The United States is divided so badly that it’s hard to believe. My liberal and progressive friends blame it all on the Republicans. Not surprisingly, the conservatives blame it all on the liberals. No one seems to listen to anyone but the people they agree with any more.
I’ve been blaming this unhealthy division on social media. But in his new book How Rights Went Wrong, Jamal Greene, professor of law at Columbia Law School, argues that the U.S. Supreme Court, and lower courts, are also to blame:
“…The job of the courts in a pluralistic democracy isn’t to please their base. It’s to work to resolve conflicts, to ratchet them down rather than up. Courts should be reminding us of what we have in common. They should be granting just enough constitutional leverage on each side that we have no choice but to sit down across from each other at the table, to look each other in the eye, and to speak to each other….” How Rights Went Wrong: : Why Our Obsession with Rights Is Tearing America Apart (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021), p. 163
Instead, Supreme Court decisions have become a zero-sum game, with clear winners and clear losers. Rather than trying to work people we disagree with, to find some common ground, we just want to eliminate them. As a result, progressives now hope that some of the conservative justices on the Supreme Court will die so Joe Biden can appoint some more progressive justices. Conversely, conservatives hope that the conservative justices can live another four years.
Unitarian Universalist congregations are supposed to support the democratic process in our congregations, and in society at large. But these days, most Unitarian Universalists have unthinkingly bought into the anti-democratic notion that Supreme Court decisions are a zero-sum game. Maybe it’s time for us Unitarian Universalists to reflect seriously on Jamal Greene’s thoughts — maybe we need to stop hoping that conservative Supreme Court justices will die, and start thinking about how to strengthen democracy.
I love reading Jonathan Edwards, the great eighteenth century evangelical New England minister, perhaps the greatest American theologian of that century. He writes well, good rational eighteenth century American prose filled with vivid images and solid common sense. And because he is such a clear writer, I can better understand why I disagree so strongly with his theological position. This passage, from his sermon “Knowledge of Divine Truth,” beautifully summarizes one of Edwards’s principle axioms, an axiom with which I could not disagree more:
There are many truths concerning God, and our duty to him, which are evident by the light of nature. But Christian divinity, properly so called, is not evident by the light of nature; it depends on revelation. Such are our circumstances now in our fallen state, that nothing which it is needful for us to know concerning God, is manifest by the light of nature in the manner in which it is necessary for us to know. For the knowledge of no truth in divinity is of any significance to us, any otherwise than as it some way or other belongs to the gospel scheme, or as it relates to a Mediator. But the light of nature teaches us no truth of divnity in this manner. Therefore it cannot be said, that we come to the knowledge of any part of Christian divinity by the light of nature. The light of nature teaches no truth as it is in Jesus. It is only the Word of God, contained in the Old and New Testament, which teaches us Christian divinity.
I couldn’t disagree more with Edwards; yet it is his clarity in stating this axiom that allows me to understand why I disagree with him. This leads me to conclude that there is no use in putting forth unclear arguments. If people disagree with you, they will figure it out sooner or later; better that they figure it out sooner. And better that they have a clear understanding of why they disagree with you.
This, I think, is why I have such a feeling of distaste for the Seven Principles. The prose is mushy, and seems to veil strongly-held beliefs behind weak assertions of generalized platitudes. Of course I believe in democratic process; but what do you mean by democratic process, and in what sense is this a religious and theological matter anyway? Of course I assert that every person has inherent worth and dignity, but do you make that assertion for the same reason I do? — are you making that assertion from the standpoint of natural law, or from the standpoint of Universalism that knows the power of God’s love, or what? The Seven Principles are unclear, and therefore easy to affirm but difficult to disagree with; this is their big weakness.