I Love Democracy!

The Corruption of Our Democracy, part 1

I love democracy. I think my most joyous experiences as a Unitarian Universalist lay person came almost 30 years ago. I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia and a member of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church, Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville. I would’ve been about 29 or 30 years old, and had two small children in the church’s RE program.

There was some proposal on the floor at a congregational meeting. I don’t remember what it was. I just remember that I was for it. I took my turn and was recognized by the chair, and I spoke to my fellow Unitarian Universalists about why this proposal was a good idea, would strengthen our church and its values. Other members of the church spoke against it – people I had come to admire and respect, people I had gotten to know at the church’s social events, coffee hours, and committee meetings and retreats.

Amendments were proposed, and some of them, by majority vote, were incorporated, and others, failing to get a majority vote did not. I had to decide how to vote on each proposed amendment, and I carefully weighed what fellow UUs had to say. It was so much fun. It was great.

In the end we arrived at a final version of the proposal. It was the kind of proposal that required a 2/3rds vote to pass. And my side, arguing that it should pass, got 58 percent of the vote. My side lost. We got most of the votes, we got a majority. But we did not get the super-majority that was required.

I was so happy. I mean, I wasn’t happy that we lost. My cognitive judgment about what policy would have been better for the church was disappointed, but emotionally and spiritually, it wasn’t the outcome that mattered. It was the process, for in that process, I spoke and I was heard. I think a swayed a few people who were undecided. And my thoughts were taken seriously by the other side, seriously enough that they needed to rise to respond to the points I had raised.

We all had a vote and a voice, and we were listening to each other. Each of us, however we ultimately ended up voting, was listening to what everyone said. We weren’t just listening politely, or even listening respectfully, but we were listening – I’ll call it “listening from the place of risk.” I didn’t have that language available to me then – I didn’t have that concept – but I felt this thing that I would later call listening from the place of risk. What you place at risk when you listen from the place of risk is whatever opinion you had on the topic before the speaker began. You are ready to have your mind changed. Maybe it changes, and maybe it doesn’t, but you are ready to have it changed.

In that process, I belonged. I mattered. And I belonged and mattered because we all belonged and mattered. My personhood and agency were affirmed and that felt good, but what felt really good was being a part of a process of affirming the personhood and agency of everyone there.

I was lifted out of myself and made a part of something bigger – and maybe getting outvoted even might have helped in lifting me out of myself. I left my church that day elated, with an elation that has abided in my heart lo these many years.

You don’t get that if your leadership’s primary concern is making sure the meeting doesn’t go too long, or if people aren’t earnestly wrestling with the issue as manifested by proposing amendments in an attempt to more finely balance the competing values. I learned that day that debate can be a form of love – and that conflict is a way to see each other for who we really are – namely, distinct human beings with different viewpoints. We can’t cherish our differences if we don’t know our differences, and we can’t know our differences except superficially without the willingness to spend the time articulating our disagreement. When we do that from the place of risk, we not only see each other for who are -- it’s a process in which we become who we are. Embedded in community, our individuality is born.

So. I love democracy. It was John Dewey who said, “Democracy is the name of a way of life of free and enriching communion.”

A way of life –

Of free and enriching –


Don't you, too, love that?

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This is part 1 of 3 of "The Corruption of Our Democracy"
See also
Part 2: Painful Divide
Part 3: Left Snark, Right Snark

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