Today we’re talking about our fifth principle from the covenant we make with Unitarian Universalist congregations across the Association. This is part of the sermon series I’m doing this year on the principles.
In the 5th principle, we covenant to affirm and promote: “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” When I was new to Unitarian Universalism, I wondered about this one – why a principle about the democratic process? The right of conscience, sure, but democracy? That didn’t seem like a religious matter to me. It felt pretty mundane and boring, frankly. But then I went to a UU seminary, and I got a feel for just how important this principle is.
Back in November, I talked about our 1st principle: the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Unitarians have traditionally lifted up humanity because they saw the divine in human beings, and this has been a trademark of Unitarian thought. The Universalists formed a denomination around the doctrine of universal salvation—the notion that everyone is saved and going to heaven, or in more modern lingo, everyone is equally good, no matter what they do. The first principle describes our belief that the divine spark exists equally in everybody; that good and evil are potentials all of us have; that any of us could become like Jesus or Buddha or Confucius. The first principle is foundational to our faith.
That divine spark within—what is that if not conscience? Conscience is the part of us we trust to guide us right, to guide us to do right. As Unitarian Universalists, we trust the individual conscience above all other authorities in determining religious truth, as I talked about last month. But we trust its judgment in all walks of life. It could be called the voice of reason, the voice of God, that “still, small voice” that can be hard to hear if we fill our lives with noise.
Not only do we trust our own conscience to guide us right, we believe that everyone’s conscience illuminates some truth or piece of it. The “right of conscience” means that the individual conscience—the conscience of everybody—has a right to be heard. We believe in the right of conscience because we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of each person. And we believe in the democratic process because we believe in the right of conscience.
What is the democratic process?
The democratic process is a method of governance that lets all the voices be heard, in theory. Democracy is a form of government that treats all individuals as equals. Every vote counts the same, whether you are young or old, male or female, gay or straight, Black or White, able or disabled, rich or poor. Every vote counts the same, whether Republican or Democrat or Libertarian or Green. Every vote counts the same whether it affirms the status quo or some radical alternative. When everyone has a say, and the system is that the majority rules, people tend to be more accepting of the government, even when their candidate loses.
Of course, that idea was shot to hell after the last presidential election, when the losing candidate refused to acknowledge his loss and stirred up his followers to contest the election in every way possible. Democracy in our nation has never been more threatened, as politicians continue to propose laws that will keep all the voices from being heard. Democracy in the world is also being once again threatened, as the Russian autocrat invades the peaceful democracy of Ukraine. It takes constant vigilance to protect democracy against the forces that would destroy it.
Many Founders were UU’s
Our denomination and our nation were both founded on the principle of the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process to protect that right. It is no coincidence that many of the founders of the United States of America were Unitarians and Universalists.
In a work called “The Limits of Our Identities,” author Charles Blustein Ortman says,
“The founding fathers of our county, many of whom were Unitarians and Universalists including Jefferson, the Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Benjamin Rush, created a democracy. They created a form of government in which church and state were separated, but our republic was still built upon religious values. That religious value is one that recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of every person; it’s one that recognizes the intrinsic equality of all persons. Of course, we have to admit that the identification of all persons, which was quite limited at the time of the Constitution, has since expanded and will continue to expand until it does mean all persons.”
In the reading, we just heard, my colleague Peggy Clarke raises the issue that the founders thought they were being inclusive with their great experiment in democracy, when in fact they were far from it. As she says, “They didn’t realize it would require many more people, many different voices. They didn’t know how many generations would have to be part of the creation of that dream—how long it would take before the nation they imagined would be made manifest.”
It is a creation we are still working on, and the work is not easy, with so many threats to hearing all the voices, so many people who want to limit voting rights to only those who think as they do. Democracy itself is not easy when there are many diverse voices and needs—but it is not true democracy unless we let all the voices be heard, and attempt to accommodate all the needs as fairly as possible. We can help preserve our democracy in spite of people wanting to destroy it: we can keep working to stop gerrymandering, making elections more fair and available to more people, making sure everyone has a voice, and addressing corruption. “The soul of America has yet to be born.”
As we discussed in relation to our fourth principle, placing authority in individual conscience gives us freedom, but it also gives us responsibility. Democracy is not easy. It requires participation. In order to participate, we must also be educated. That’s why many of our Unitarian forebears worked to create a public education system. We must know how our government works, what the issues are, and who the leaders are. There are many requirements to make democracy work. Huston says, “Elections must be based on knowledge; therefore democracy depends on free speech so that ideas and information are generally available; democracy demands a free and responsible media to bring the information to general attention, and it also demands a good education system so that the people can interpret the information. Lacking any of these, democracy won’t be a democracy.”
Apathy will kill democracy
There are some serious criticisms of democracy. One of the things that constantly threatens to undermine it is apathy. My colleague Hilary Landau-Krivchenia says, “Unlike a house which can be built and periodically renovated, democracy is the deep network of relationships of those who live within the house—and must be rebuilt every day. It relies upon our participation. As Vaclav Havel put it shortly after he took office in Czechoslovakia: “The best government in the world, the best parliament, and the best president, cannot achieve much on their own. Freedom and Democracy include participation and therefore responsibility from us all.” (The Vote: Representative Humans, November 5, 2000)
If we don’t participate, we leave the decisions to others. We deny the voice of our conscience its right to be heard. When we don’t vote, we give our power away.
In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam makes an interesting point: “When most people skip the meeting, those who are left tend to be more extreme, because they care most about the outcome.” For this reason, voter apathy is part of the cause of our recent increase in partisan politics, the unwillingness of political parties to cooperate or to compromise.
Democracy is the best option that we have
Democracy may not be great, but it’s the best system we’ve got. In a famous quote, Winston Churchill said, “Many forms of government have been tried. . . No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” And if we find that democracy isn’t working well, what can we do? Try monarchy? oligarchy? tyranny? anarchy? In another great quote, H. L. Mencken said, “The cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy.” If it’s not working, the solution is to work harder at it.
That’s why so much of the world is eager to help Ukraine fight off the attack by Russia. There is widespread recognition, if not worldwide, that democracies are worth saving from attempts to forcibly conform to a different form of government. That’s what the U.S. was presumably doing in its war in Vietnam, though we didn’t succeed there.
Our heritage is the democratic process
The democratic process is an important part of our heritage as Unitarian Universalists. Our lineage goes back to the original settlers of Massachusetts, the Pilgrims, and the Puritans. In 1648, they adopted the Cambridge Platform, which is a declaration of principles of church government and discipline and is the basis for our congregational polity, which is the system of governance we still use today. It means that the authority of the religious body lies in the local congregations. These congregations stand in voluntary covenantal relationship to each other, and work together as equals, without an ecclesiastical hierarchy.
Alice Blair Wesley, in her Minns Lectures of 2001, asked, “So, who were the 17th-century founders of our oldest UUA churches?” She says they were ordinary members of the Church of England who were not happy with the institutional patterns of the church. She continues, “These [patterns] were already long set before they came to consciousness. But they learned of—what looked to them like—very different and much better patterns from history, from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, which they understood as the record books of the free church. Having tried mightily and failed to reform the Church of England, . . . our ancestors made the amazingly brave and costly choice to remove—some 20,000 of them—to the wilderness of New England in the 1630s. They came to this continent to gather themselves into free churches, in what they called the “liberty of the gospel.” Most of these very churches are the churches which in the 19th century first became, on this continent, Unitarian. And we UUs have kept ever since many—not all—of the of free churches, just as they were set in the 17th century.
. . . Our Puritan ancestors left England for New England, not because they disagreed with the Church of England—or other Protestants in Europe—over theology or anthropology. That is, over the nature of God or of humankind. They left because they disagreed over the theology of organization, over the question of how churches ought to be organized in the spirit of mutual love, over who should have authority and why—in churches rooted in that spirit.
Two hundred years later, in the early 1800s, when we Unitarians separated from more conservative churches of the Standing Order, it was because we disagreed over the nature of God and humankind. We unanimously kept—and have kept to this day—the covenantal congregational polity set by our 17th century ancestors, for the same theological reason: Covenantal polity is rooted in the spirit of mutual love.”
As Wesley’s words show, Congregational Polity is a cherished tradition in Unitarian Universalism. Wesley refers to it not just as a tradition, or a governance style, but as a “theology of organization.” It is rooted, not just in a spirit of mutual love, but in a belief in the inherent worth and dignity of all.
The democratic process in our congregation
The democratic principle operates within our congregations as well. We elect a board, which is a representative body, entrusted to make policy and articulate the vision of the church. We have an annual congregational meeting when we elect officers and vote on an annual operating budget that is presented by the board. The budget comes before the entire congregation—because since the members are responsible for funding it, then members should have some say in it. There are certain other actions that require a vote of the entire congregation, like calling a minister or ordaining someone into the ministry.
The democratic process requires participation. It requires us to be informed, show up for the discussion at the meeting, and cast our vote. With every right, with every freedom, comes responsibility. Let us not abdicate our responsibility. Let us affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all, including ourselves, by exercising our right of conscience, by showing up to vote, both in congregational meetings and in our larger community. Let us work to ensure all voices are heard and no one is left out of the process. Remember, “The cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy.” May we affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregation, and in society at large.