Ah, the UU blogosphere’s a-popping with things I want to respond to at length, too much length for a comments box. Actually, one I want to respond to is a recent post by James Ishmael Ford, whose Monkey Mind blog doesn’t have comments boxes. I’ll get to that one next. Right now I’m meditating on my Palo Alto colleague Dan Harper’s post “Liberty and democracy in liberal religion.” It touches on a topic I think about a lot: the balance (or, equally, the tension) between individual liberty and the demands of community. My candidating sermon for the first church that called me, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Rutland, Vermont, was about this challenge, titled with the words of the Vermont state motto: “Freedom and Unity.”

Dan writes, and I hope he won’t sic Righthaven on me,

[T]he 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.

In close alignment with it, but not at all the same thing. After all, I accept limits on what individuals can do with their property, while insisting on radical liberty to decide what I will believe (I’m pretty sure Dan does too). They are, however, two things we conflate often, and at our peril.

Dan thinks that many of the people who identify as UU theologically but don’t join a UU congregation–there are, by some counts, twice as many of them as actual members of our congregations–stay away because they “find themselves unwilling or unable to submit any of their individual theological liberty to the demands of being part of a democratically organized congregation.” I think this is probably true. Those who do not wish to submit in any way to the strictures of community–I’m thinking of extreme libertarians–will not want to join a congregation, even if they identify themselves as theologically UU.

But I see the congregation as a workshop, as rehearsal space, as practice fields, as a laboratory for the larger democracy, and so I’m focused more on the people who do come to our congregations, and yet who expect that they can pretty much have things the way they want them in that micro-society because of that “free and responsible search” stuff, and of course, that “inherent worth and dignity” stuff. I’m not sure if they are wrongly extrapolating from our freedom of theological belief. It is just as likely that the reason they aren’t very clear on the costs and benefits of different kinds of freedom is that the larger culture has so much trouble accepting a concept such as “Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” We certainly don’t get “Your right to pour poison onto ‘your’ land ends where ‘your’ land includes an aquifer that lies under others’ land,” or our environmental laws would be very different. We are a much more civil-libertarian than communitarian society.

The distinction between things that are truly no one else’s business and things that do affect others substantially enough for them to deserve a say (namely, via government) is an essential one to make no matter what kind of society one lives in. It’s one with which our democracy, the democracy of the United States, still struggles. After all, it is not easy to agree on the answers to questions such as “Is whom one marries entirely a private choice, or do others get to restrict it?” “Is whether to carry a pregnancy to term entirely a private choice, or do others get to weigh in?” or even “Do I get to say anything I want to at Annual Meeting, or is some of what’s on my mind so destructive that I should bite my tongue?” That’s why we keep debating them. I don’t think we will ever resolve these questions once and for all, but if we accepted that they are not simple, but arise out of the tension between important values, we could approach them with a lot more clarity. Helping people to do that is very much in the job description of pastors, religious educators, and congregations.

Have we UUs given more attention to democratic structures than to theological liberty? I don’t think so. In any case, we definitely haven’t given them enough attention to make up for the confusion that reigns in a nation that is supposedly democratic but in which the prevailing definition of liberty is still license. No wonder people come into our churches saying “I can believe anything I want here!” and thinking it means “I can do anything I want here.” What are we here for if not to help them sort out the difference?

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