Today, we explore another make another nod to the first Principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Today, we honor the worth and dignity of our members and people around the world, as well as acknowledging their right to their own search for truth and meaning and our collective work towards justice, equity and compassion in all we do. Today, we celebrate the individual right of conscience and our collective embrace of (generally modified) democracy in our congregations. I do want to be fair to the intent, but I must, again, make a note about wording: The UUA, in reality, works like so many large bodies that claim democracy as their core; certain people are given the power and responsibility to look at all the details and make most of the daily or operational decisions. That is to say, almost all congregations and the UUA its self are actually run as republic, representative democracies. I just wanted to point this out, because true democracy would mean that we spent all of our time at church debating how and when to pay the bills, instead of debating human nature and the essential qualities of a being that could be properly labeled “God”.
Today, we celebrate a commitment to giving everyone a fair say. We honor the right of any group to define and govern its self. John Luther Adams told us (again, in his “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith) that Smooth Stone #2 that “…free choice is a principle with which religion, or society, or politics, cannot be liberal.” The right of conscious and the principle that no one is inherently better or more important in choosing the goals, direction, or actions of the congregation or the UUA are essential to our philosophy and, we believe, to the world at large.
There isn’t much more to say about the why of this Principle, in my opinion. Let me talk, briefly then, about ways in which Unitarian Universalists live this. We gladly participate in political debate and in public education on issues. Many of our congregations regularly host their communities in town hall, Question and Answer, or panel discussions as well as hosting screenings of documentaries. We assist in voter registration drives, knowing that the more people who are being heard, the better the outcome has traditionally been fr the United States as a whole. We should be involved in public discourse and in educating the community. We should foster discussion and even debate on important topics. We should help cut down on the bickering and the name calling and lead people back to the issues.
Democracy, even in representative form, is hard. Participation ought to include research on issues and getting to know your neighbors and their concerns. It is certainly easier to do within our congregations than in the world as a whole, but we have to work to model what we hope to manifest. We need to work on making our congregations more diverse and more representative of the community outside our movement. We need to find ways to welcome and include people of all cultures, races, economic situations, and ages. Our cultural unity sometimes makes consensus too easy, and makes it harder for us to adapt to the needs of our own minority groups. Democracy is hard, and it requires outreach and the active inclusion of those who feel dejected or disenfranchised.
Again, our Principles are not dictates. We have outlined ideals that we will try to live up to as congregations. It is important to remember that this Principle makes it clear, though, that We, the members, are our congregations and that as such, we are the the members, and the democratic body, of the UUA. We shape our collective destiny. We choose the board, and we choose the delegates, and we choose the direction of our movement. I have seen too many Unitarian Universalists talk about “The Board”, be it local or national, as a separate body and often the opposition. It pains me in much the same way I hate to see Americans divorce themselves from the actions of congress. We need to take ownership of the UUA and its governance. We need to own its choices and its actions. If we find that we are not proud of what it does, we need to speak up, to be sure, but we also need to work with the system, where possible, to make changes.
We celebrate the democratic process when we exercise our own conscience and take ownership of those things we can shape. We celebrate our right to conscience when we speak up and get involved. We celebrate our own worth when we refuse to let people speak for us in things that we oppose, and yet we must celebrate the dignity of others by giving them a voice and by respecting those who have taken on responsibility on our behalf. In short, we must be involved in the process of governing our nation, our local communities, as well as our Association and our own congregations. We have to admit our ownership of the decisions made, and work for change when our values are not being represented. All the while, we must remember that ours are not the only voices, and that we cannot hope to change the minds of those we disagree with if we do not seek to understand their needs and views.
Democracy is hard, but as has been said, it is less terrible than just about any other form of governance humanity has ever tried.