Principles and Religious Principles

I'd like to see religious liberals return to the the public sphere, where we were in the 1950s and 60s, making strong cases for our positions, and grounding them in our religious principles. So for starters we need to ask: what makes a politically relevant principle a religious principle?

Unitarian Church of Barnstable, MA. Wikimedia Commons
Consider for example the case of our growing income inequality. At the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly last June, the delegates selected income inequality as our study/action issue for the next four years. We select one new study/action issue every two years for a four-year process, so we’re always in the first two years of one issue and in the second two years of another issue. The new issue which calls for our attention as Unitarian Universalists is income inequality.

The inequality has gotten alarmingly extreme. In the early 1950s, 80% of the gains from economic growth went to the bottom 90%. 20% of the gains from growth went to the top 10%. So the richest were still gaining ground, and they were gaining ground faster than the rest, but still the bottom 90% were gaining, and they were gaining a pretty reasonable chunk. For the next 30 years the percentage of economic growth -- of increase in mean income -- going to the top 10 percent gradually rose. Then, starting it 1980, it began dramatically rising. By the early 2000s, the top 10%, instead of getting 20% of the new wealth, were getting 98% of it. Only 2% of economic growth was going to the bottom 90%. Then, in the 3-year-period from 2009 to 2012, the top 10% got more than all of the economic growth. About 116% of the growth went to top 10%. More than all of it! The bottom 90% got negative 16% of economic growth. The top 10% got all of the growth, and then, on top of that, extracted 16% more, taking it from the bottom 90%. There was an overall rising tide, but 90% of the boats were actually, on average, sinking.

Someone wanting to speak out against that inequality might give a religious grounding, or a purely secular grounding. For an example of a religious grounding, here’s William Sloane Coffin, with a specifically Christian argument:
"If 'God is love,' then in responding to God we respond also to one another: the other members of our family, of our church, and of our circle of friends. But is that enough? Jesus said, 'Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, my siblings, ye have done it unto to me." (Matthew 25:40). To be converted by Christ is to be converted to the poor: to lives bleak and merciless, to people for whom there seems to be neither past nor future, only a meaningless present. There is no way that Christianity can be spiritually redemptive without being socially responsible.”
That’s an argument with theological grounding. It’s based in the teachings of Jesus, and it calls for us to exert particular concern for the least of these.

Concern for the least advantaged might also be argued for on purely secular conceptions of justice, such as the one that philosopher John Rawls developed in his majestic 600-page 1971 work, A Theory of Justice, in which Rawls derives and defends the thesis that inequalities of wealth are just and fair only insofar as the inequalities are the result of processes that benefit the least advantaged. He makes a detailed moral argument for this thesis – and it is not a religiously or theologically grounded argument.

Our principles – our seven Unitarian Universalist principles -- could be secular principles. The inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another; search for truth and meaning; rights of conscience, democracy; world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; respect for the interdependent web of existence -- each of those could be a secular principle. So what makes them religious principles? We do. We make those principles religious. We’re religious, and they’re our principles – so, quite simply, that makes them religious principles.

The same principles could be secular for someone else. If a private citizen who wasn’t a part of any Unitarian Universalist community and didn’t identify as Unitarian Universalist, just happened to adopt those particular principles as personal values, then, for that person, these would be secular principles. For us, though, they are religious principles because we’re a religious community for whom these principles are central. Any secular principle can become a religious principle if it is embraced by and made central to the identity of some religious community.

(This, in turn, raises the question: What makes our congregation itself a religious group? We are religious because we do the three things that religion is about. First, we form a community, with shared rituals that affirm our community connection. Second, we are concerned with living better, being better people, the ethics and the values that guide our life. We are concerned with being and becoming good, with developing the virtues. Third, we recognize and celebrate religious experience, those moments of transcendence, of awe and wonder. What makes us religious is that we come together trying to integrate those three in such a way that each one will reinforce the other two. Nonreligious community doesn’t do that.)

So: we're a religion, and our principles are therefore religious principles. What remains, then, is to claim them as religious principles when making our case in the public sphere.

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This is part 2 of 4 of "Reclaiming Prophetic Witness"
See also:
Part 1: Living Our Faith
Part 3: Connect Your Politics to Your Faith
Part 4: Our Distinctive Voice

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