Tag Archives: democracy

Associationism, part four

Part One of this four-part series

Present-day alternatives

To better set the associational rigidity of today’s Unitarian Universalism into relief, it is worth considering other forms of associationism currently in existence which do not match this ideal. By considering these alternative forms of associationism, we can better understand that associationism is not restricted to certain received forms or ideals. In recent years, we have seen existing congregations supporting new start-up congregations with administrative and financial support, without going through traditional district or denominational structures: that is, associationism allows direct contact between local organizations without being mediated by a regional or national associational structure. In recent years, we have seen a few ministers experimenting with more entrepreneurial approaches to starting up new congregations aimed at reaching young urbanites, including store-front churches and house churches: this harks back to the itinerant Universalist preachers who adapted their religion to regional differences and to rapid changes in society. We have seen individuals or congregations developing innovative new resources on their own and providing them directly to other congregations (e.g., small group ministry resources): this recalls the efforts of groups like the Unitarian Sunday school Society before its functions were effectively taken over by the AUA.

Associationism is (or should be) a flexible, highly participatory organizational structure that allows both local autonomy and effective cooperation between local organizations. Associationism is grounded in the principles of voluntary association that involves, among many characteristics: free association within and protected from societal and governmental structures; civic engagement (i.e., participants in a voluntary association run the association themselves, rather than the state or ecclesiastical authority); the creation of metaphorical spaces within society where individual voices can be heard; combining individual voices together to make a broader impact on mass democracy or other government. Associationism is structured by written documents (minutes of business meetings, bylaws, communications between local organizations, etc.). Associationism is also structured by behavioral norms that allow voluntary association. Associationism does not require theological rigidity, or another other kind of rigidity for that matter, including the current rigidities of Policy Governance (TM) and Wesley-style covenants; at the same time, associationism can easily accommodate Policy Governance and Wesley-style covenants, if those prove to be effective organizational structures for local organizations. Continue reading

Seven statements about democracy

It’s amazing to me how many people these days believe that “democracy” means “I get what I want, and screw you.” — I threw this line out in a comment to an earlier post, and then it occurred to me that many congregations hold annual meetings at this time of year, and so democracy is . Here are six additional brief statements about democracy that elaborate on this bare statement:

I/ Democracy is a form of self-abnegation. Yes, each individual in a democracy should receive some personal benefit. But each person in a democracy also has to contribute time, energy, money, etc., to that democracy. As a rule of thumb, each of us should expect to feel as though we are contributing far more than we receive as individuals; because we humans are more likely to be aware of what we do for others, than we are aware of what others do for us.

II/ A corollary to statement I: Just because you feel you give more time, money, energy, whatever, to the democracy does not mean you should have more influence than the next person. The basic principle of a democracy is that one person gets one vote; and each vote (yes, even your vote) is worth the same as everyone else’s vote (yes, your vote is worth the same as the person you despise and whom you think does not give enough time and money to the congregation). And of course you probably give less to the democracy than you think you do (see statement I).

III/ Participation in a democracy means you have to do more than show up once a year for an annual meeting, or fill out a ballot once a year. Each individual in a democracy is morally required Continue reading

Cynical? Who, me?

How to sell mass market consumer goods in the United States:– Ignore real consumer needs. Create a need that people didn’t know they had. Find a good-looking woman (or a man, but honestly women work better) to pose in videos and photos. Use overheated rhetoric to bring home your half-truths via mass media. Use dishonesty to overcome your competition.

How to sell presidential candidates win elections in the United States: Follow above steps.

The farcical democracy we endure in this country during presidential elections does not strive after goodness, nor does it aim to provide the best life for the populace. It is amoral;– it has no moral content. All that can be said of it is that at its best our democracy has entertainment value; at worst, it is cheap hucksterism trying to sell us a useless commodity.

And no, I don’t think this is a cynical post. I rewrote it several times so as to remove most of the cynicism.

Another model for churches, pt. 2

Part 2 in a series. Read Part 1.

The “Eccelsiola in Ecclesia”

I’m not interested in quite the same kind of new monasticism that Alisdair MacIntyre appeared to want; when he wrote After Virtue, MacIntyre called for a new St. Benedict, and within a few years MacIntyre had himself converted to Roman Catholicism. Unlike MacIntyre, I don’t see the answer to our problems coming from Catholicism, and indeed I see much of Roman Catholicism functioning as a destructive kind of imperium itself, rather than standing opposed to (or at least critical of) the imperium that is late capitalism and the postmodern nation-state. And while the barbarians are indeed at the gates, or really they’re beyond the gates and are actually in charge of our cities and nations, the social situation today is so utterly different from that in Benedict’s time that it is impossible for us to remove ourselves from society in the way Benedict’s monks did; or in the way that MacIntyre seems to long for.

Instead, I find inspiration in James Luther Adams’s studies of voluntary associations. Adams, with his deep concern for maintaining human freedom, saw voluntary associations as one of the key constituents of a free society which could maximize human freedom. Adams states that “any healthy democratic society is a multi-group society,” that is, a democracy must allow the existence of multiple groups in order to remain a true democracy. Membership in these groups must remain voluntary: “These [voluntary] associations are, or claim to be, voluntary; they presuppose freedom on the part of the individual to be or not to be a member, to join or withdraw, or to consort with others to form a new [voluntary] association.” (Adams, ed. Beach (1998), 183-184) By way of contrast, Adams identifies involuntary associations such as the family and the “state” (i.e., the nation-state); for nearly all persons, you don’t get to choose whether you belong to these two associations or not, you’re simply born into them. Similarly, in some nations, membership in the state-sponsored church is essentially involuntary. But in a truly voluntary association, you choose whether or not to be a member of it, and you can choose to leave it if you wish. Continue reading

Grace Paley

Mother’s Day sermons can get pretty saccharin, so this year when I was looking for readings for Mother’s Day, I turned to Grace Paley. No one could write about motherhood with less sentimentality, or with more humanity, than Grace Paley. Nobody could write about people with such a depth of humanity. I love her stories. Nothing happens in them, but they sound like real life to me. The characters are people I know, and they do things I can imagine doing myself. I can’t think of any other short story writer whom I like as much.

She died on Wednesday, at age 84. She called herself a “somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist.” If there were an afterlife (which she and I doubt very much), she would organize protests in the afterlife, just as her characters organize protests and political action in her stories….

A group of mothers from our neighborhood went downtown to the Board of Estimate Hearing and sang a song. They had contributed the facts and the tunes, but the idea for that kind of political action came from the clever head of a media man floating on the ebbtide of our lower west side culture because of the housing shortage. He was from the far middle plains and loved our well-known tribal organization. He said it was the coming thing. Oh, how he loved our old moldy pot New York.

…The first mother stood up… when the clerk called her name. She smiled, said excuse me, jammed past the knees of her neighbors and walked proudly down the aisle of the hearing room. Then she sang, according to some sad melody learned in her mother’s kitchen, the following lament requesting better playground facilities….

will someone please put a high fence up
around the children’s playground
they are playing a game and have only
one more year of childhood. won’t the city come…
to keep the bums and
the tramps out of the yard they are too
little now to have the old men … feeling their
knees … can’t the cardinal
keep all these creeps out

She bowed her head and stepped back modestly to allow the recitative for which all the women rose, wherever in the hearing room they happened to be. They said a lovely statement in chorus:

The junkies with smiles can be stopped by intelligent reorganization of government functions….

from Grace Paley’s story “Politics”

The best way to remember Grace Paley would be to engage in that kind of cooperative creative political action, of a combatively pacifist nature.

“Cultural politics and the question of the existence of God”

by Richard Rorty, in Philosophy as Cultural Politics: Philosophical Papers, vol. 4. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007

When the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty died a month or so ago, I decided to add some of his writing to my summer reading list. The fourth volume of his selected essays, Philosophy as Cultural Politics: Philosophical Papers, vol. 4, contains the essay “Cultural politics and the question of the existence of God,” and this essay seemed like a good place for a minister like to me start reading.

If you’re hoping for a definitive answer to the question, “Does God exist?” Rorty will not only disappoint you, he will also tell you (fairly gently) that it’s a bad question. There are better questions to ask, and these better questions have to do with what Rorty calls “cultural politics.”

So what is “cultural politics”? Citing philosopher Robert Brandom, Rorty says that the social world is prior to anything else. There isn’t some larger authority out to which we can appeal to set norms for society. This in turn means that societies, and the people who live in societies, cannot make appeals to God, or Truth, or Reality that trump all other appeals or claims. Your God, or Truth, or Reality can’t be considered an ultimate norm, any more than my God or Truth or Reality. Cultural politics, says Rorty, “is the least norm-governed human activity. It is the site of generational revolt, and thus the growing point of culture.” If you want a good example of how things grow in cultural politics, think about the U.S. Supreme Court decisions of Plessy vs. Ferguson on the one hand, and Brown vs. Board of Education on the other hand. Forget appeals to some transcendent Justice — we’re stuck with “the ontological priority of the social” (really a misnomer, since there is no ontology) — i.e., society, the social world, comes before anything else.

This being the case, rather than ask, “Does God exist?”, it would be better to ask, as Rorty phrases the question, “Do we want to weave one or more of the various religious traditions (with their accompanying pantheons) together with our deliberation over moral dilemmas, our deepest hopes, and our need to be rescued from despair?” Another way to make the same point is to say that, instead of having some kind of public religion ( “All U.S. citizens shall believe in the God of the Christian scriptures, as interpreted by the Southern Baptist Conference”), it would be better to have only private religion that stays out of the public sphere.

To me, as a Unitarian Universalist minister, all this makes good sense. I usually do not choose to play the language game that asks whether God exists or not. Continue reading

Election Day snippets

Our polling place is in the old New Bedford Hotel. But Carol had not changed her place of residence properly (no, it wasn’t voting fraud or conspiracy, it was Carol’s mistake). So I’m the only one in our house who voted. And then I was the only voter in the polling place at 7:30 p.m. — me, seven poll workers, and one cop. I asked if it was a good turnout in our precinct. The poll workers just shrugged.

Since this blog is my private blog, with no connection to the congregation I serve as minister, I can safely express political opinions here that would give the IRS conniption fits if I said them at church….

I voted to re-elect Ted Kennedy even though his stand against the Cape Wind project is utterly selfish and immoral. Global warming is real, it’s happening, and wind power makes sense here in windy Massachusetts. I cannot imagine why Kennedy, usually so strong on environmental issues, is throwing all of his weight (and probably a fair amount of his money) into ending Cape Wind — unless it’s because he selfishly doesn’t want to see a wind farm from the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis on Cape Cod. Ted, Ted, Ted:– wind farms are the new chic landscape feature; all the rich people like you want to be able to see a wind farm these days.

The thing is, Ted Kennedy is also one of the few senators who can be counted on to stand up to the current administration’s handling of the Iraq war. As a pacifist who takes the teachings of Jesus seriously, I believe all war is bad. But this current war is beyond bad:– in my opinion, it can no longer be justified by the standard Western criteria for just wars; therefore, we are currently engaged in an immoral war. The immorality of Kennedy’s stand on wind power is more than balanced by the morality of his stand against the Iraq war.

For the second time in my life, I got to vote for congressman Barney Frank (the first time was when I was in seminary at Andover Newton, which through the miracles of gerrymandering is in the same congressional district as New Bedford). So what if he’s running unopposed again — I enjoyed voting for Barney Frank.

State senator Mark Montigny and state representative Tony Cabral got my votes, in large part because of their strong stands in favor of same-sex marriage.

I did vote for a Green-Rainbow party candidate — Jill Stein for Scretary of State in Massachusetts. Interstingly, she was endorsed by the New Bedford Standard-Times, who wrote: “We recognize that Jill Stein, the Green-Rainbow Party candidate for Secretary of State, is a long shot to unseat Democratic incumbent William Galvin. But our endorsement of the physician and open government advocate from Lexington and your vote for her will send an important message. The voters need an activist secretary of state who will open up government on Beacon Hill….” I have to admit that my vote was as much a vote against Galvin as it was a vote in support of Stein.

Deval Patrick better win… that’s all I’m going to say about the governor’s race.

Election Day is not my biggest political concern right now. I’m more worried about the constitutional convention here in Massachusetts on Thursday, conveniently scheduled after Election Day so the pols can vote as they please and not suffer any consequences at the polls (grr…). If the opponents of same-sex marriage get fifty votes on Thursday, there will be another constitutional convention in 2008, and at that time the convention could vote to put an anti-same-sex-marriage question on the ballot. I’ll be attending the big rally in support of same sex marriage in front of the State House on Thursday [Link] — I’ll be there in the morning, and I hope to see you there, too.

Political compass

Thanks to Will Shetterly, I discovered the Political Compass Web quiz. The folks behind this Web quiz contend that the old way of designating people as leftists or rightists just doesn’t work any more — after all, how can you compare two leftists like Stalin and Ghandi?

So they add a second dimension to the left/right scale, creating a graph with left/right on the x-axis, and authoritarian/libertarian on the y-axis. That separates Ghandi and Stalin, because Stalin was an authoritaian, while Ghandi valued the individual conscience.

It’s a useful distinction for religious liberals. There are plenty of religious liberals who would be classified as politically rightist on the old scale, but feel comfortable as religious liberals. Could be that politically rightist, religiously liberal folks would score in the social libertarian side of the y-axis of the political compass — that would be my guess, anyway.

Not that I think the Political Compass Web quiz is particularly well-done (it’s far too U.S.-centric, for example), but it does provide food for thought. By the way, in the interests of full disclosure, I scored as “Economic Left/Right: -9.63; Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -6.67” — I’m only surprised that I didn’t score much higher on the social libertarian scale. This might reveal a flaw in the Political Compass Web quiz formula, because I suspect they don’t take into account the value of voluntary associations and related institutions in maintaining social libertarian values in a mass democracy.

Mr. Crankypants, evil alter ego of Dan, to the rescue. First it was birds, now it’s this Duelfer report. Good grief. Mr. Crankypants has always fancied himself as an investigative reporter, so here’s a hard-hitting interview with the alleged perpetrator of this blog…

Mr. Crankypants: Why the sudden intrusion of politics into what used to be a nice little religion blog?

Dan: Look, this is still a religion blog. But democratic principles are at the heart of who Unitarian Universalists are as a religious people. Yet we can’t even talk openly about the war in Iraq, let alone anything else, without getting into name-calling — or worse yet talking behind people’s backs. Our inability to engage in dialogue has become very divisive.

Mr. C. But why choose such a hot button issue as the Iraq war?

D. Because war has been a religious issue at least since Augustine’s justification for just wars.

Mr. C. But you hate Agustine.

D. Only because he’s a prig.

Mr. C. A while back, you spoke of the “divisiveness” that results from a lack of productive dialogue. Just what’s wrong with divisiveness, anyway?

D. Stop trying to be so evil, evil alter ego.

Mr. C. You still haven’t answered — why the emphasis on the Duelfer report? Why not some truly divisive issue like abortion or gun control, where people are so angry and shrill there’s no hope of any rapprochement in our lifetimes?

D. Exactly because there’s so little hope of understanding. With the Iraq war, there’s still hope of open, productive debate.

Mr. C. Chicken.

D. Evil alter ego.

Mr. C. Come on, I’m your alter ego — I know. ‘Fess up. Give the real reason you chose the Duelfer report.

D. I thought the report was very readable, if long…

Mr. C. [Hard stare from Mr. C] The real reason.

D. Oh, all right. I thought “Duelfer” was a cool name.

That concludes Mr. Crankpants’s investigative report. As with all investigative reporting on blogs these days, the goal has been to make the debate more shrill, and contribute to the general atmosphere of hatred and divisiveness. This is Mr. Crankypants, signing off — for now [bwah-hah-hah-hah-hah!!]