draft to the 1984 General Assembly, which was amended. Their painstaking attention to process paid off when General Assembly approved the revised principles in a nearly unanimous vote. Since this was a revision of the UUA bylaws, a second vote was required at the next General Assembly in 1985, and again the revised version of section C-2.1 of the bylaws passed with a nearly unanimous vote.

Since then, the revised principles have served the UUA reasonably well. But ten years ago, in 2001, Rev. Walter Royal Jones, who chaired that committee charged with drafting the new principles, noted that the principles might be due for some revision. Jones said, “We should not be surprised at some restiveness. On the one hand, some are uneasy with what they see as a kind of creeping creedalism in the way we use [the principles]. On the other there is a perception of incompleteness, with important, arguably necessary, empowering assumptions about cosmic reality and our particular place in it” that were left unsaid. Jones goes on to note that some people are dissatisfied with an overemphasis on with the emphasis on the individual, such that “the creative nature of community and interdependence are only tardily and inadequately acknowledged.” (1)

Or you might think about it this way. The 1980s was a decade when the selfish “Me Generation” of the 1970s was moving into the selfishness and extreme individualism of the 1990s and 2000s. Notions of some greater good to which humanity should aspire were replaced by naked greed and extreme individualism, and that naked greed and individualism led to crises like the savings and loan crisis of the 1990s, and the financial meltdown and Great Recession of the late 2000s. We adopted the revised UUA principles with the best of intentions in 1985, but they were a product of their times. So let us cast a critical eye upon them, and think whether they might need revision yet again.


1. Let me begin my gentle criticism by talking briefly about the literary quality of the seven principles: they haven’t any. The prose style reminds me of those mission statements that get generated by committees — you know, long involved mission statements where you try to please everyone, and include every suggestion that is made so that no one is offended. Of course, that’s exactly how the UUA principles were created: by a committee, who over a period of years tried to include every reasonable suggestion that was made so as not to offend anyone.

A lack of literary quality in such documents is not necessarily a bad thing. The seven principles are really a part of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and we expect bylaws to have a certain legalistic quality to them. Reading bylaws should be like reading the book of Leviticus in the Bible — the legalistic precision necessary to set forth rules and regulations should result in a document which will put you to sleep when you’ve got insomnia. When you’re writing bylaws, you expect to sacrifice poetry for legalistic precision.

Unfortunately, the seven principles try to combine poetry into the necessary legalistic precision. The result is a document that can sound mildly impressive when you read it out loud, but the attempt at poetry interferes with legalistic precision, and so the principles never seem to call us to account. The mix of poetry and legalism leads to a long, involved, and imprecise statement.

Compare the seven principles to the five points of Unitarianism set forth in 1886 in a sermon by Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke: “The fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and progress onwards and upwards forever.” (Clarke’s five point of Unitarianism, although never officially adopted by the American Unitarian Association, were adopted by many Unitarian congregations, and continued in use for most of a century.) There’s no vagueness in Clarke’s five points of Unitarianism. He says what he means with clarity, precision, and real depth of thought. Mind you, I would argue with every point he makes — I would never affirm the masculine fatherhood of God, for example — but I can admire the precision and economy with which he affirms that we have to refer to something that is greater and better than we are as individuals, and I can admire that he doesn’t beat around the bush. By contrast, I find a good deal of beating around of bushes in the seven principles.

Perhaps the primary virtue of Clarke’s five points of Unitarianism is its brevity. The problem with the seven principles is that they go on for so long that I always forget some of them; to make it worse, the seven principles are only half the matter, and then you have to read the six sources — the other half of that section UUA principles — as well. Because the seven principles go on for so long, it’s really hard to remember any of them. Usually, the only one we all remember is that one that says something about the inherent worth and dignity of each individual, which unfortunately tends to get reduced to, “MY inherent worth and dignity, and don’t you forget it!”


2. This brings us to my second gentle criticism of the seven principles. Walter Royal Jones put it this way: in the seven principles, “the creative nature of community and interdependence are only tardily and inadequately acknowledged.” I would put it this way: the seven principles come across as overly individualistic and selfish.

I will admit that a good bit of the selfishness of the seven principles comes from the uses to which we put them. I have witnessed more than one fifth grader say that they should get to do whatever they want because of their inherent worth and dignity. I have witnessed more than one adult say that their congregation should bow to their individual wishes because affirming the democratic process means they get to have their way. And that principle that encourages of spiritual growth in our congregations often gets interpreted to mean that other people should grow so that they can reach our lofty spiritual level. In short, much of the selfishness in the seven principles comes from the way we misinterpret them.

But this problem in turn arises because of the ease with which the principles are misinterpreted. Compare the seven principles to the Washington Declaration of the Universalist General Conference of 1935, which ends with the bold statement that we avow faith “in the power of men of good-will and sacrificial spirit to overcome evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God.” This is a short, bold, and unambiguous statement that is more difficult to interpret for selfish gain; I would love it if the seven principles said that we are people of good will would are willing to sacrifice much in order to overcome evil.

Actually, Section 2 of the UUA bylaws does include one distinct and direct call to action, which sadly never gets quoted. That call to action comes in Section C-2.4, the non-discrimination clause, and it reads as follows: “The Association declares and affirms its special responsibility, and that of its member congregations and organizations, to promote the full participation of persons in all of its and their activities and in the full range of human endeavor without regard to race, ethnicity, gender, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, age, language, citizenship status, economic status, or national origin and without requiring adherence to any particular interpretation of religion or to any particular religious belief or creed.” If we took this clause seriously, we would be a different congregation. For example, if we took this clause seriously, every door and every room on this campus would be accessible to wheelchairs at all times. Right now, they are not. Until we revise the seven principles, we would do well, I think, to pay far more attention to this non-discrimination clause.


3. This brings me to my final point today: the seven principles don’t adequately address what I might term the Miss Marple philosophy of life. Miss Marple is a fictional detective, the literary creation of mystery writer Agatha Christie. In Christie’s books, Miss Marple directly confronts evil and what she calls “wickedness.” Here’s a brief taste of the Miss Marple view of life, taken from the novel A Pocketful of Rye:

“‘It sounds rather cruel,’ said Pat.

“‘Yes, my dear,’ said Miss Marple, ‘life is cruel, I’m afraid.’”

Miss Marple knows that often life is cruel, that evil and wickedness are abroad in the world, and that it is up to persons of high moral and ethical standards to do battle with evil and wickedness. Miss Marple understands that life might be a little less cruel if we would all stand up to evil and wickedness.

Actually, I think all of us would agree that evil and wickedness are abroad in this world, even if we wouldn’t use Miss Marple’s terms. This is why so many of us in this congregation work so hard for social justice. I’ll give you some examples of how people in this congregation fight against evil and wickedness in the world. Homelessness is an evil, and every September our congregation fights homelessness by hosting Hotel de Zink, an emergency shelter for people who are homeless. Global climate change is an evil caused by us human beings, and our congregation fights global climate change through our Green Sanctuary program — and you will notice that we now have photovoltaic panels on our roof to help reduce our carbon footprint. Loneliness and lack of human contact are an evil endemic in today’s isolating society, and we fight those evils together with our various small groups and our caring network. So you see, in our congregation, we are already fighting evil and wickedness.

While the seven principles do include weak statements to support our existing work of fighting evil and wickedness, I would prefer a stronger statement. If Miss Marple were rewriting the first of the seven principles, she would say:

“…It’s very wicked, you know, to affront human dignity.”

Or we could simply make a more general statement, something along the lines of the Washington Declaration of the old Universalists: “We affirm the power of people of good-will and sacrificial spirit to fight and to overcome evil, and to progressively establish an earth made fair and all her people one.”

Fortunately, we do not have to wait for the seven principles to be revised. Here in our congregation, we have our own unofficial affirmation of our faith, our own reason for being. We say that we aim to transform ourselves, each other, and the world. We take it as a given that we are transforming ourselves, each other, and the world, for the better. In Miss Marple’s terms, we are standing up to evil and wickedness in the world. But we also aim to strengthen our selves, and we aim to support and strengthen those around us. This fight for a better world, for an earth made fair and all her people one, is not an easy fight. It requires strength and courage.

If you find the seven principles to be useful to you as you fight against evil and wickedness in this world, I hope you’ll continue to rely upon them for strength and courage. We need to draw on strength wherever we can; my gentle criticisms are not intended to do away with the seven principles, but rather to revise them so that they may strengthen and encourage us even more. We are all in this together — you, me, and even Miss Marple — we are all standing up against evil and wickedness, we are all drawing courage from one another, we are all struggling together for that earth made fair with all her people one.


(1) History of adoption of the seven principles from Warren Ross, The Premise and the Promise, Boston: Skinner House, 2001, pp. 91-100. Jones quotes on pp. 99-100.

(2) Miss Marple quotes taken from Agatha Christie, A Pocketful of Rye, 1953.

The Eighth Principle

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.


I chose the readings this morning because I wanted you to hear the voices of non-white people who are Unitarian Universalists. And I’ll be reading publicly-available writings by two people I happen to know, Kon Heong McNaughton, and Alicia Roxanne Ford.

The first reading is by Alicia Roxanne Ford, poet, Unitarian Universalist minister, who also happens to be a black woman born on the Caribbean island of Tobago.

“At thirteen I sat on the beach watching the sun set. Do you know that moment… the moment when the sun first meets the horizon? The kiss lightly ‘hello’ — then the embrace begins? That moment when sun and sea seem to melt seamlessly into one effortless creation… new every evening and at the same time birthing dusk — if you are observant, careful — you will see the moon and maybe, just maybe a brave star. Depending on your angle, it will seem as though the coconut trees are offering a blessing — and the waves are humming a prayer. At thirteen — just for one evening, one private moment, I had the right angle and there was an instant in all of this that I could not tell where I began/ended — it was not the sun, but I who melted seamlessly…and it was I who nodded my lean body offering a blessing… my tears were waves praying for World. In that one moment, god was everywhere in all things and beyond all; transcendent and immanent — in that one moment, I heard the sea calling…. Calling. And without knowing why, I gave myself.

“…At the cornerstone of that calling and my own theological outlook is ‘respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part’ as well as a deep appreciation for the ‘direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder…which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.’ Coming to this ecclesial body has been a blessing… in many ways, it had to be this one free church movement and no other. While the Unitarian Universalist movement remains a work in progress, what is significant at this time for me is that we remain so — willing to engage and live into what it means to be wholly alive, struggling with race/class/gender/sexism/religious pluralism/political conflict and so on — all of which shapes us as we seek to shape and influence them. As challenging as it often is, what draws me and keeps me here is the opportunity to wrestle in community — as well as opportunities to live out my authentic theological praxis.”

[Ellipses are Alicia’s. http://uusankofa.org/tiki-read_article.php?articleId=9, accessed 25 October 2007]

The second reading is from “Why I am a UU: An Asian Immigrant Perspective,” by Kok Heong McNaughton. Kok Heong writes:

“I am an ethnic Chinese born and raised in Malaysia….

“I first heard the word ‘Unitarian’ in 1976 from a Taiji student of mine who was a member of the Unitarian Church of Los Alamos. This was back when transcendental meditation was the ‘in’ thing. I was comparing Taiji as a meditation in movement with transcendental meditation and this student said to me, ‘Oh yes, we meditate in our church.’ This intrigued me. What kind of church does meditation? She said, ‘Unitarian Church.’ I said, ‘Never heard of it.’ I looked in my Chinese-English dictionary and I couldn’t find a translation of the word.

“Talk about miracle! I heard the word for the second time that week when I met a young woman at the Newcomer’s playgroup who also attended the Unitarian Church. When I indicated an interest, instead of giving me an earful, she simply called up the church office and put me on their newsletter mailing list. Through reading the newsletter, I followed the activities of this church for several months before attending my first service.

“This was a service about Amnesty International. It blew my mind. Back home in Malaysia, I grew up without political freedom. As students, we were told to avoid any involvement in politics. Our job was to study. Leave politics to the politicians. Accept the status quo. Don’t rock the boat. You’ll be OK. Try to make trouble? You’ll mysteriously disappear and rot in a jail somewhere. Here I was flabbergasted because here’s a group of people whose passion was to free political prisoners in third world countries! I never knew about Amnesty International. I suddenly felt this connection of humankind for one another, that there are people here in the free world who care enough to fight against injustices in the world. I never knew of a church that would take a stand on human rights issues. I had thought that all one does in a church was to sing hymns, praise the Lord, pray for one another’s salvation, and put money in the collection basket.

“After that first service, I returned again and again. The more I found out about Unitarian Universalism, the more it fitted. I particularly appreciated the use of science and reason to explore and to determine for oneself what is the truth, what are myths, what to accept and what to reject in building one’s own unique theology. I didn’t have to take everything on blind, unquestioning faith. Another aspect of Unitarian Universalism that makes me feel special as an Asian American is the emphasis on cultural, ethnic and religious diversity. I didn’t have to check a part of me at the door and to pretend to be who I wasn’t. My ethnic differences were not only accepted, but they were affirmed and upheld. People were interested in what I had to share: I teach Taiji and Qigong, I taught Chinese cooking classes, I bring ethnic foods to our potlucks, I even share my language with those who were interested. I am often consulted about Taoist and Buddhist practices and readings, and asked if I thought the translations were accurate. My opinion mattered. This not only gives me pride in my culture, but it also encourages me to dig deeper into my own heritage, to find out more in areas where my knowledge and expertise are lacking. It helps me to look at my heritage with fresh eyes.”


Each fall, I try to devote at least one sermon to the so-called “seven principles.” For those of you who have never heard of the “seven principles,” they come from article 2.1 of the Bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association. We are a member congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and as such we have agreed to affirm and promote these seven principles. And for those of you who may not yet be familiar with them, here are the seven principles:

We affirm and promote: “The inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

Mind you, these seven principles are not a creed, nor are they a statement of religious belief. As Unitarian Universalists, we’re not particularly concerned with what you believe; but we do care about what people do with their lives. As I read them, these seven principles are a call to action. As we live our lives, we aim to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves; to promote justice, equity, and compassion; to accept each other and encourage one another in spiritual growth; to always engage in a search for truth and meaning; to affirm and promote democratic process; to work towards the goal of world community; and to respect our planet earth.

We often talk about these seven principles, but it seems to me that there’s at least one more principle, an eighth principle if you will, that we need to talk about. If you read a little further in Article 2 of bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, you will come to section 2.3, which reads as follows:

“The Association declares and affirms its special responsibility, and that of its member congregations and organizations, to promote the full participation of persons in all of its and their activities and in the full range of human endeavor without regard to race, ethnicity, gender, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, age, language, citizenship status, economic status, or national origin and without requiring adherence to any particular interpretation of religion or to any particular religious belief or creed.”

This is what I call the eighth principle. Each week, we read a slightly modified version of this eighth principle at the very beginning of our worship services. It lies at the very core of who we are as a congregation here in First Unitarian in New Bedford. Although it is related to the other seven principles, this eighth principle goes beyond those other seven because it tells us that we have a “special responsibility” to live out the ideals of justice and equality for all persons in our congregations and in the wider world. This morning, I’d like to focus on one way in which we Unitarian Universalists have tried to live out this “eighth principle” of ours. And to do that, let’s go back in time….

A few forward-looking Unitarians and Universalists have always been at the forefront of racial justice. Our own John Murray Spear, the first minister of First Universalist church, one of our antecedent churches, helped form an interracial congregation here in New Bedford in the 1830’s. Unfortunately, we had our share of segregationists, too, and an even bigger number of people who didn’t care one way or the other. But by the 1950’s, there was a growing awareness among Unitarians and Universalists that racial equity and racial justice lies at the heart of our religious tradition.

I’ll give you one minor example of how that growing awareness played out in the 1950’s. My mother, who was not a particularly unusual Unitarian, was a schoolteacher, and in the early 1950’s she got a job working in the Wilmington, Delaware, school system, teaching in an integrated school. She told us how one day she was walking down the street holding the hands of two kindergarteners, when a man drove by and shouted a racial epithet at her — both of those children happened to be African American children, and that man shouted “nigger lover” at her, a truly offensive thing to say where those children could hear it. I’m sure that man didn’t care much about giving offense. But when he called her a lover, he spoke some truth: she was a lover of her fellow human beings: as a typical Unitarian of her day, my mother followed the moral principle that you should love your neighbor as yourself; and she also followed the growing moral awareness that you should fight racism in the wider society.

Well, that is just one tiny incident among many others. A few of our churches became integrated and even truly inter-racial: First Unitarian in Chicago, Arlington Street Church in Boston, and others besides. The Unitarians and the Universalists merged together in 1961. Then in 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King sent his famous telegram to the leaders of all denominations, asking them to come to Selma, Alabama, to support his non-violent efforts to desegregate that city. Over one hundred Unitarian Universalist ministers, and more than one hundred Unitarian Universalist laypeople, heeded Dr. King’s call and traveled to Alabama. Proportionately speaking, this was a large number of Unitarian Universalists, since we have always been a numerically small denomination — numerically small, but influential beyond our numbers.

One of the Unitarian Universalist ministers who heeded Dr. King’s call was James Reeb. On March 9, Reeb and two other Unitarian Universalist ministers walked out of a cafe in Selma, and were attacked by some white men who called them “niggers,” and badly beat them. James Reeb died of that beating two days later. Of course black Americans were being beaten and killed with alarming frequency, but James Reeb’s death galvanized many people in the white establishment: that a white minister might be beaten to death because of his efforts to fight racism forced white America to confront some of the violence and hatred that racism spawned. Within days of Reeb’s death, the president of the United States made a special statement supporting civil rights.

The Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association was meeting when they heard that James Reeb had died, and they adjourned the meeting and immediately flew to Selma, where they reconvened their meeting. Rev. Victor Carpenter said of this action: “What a symbol! No other denomination could or did make such a profound statement of denominational solidarity with teh Civil Rights movement or such an affirmation of the movement’s black leadership.” [1983 Minns lecture]

I tell you this story so that you can hear about the high point of Unitarian Universalist anti-racist work. Unfortunately, in the late 1960’s, we Unitarian Universalists lost a great deal of momentum when our denomination was rocked by what has come to be known as the Black Empowerment Controversy.

By 1967, African Americans constituted about one percent of all Unitarian Universalists enough so that African American Unitarian Universalists started to connect with one another. On October 6, 1967, at a Unitarian Universalist gathering called “The Emergency Conference on the Black Rebellion,” 37 African American Unitarian Universalists got together and framed a plan of action. They called for African American representation on key denominational committees; subsidies for African American ministers; and a new social justice organization to be called the Black Affairs Council which would staffed entirely by African Americans and would be financed by the Unitarian Universalist Association in order to further justice for African Americans. You will notice that their central goal was to increase numbers of African Americans in leadership roles within the denomination.

To make a long story short, the Black Affairs Council was accused of being a separatist group. The notion of empowering African American ministers and lay leaders was difficult for white Unitarian Universalists to understand. The denomination voted to fund the social justice initiatives of the Black Affairs Council, and then when the budget got tight in 1969, funding was cut without adequate explanation. It is estimated that half of all African American Unitarian Universalists quit our denomination because of this controversy. For example, a young African American man named Bill Sinkford, who was president of the national youth organization in the late 1960’s, left Unitarian Universalism out of frustration.

It took us a couple of decades to recover from that controversy. Let me give you a vivid image of our recovery. I told you how young Bill Sinkford quit Unitarian Universalism. Two decades later, he decided to come back; he became a Unitarian Universalist minister; and in June, 2001, he was elected to the presidency of our denomination, the first African American leader of a historically white denomination in the United States. I would argue that Bill Sinkford’s leadership has been the most inspiring since the merger of Unitarians and Universalists in 1961.

While Bill Sinkford was away from our denomination, two other movements for full equality and full inclusion swept our denomination. In the 1970’s and early 1980’s, the feminist movement changed Unitarian Universalism: we got rid of the old sexist language in our hymns and in our bylaws, we changed our principles and purposes and included a seventh principle based on ecofeminist thinking, and we encouraged women in leadership roles until now half of all Unitarian Universalist ministers are women. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, we moved towards full acceptance of all persons regardless of sexual orientation, and we have gotten far enough in that effort that more than half our congregations are officially recognized as open and welcoming to gay, lesbian, and transgender persons, and we have gotten to the point where it is possible for a Unitarian Universalist minister to be openly gay, lesbian, or transgender.

And finally, in the last ten years, I have sensed a move back towards making racial justice a priority, the way it was for us in the 1960’s. I think two different things are causing us to move in this direction. On the one hand, racism is on the increase in our wider society: schools are becoming more segregated, prisons are disproportionately filled with people of color, we’re even starting to see new attempts at poll taxes to keep people of color from voting.

On the other hand, many people in their twenties and thirties, and even up to those of us in our forties, have come to expect a truly multiracial society. It is our positive ideal. I’ll speak for myself for just a moment: I feel more comfortable in multiracial settings, to the point where I really don’t want to be a member of an all-white church. I’m not the only one who feels this way. Lots of people who grew up as Unitarian Universalists were brought up believing in the ideal of a multiracial society — lots of other people who didn’t grow up as Unitarian Universalists were brought up with those same values — we truly believe in a multiracial society. So here we all are, and one of the first things we want to do is make our churches multiracial.

Notice that I said “multiracial.” Since the days of the Civil Rights movement, we have come to recognize that racism takes many different forms. There is racism against African Americans, but there is also racism against Asian Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, and so on. Recently, we have people like Tiger Woods and Barack Obama pointing out that they come from mixed-race backgrounds. While we have to recognize that the legacy of slavery has caused a unique set of problems for people of African descent, we also know that racism takes on many insidious forms. Indeed, we can go beyond racism and say that oppression takes on many different forms: the oppression of women, the oppression of sexual minorities, the oppression of people who don’t speak English as their native language, the oppression of people who didn’t happen to be born here in the United States. All these different kinds of oppression are kinds of evil that we must fight.

I would like to suggest to you that the fact that we can recognize the religious dimension of all these different kinds of oppression offers us an amazing religious opportunity. As a religious people, we know that we are called to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We read it in the Hebrew Bible, and the Christian scriptures, in the Confucian Analects, indeed in all the great religious literature. We hear it from all the great religious and moral leaders down through the ages: Buddha, Jesus, Mother Ann Lee of the Shakers, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King. And we know from our own reasoning processes that this is a great moral truth. In our time, in these United States, racism is one of the greatest issues that confronts us and requires us to act. As a religious people, we are concerned with what we do with our lives. So it makes sense that we should apply our religious principles to the issue of racism.

And here in First Unitarian Church, we are already doing that. Our church is in fact multiracial — I’d prefer it if we were more multiracial, but there is no way can anyone can say that we are a totally lily-white church. Less visibly, we also incorporate a diversity of ethnic groups. If English isn’t your native language, no one minds; if you were born in another country, no big deal. We are also at the forefront of fighting discrimination against gay, lesbian, and transgender persons. We are a church that is truly living out the “eighth principle” of Unitarian Universalism.

To put it most positively, we like diversity; and we are willing to actively work towards becoming an even more multiracial, multiethnic, diverse congregation. We know that means that we’re going to be involved in anti-racism and anti-discrimination work at many different levels: here in our church perhaps, certainly in the wider New Bedford community, in the country as a whole.

We know it won’t be easy at times. But it is an essential part of our religious values, and so we will persevere; and we will, my friends, we will overcome.

Seven Principles

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning comes from the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the association of which First Unitarian is a member congregation. While excerpts from bylaws are not usually read as a part of a worship service, this particular piece of bylaws has taken on the status of an affirmation of faith among many Unitarian Universalists. This is section C-2.1, titled Principles.

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

The living tradition which we share draws from many sources:

Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love;
Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.

The second reading is another excerpt from the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which immediately follows the first excerpt we heard. Although rarely quoted, personally I consider these of equal importance to the more familiar principles.

Section C-2.2. Purposes: …The primary purpose of the Association is to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions and implement its principles.

Section C-2.3. Non-discrimination: The Association declares and affirms its special responsibility, and that of its member congregations and organizations, to promote the full participation of persons in all of its and their activities and in the full range of human endeavor without regard to race, ethnicity, gender, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, age, language, citizenship status, economic status, or national origin and without requiring adherence to any particular interpretation of religion or to any particular religious belief or creed.

Section C-2.4. Freedom of Belief: Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages or to conflict with any statement of purpose, covenant, or bond of union used by any congregation unless such is used as a creedal test.

So end this morning’s readings.

SERMON — Seven Principles

As you may or may not know, one widely-used statement of faith among Unitarian Universalists is commonly called “the seven principles.” We heard these “seven principles” in the first reading this morning, and as commonly used they are:

(1) The inherent worth and dignity of every person; (2) Justice, equity and compassion in human relations; (3) Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; (4) A free and responsible search for truth and meaning; (5) The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; (6) The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all; (7) Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

It’s an admirable statement of faith. And unusual, for that matter. As I said when I introduced that first reading, this statement is an excerpt from the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association. How many religions do you know of that use an excerpt from their bylaws as a statement of faith? As someone who is fascinated by institutional structures — I call myself a “bylaws geek” — I am tickled to think that many Unitarian Universalists use an excerpt from a set of bylaws as a statement of faith. What better way to merge the personal and the institutional, linking the individual with the communal.

But even though these seven principles may make an admirable statement of faith, they cannot serve as a final statement of faith among us. One of the grounding principles of Unitarian Universalism is that we have no final answers when it comes to religion. Revelation is not sealed, that is, there is plenty more revelation to come before we’re done. Unitarians and Universalists have revised our statements of faith many times over the years; I expect that we shall revise our current statement of faith before too many years have gone by.

Another way of saying this is that we are a critical, argumentative people. And we like it that way. We thrive on disagreement, because we know that disagreement can lead to constructive dialogue, and from that constructive dialogue we might get just a little closer to truth. In fact, the story of the how the seven principles came into being is indeed a story of constructive dialogue that led us closer to truth. What happened was this:

Back in 1961, when the Unitarians and Universalists consolidated together, we had to write new bylaws for our new Unitarian Universalist Association. I am too young to remember any of this, but as I understand it the debate about the principles grew so contentious that it almost put a stop to consolidation. I have been told that the debate went on all day and all night. Somehow, compromises were reached, and a set of six principles was enshrined in the bylaws of the new Unitarian Universalist Association. As a child, I vaguely remember seeing a copy of those principles framed and hung on the wall of my childhood church somewhere. They actually don’t sound all that much different from our current seven principles:

1. To strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship; 2. To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man; 3. To affirm, defend and promote the supreme worth of every human personality, the dignity of man, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships; 4. To implement our vision of one world by striving for a world community founded on ideals of brotherhood, justice and peace; 5. To serve the needs of member churches and fellowships, to organize new churches and fellowships, and to extend and strengthen liberal religion; 6. To encourage cooperation with men of good will in every land.

You probably noticed the old useage of the word “men” to mean all human beings, and the old useage of the word “brotherhood” to mean common humanity. Back in 1961, though, no one gave a second thought to sexist language like that.

Within a few years, by the late 1960’s, feminism began to creep into Unitarian Universalist congregations. Many women, and a few men, began to realize that Western religion pretty much left women out of the religious picture. By the 1970’s, groups of women (with a few men) had gathered in various Unitarian Universalist congregations to see whether Unitarian Universalism suffered from sexist bias. The widespread conclusion was that yes, it did. The next question was: What should we do about it?

One of the women who had been investigating gender bias in religion was Lucile Shuck Longview, a member of the Unitarian Universalist church in Lexington center, Massachusetts. Lucile Longview decided that there should be a resolution introduced at General Assembly, the annual gathering and business meeting of Unitarian Universalists. She drafted a resolution that she called the “Women and Religion” resolution. Her resolution said in part:

WHEREAS, a principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association is to ‘affirm, defend, and promote the supreme worth and dignity of every human personality, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships’; and, WHEREAS, some models of human relationships arising from religious myths, historical materials, and other teachings still create and perpetuate attitudes that cause women everywhere to be overlooked and undervalued; and WHEREAS, children, youth and adults internalize and act on these cultural models, thereby tending to limit their sense of self-worth and dignity;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED: That the 1977 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association calls upon all Unitarian Universalists to examine carefully their own religious beliefs and the extent to which these beliefs influence sex-role stereotypes within their own families; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED: That the General Assembly urges the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association to encourage the Unitarian Universalist Association… to make every effort to: (a) put traditional assumptions and language in perspective, and (b) avoid sexist assumptions and language in the future.

It may be hard for us to realize it now, but in 1977 this was a pretty radical resolution. And that phrase that called on Unitarian Universalists to “avoid sexist assumptions and language” would prove to be quite radical.

Years later, Lucile Longview recalled how the Women and Religion resolution came to be passed at the 1977 General Assembly. She wrote:

I conceived of and wrote the resolution and sent it to 15 associates around the continent, soliciting feedback. They encouraged me to proceed, and offered suggestions. At First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts, six other laywomen, one layman, and I sent personal letters to members of churches, with copies of the petition to place the resolution on the agenda of the 1977 General Assembly. We received more than twice the requisite 250 signatures. The Joseph Priestley District submitted the resolution directly, with some text revisions. Both versions were placed on the GA Final Agenda. We lobbied friends, GA delegates, and presidential candidates to support the District’s version, which passed unanimously.

In other words, the Women and Religion resolution was the result of non-hierarchical, grassroots effort. And it passed unanimously. That contentious Unitarian Universalists could pass anything unanimously indicates to me that we saw truth in the statement that we could learn sexist attitudes from religious stories and myths.

One of the first places to look for sexist language was in the six principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. After the passage of the Women and Religion resolution, who could help noticing that the six principles referred to men but not to women? And so a movement arose to revise the six principles.

Revising the six principles into something that nearly all Unitarian Universalist congregations could agree on took seven long years. A seventh principle, respect for the Earth as sacred, was added based on the emerging feminist idea that human beings are not disembodied beings and cannot be separated from the world around them. An initial draft of the revised principles was brought to General Assembly, but it was criticized for completely leaving out the word “God,” which many people felt was tantamount to pushing theists and Christians (many of whom were strong feminists) out of Unitarian Universalism. Finally, in 1981 the General Assembly formed a committee to reach out to every Unitarian Universalist congregation for suggestions and comments and criticisms. This grassroots effort paid off: in 1984 and 1985, the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association finally approved a new improved statement of principles, which you heard in the first reading this morning. The vote to approve these new principles was not quite unanimous, but it was pretty close to being so.

So here we are, 21 years later. We have this great set of principles. Many people feel deep affection for our statement of principles. Quite a few teenagers and young adults have grown up in our churches having been taught those seven principles — some churches have their children memorize the simplified version of the seven principles that we read together as a responsive reading this morning. Everyone seems happy with the seven principles.

Now a provision of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association requires us to review the principles at least every fifteen years, and make any revisions that might be necessary. We are just beginning that review (six years late, which means we’re in violation of our own bylaws, but those things happen). And there are many voices saying that this only needs to be a cursory review, for after all we’re all pretty happy with the seven principles.

Well, no, we’re not all happy with the seven principles as they now stand. A small number of people — and I count myself as one of them — feels that it’s time for the principles and purposes to be revised. I personally would like to see a substantial revision. I personally am fairly unhappy with the current principles. Let me tell you why.

As I told you, the principles as we now have them grew out of the feminist movement of the late 1960’s and the 1970’s. We can call that feminist movement “second wave feminism.” “First wave feminism” was the feminist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a movement that perhaps reached its high point in legal reforms like women winning the right to vote. Within Unitarianism and Universalism, first wave feminism resulted in the first ordinations of women as ministers. Second wave feminism came about when middle class white women realized that although they had won the right to vote, and a few other legal rights, sexism was still rampant and widespread in our society. Second wave feminism pointed out, for example, that women earned less than men for the same work, and also pointed out how few women served prominent political offices or other positions of power. Within Unitarian Universalism, second wave feminism led to the eventual result that half our ministers are now women, that women now fill some of our most prominent pulpits, and that the last five moderators of the Unitarian Universalist Association have been women.

But then along came “third wave feminism.” Thoughtful women of color began to realize that second wave feminism did not adequately represent the particular circumstances of women who didn’t happen to be white. Thoughtful working-class women began to realize that second wave feminism assumed the kind of access to money and influence that many working class people, both men and women, just didn’t have. These women, and some like-minded men, began to ask why it was that middle-class white women seemed to be making so much more progress towards equality than women of color and working class women. To put it bluntly, second wave feminism did not deliver equality to many women.

Third wave feminism has led to a deeper questioning of second wave feminism. Many third wave feminists are younger women who came of age in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and some of them feel as though they are supposed to be “dutiful daughters” who follow the old second wave feminism without question — but then they ask, isn’t that exactly the kind of hierarchical thinking that the second wave feminists were trying to break away from? An increasing number of women who call themselves feminists are not Westerners, and they point out that second wave feminism almost requires a woman to adopt Western ways of doing things. So, for example, there are Islamic women who say they are feminists, and who don’t like the fact that some white feminists in the North America have stated that it is impossible to be an Islamic feminist.

Religion has become something of a bone of contention among North American feminists, too. Many of the second wave feminists rejected all religion as inherently demeaning to women, while other second wave feminists rejected Western Christianity or Judaism in favor of Paganism. But now younger women are coming along who are questioning how second wave feminism has rejected religion. Some of them are saying: You know what, I can believe in God and still be a feminist.

As you can see, lots of people are having lots of arguments about feminism these days. Those arguments have even crept into Unitarian Universalism. The questions that third wave feminists have posed have caused people like me to question how we Unitarian Universalists do feminism. And that has led a few of us to question those wonderful seven principles, which emerged from the insights of second wave feminism.

Speaking for myself, in the past few years I have grown unhappy with what I perceive as the selfishness of the seven principles. To say that I affirm “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations” sounds very fine indeed. Of course I want to be treated with justice, equity, and compassion. But when I remember how many women have to live with domestic violence, I’m not sure those fine-sounding words are quite strong enough. When I remember that far more women and children live below the poverty line than men, I really begin to want a stronger statement of what I can affirm.

In the second reading this morning, you heard what might be just such a stronger statement. The second reading this morning gave the rest of the principles and purposes of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the parts that are rarely quoted, the parts that don’t appear on the little wallet cards we have at the back of the church. I am particularly fond of this statement: “The Association declares and affirms its special responsibility, and that of its member congregations and organizations, to promote the full participation of persons in all of its and their activities and in the full range of human endeavor without regard to race, ethnicity, gender, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, age, language, citizenship status, economic status, or national origin….”

Those of you who come here regularly on Sunday mornings have probably noticed that the welcoming words that we hear each week at the beginning of the worship service include a similar statement: “Here at First Unitarian, we value our differences of age, gender, race, national origin, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, and theology.” Isn’t this a stronger statement than to say that we long for some abstract notion of justice, equity, and compassion? Isn’t this a stronger statement than to say merely that we value the inherent worth and dignity of every person? The seven principles are easy to affirm if you’ve already got some measure of justice, equity, and compassion in your life, if you’re already treated with inherent worth and dignity. But I’d rather affirm that I have a special responsibility to value the differences between people; and I’d rather be reminded of quite specific differences that I should be paying attention to; those differences that historically have resulted in certain groups of people being pushed to the margins of power and influence.

As I say, this is a debate that is going on right now in Unitarian Universalist circles. Within a couple of years, the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association will be asked either to affirm the principles and purposes as they now stand, or to make changes. You’ve heard my opinion — I think I’d like to see some changes, though I couldn’t tell you exactly what those changes might be. You probably have your own opinion. Perhaps you would prefer that our principles and purposes remain as they are now. Perhaps you have some good ideas for specific changes that should be made. Perhaps you will be the next Lucile Shuck Longview, and start a new grassroots effort that will change Unitarian Universalism for the better.

Whatever your personal opinion, our shared faith of Unitarian Universalism requires all of us to talk these things over; we are required to remain in critical dialogue with each other and with our shared statement of faith. Ours is not a religion for complacent people. We can’t just come and sit in church once a week for an hour, and say that is the extent of our religion. The search for truth and goodness draws us ever onwards, into deeper and more careful reflection. The search for truth and goodness isn’t a part-time affair, but it permeates every aspect of our lives; and any affirmation of faith that we make must be regarded as provisional and subject to revision.

In short, go forth and think deeply — and argue!