Liberty and democracy in liberal religion

From Gary Dorrien’s new book, Economy, Difference, Empire:

What would a just society look like? What kind of country should the U.S. want to be? For more than two centuries U.S. American politics has featured two fundamentally different answers to these questions. The first is the vision of a society that provides unrestricted liberty to acquire wealth. The second is the vision of a realized democracy in which democratic rights over society’s major institutions are established. In the first vision, the right to property is lifted above the right to self-government, and the just society minimizes the equalizing the role of government. In the second view, the right to self-government is considered superior to the right to property, and the just society places democratic checks on social, political, and economic power. Economy, Difference, and Empire: Social Ethics for Social Justice (Columbia University, 2010), p. 143.

Unitarian Universalists would seem to align themselves with the second vision, the vision of a democratic society, given that the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) claim a commitment to democratic process. However, it is not clear to me that this is the case — the major attraction to Unitarian Universalists for many people in our congregations is that no one can tell them what to believe or do, and this too is enshrined in the bylaws of the UUA, in the claim to a free and responsible search for truth, which is often restated in colloquial terms as “no one can tell me what to believe.” This last attitude is in close emotional alignment with the attitude that the government shouldn’t tell individuals what to what to do with their property.

Thus I see a built-in theological tension within Unitarian Universalism between theological liberty on the one hand, and on the other hand a commitment to democratic theological community in which the right of self-governance is superior to the right to believe whatever one wishes. There is a difference, however, between Unitarian Universalism and wider U.S. society: it is much easier to remove oneself from Unitarian Universalism. There are many people who feel themselves in complete alignment with theological Unitarian Universalism and more specifically with the principle of a free and responsible search for meaning without a creed, but who also find themselves unwilling or unable to submit any of their individual theological liberty to the demands of being part of a democratically organized congregation — many of these are the people who call themselves Unitarian Universalists on national polls but who aren’t part of a local congregation.

One last note on this topic: Historically, Universalists were more committed to theological liberty than were the Unitarians, and the loose structure of their national organization reflected that commitment to liberty. The Unitarians, by contrast, affirmed theological liberty and had, on the face of things, fewer theological restrictions than the Universalists; but beginning in the late nineteenth century the Unitarians poured far more of their energies into their democratic institutions. When the two denominations consolidated, the Universalists felt themselves out-organized at nearly every step of the way; and the new denomination has ever since then invested more energy into its democratic structures than into theological liberty.

4 thoughts on “Liberty and democracy in liberal religion”

  1. Nice post, Dan. Shall I assume that “democratic structures” is a euphemism for “bureaucracies?”

  2. Dorren’s logic a little tangled. Let’s forget such abstractions as “just societies” (I’m not certain “societies” can be anything really…who knows) and the “we” in whom ever “we” is wanting.

    Justice and Liberty are not the same things. The United States at the moment has a GOP focused on Liberty, and Democrats focused on Justice. There are also geographic, social, and economic forces at work, but when it comes to ideas those are the differences in outlook.

    Liberties in the United States often and most typically in defined in our laws as “freedoms from…” some authority. It’s easy usually.

    Justice is a far trickier thing because imposing Justice often means curtailing someone else’s Liberties. Does ones right to marriage equality curtail a Churches right to set it’s own criteria for placing orphans an example here in Illinois at the moment.

    Thomas Sowell, when talking about “Just Salaries for Execs” said the trad-off imposing a “just” Salary was having an authority out their capable of imposing it. Which should a citizen fear most? Wealth people with more than some criteria of justice suggest they should have? Versus the Governmental Power with the authority to seize it from them? I think many relationships in US politics today best viewed in that trade off.

    What’s surprising to me is the number of UUs who zero in quickly with talk of power-structures, yet fail to look political issues in terms of power and the trade offs having the government reduce liberty to create justice.

  3. Jeremiah @ 1 — You ask: “Shall I assume that ‘democratic structures’ is a euphemism for ‘bureaucracies?'”

    No, I meant to say “democratic structures.” “Bureaucracy” implies (for me, anyway) a paid cadre of functionaries, and a bureaucracy need not be democratic in form or intent. I meant “democratic structures,” and I meant it in a mostly positive sense — it is not a bad thing to be organized as a voluntary association, and our level or organization has probably been the main thing keeping us from going under.

    Bill @ 2 — You write: “Justice and Liberty are not the same things. The United States at the moment has a GOP focused on Liberty, and Democrats focused on Justice.”

    I agree with the first sentence. I do not agree with the second sentence. I don’t think either party is more focused on justice than the other party (cynics will say that both parties pay lip service to justice when it will help them, and those of us who are more charitable will say that both parties are equally committed to American ideals of justice albeit with different implementation strategies). However, it does seem to me that the Democrats, far more than the Republicans, believe that the ills of society can be best addressed by creating democratic structures, usually in the form of laws, taxes, regulations, bureaucracies, etc., which restrict the rights of at least some individual liberties.

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