Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
“Liberalism and Democracy”
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore October 30, 2005
How many of us cringed when we heard Randall Terry, Founder of Operation Rescue say twelve years ago:
Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a Biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this country. We don't want equal time. We don't want pluralism."--Randall Terry, Founder of Operation Rescue, The News-Sentinel, Fort Wayne, Indiana, 8-16-93
Or when Pat Robertson said that same year
"There is no such thing as separation of church and state in the Constitution. It is a lie of the Left and we are not going to take it anymore." --Pat Robertson, November 1993 during an address to the American Center for Law and Justice
When I hear such assertions, I feel like I’m being attacked. I feel the need to speak up and set the record straight. I want to correct fundamentalist religious leaders and the politicians who pander to them. They are wrong and misguided.
Liberalism not religion is at the heart of our democracy. By liberal, I am not referring to the political liberalism as narrowly defined by the philosophy of Roosevelt’s New Deal or that is synonymous today with the positions of the Democratic Party.
We have lost the root meaning of the word liberal, literally from the Latin “liber,” which means freedom. The much-maligned word has long been associated with democratic principles such as:
These are the liberal Age of Enlightenment ideas that were occupying the minds of the founders of this nation and the seeds of the liberal religious tradition that grew into Unitarian Universalism. They were not interested in creating a theocratic New Jerusalem.
At the core of our Founding Father’s liberalism was the separation of church and state. They did not want to see religious belief or language written into our laws or control our government. The history of hateful wars between Protestants and Catholics for political power in Europe after the Reformation motivated our founders to build a strong wall of separation between them.
Even though the fundamentalist agenda to Christianize democracy is wrong and misguided, they do have a role in both social and governmental critique. What some of us have missed in our fervor to keep theocrats at bay is the importance of religious voices in the design of our democracy. To understand why we need those voices, we must explore the Biblical sources of our democracy.
Our liberal form of government is rooted in the story of Moses’ exodus from Egypt. Moses’ people lived in a theocracy under Pharaoh, who was God’s incarnate agent. Pharaoh’s oppression of the Jews made their conditions intolerable and motivated Moses to led his people out of Egypt and into the wilderness
The Jewish people wanted freedom from Pharaoh’s oppression but found that freedom less desirable than they expected. Pharaoh no longer filled their fleshpots. They had to find their own food and water. They were in charge of their own safety and had to settle their own disagreements. Freedom brought danger and insecurity. Some would willingly have returned to slavery to be secure again.
We see that same human trait today don’t we? Americans willingly sacrifice their freedom when they are threatened with terrorist attack. They relinquish their privacy allowing their bags and bodies to be inspected before stepping on a plane. Civil liberties are willingly suspended hoping for greater security. Many of us would rather be safe than free.
To make their freedom more manageable, Moses established a new form of relationship between the twelve tribes of Israel and God. Rather than setting up a Jewish theocracy to replace Pharaoh, Moses invented another kind of relationship called a covenant. A covenant is a voluntary association for the good of both parties. Instead of rule by God’s earthly agent, Moses came down the mountain with tablets. The all-powerful Yahweh proposed this agreement: You follow my laws and I will protect you. Yahweh and Moses proposed to build a society on rules rather than on dominance and submission.
The Jews were not the only tribes living in Palestine. The problem for the Jewish people with maintaining their covenant was comparing it with other systems of governance, particularly those having kings. In the book of Samuel (8:19-20), we find the people crying out:
…we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.
The aging Samuel, the leader of the Jews at that time, didn’t want to be replaced with a king. He predicted:
"These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day." (Samuel 8:11-18)
(As you can see, oppressive taxation has a long history.) The Israelites had their way, ignored Samuel’s prediction, and got their king. The rest of the Biblical history books lament the failure of monarchies and the people’s deviation from their covenant with God. The Prophetic books of the Bible castigate Israel for betraying God’s covenant and appealing for its restoration. The covenant held kings publicly accountable to the moral standards of justice and protection for the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. Jesus walked in this same prophetic tradition as well, calling people back to the covenant in a new form.
The Covenant with God found in the Bible may be a voluntary agreement but the Jewish people didn’t ratify it by taking a majority vote. The leaders of the tribes of Israel struck the deal, not individuals. Who you were as a person didn’t matter. The tribe or town you belonged to governed your fate.
Pauline Christianity changed that. One became a Christian not by heredity or tribal affiliation. One became a Christian through a spiritual transformation, through “metanoia,” a radical turning of heart and mind that also requires personal choice and baptism. This decision is a voluntary decision for freedom. Paul proclaims:
For freedom, Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)
The liberation of which Paul speaks is both from the bondage of sin but also the bondage to a rigid system of laws that betray the spirit of the covenant with God.
While the idea of the rule of law that holds the rulers to a higher law than their own will has a strong foundation in the Bible, it also can be found in ancient Roman and Greek civilizations. Greek and Roman philosophy books were found on the shelves of the founding fathers. Plato’s Republic and the writings of Cicero stimulated their imaginations. So did John Locke’s ideas of Natural Law and social contract that had strong associations with Biblical rule of law and the concept of voluntary covenant.
Another important influence on our liberal democracy was John Calvin’s experiment in Geneva. Calvin took a strong interest in designing a political system that would be both just and answerable to God’s law. He dedicated the final chapter of his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion to a theological reflection on the topic, “Civil Religion.” Calvin envisioned distinct and separate roles for the institutions of church and state. Trained as a lawyer, he wished “to establish a church that should be free as far as possible from interference of the state or the political magistrate.” The power of the magistrate should also be limited or risk “betray[ing] the liberty of the people.” To that end, the people should also have some rights of resistance. The citizens of Geneva took these words to heart taking power away from Calvin and reinstituting him several times during his lifetime.
Along with Calvinist theology and ancient philosophy, Liberal voices from the Radical Protestant Reformation also influenced the shape of American democracy. In the tenth chapter of Acts, the Holy Spirit came to both Jews and non-Jews alike. Groups such as the Baptists and Quakers saw this as confirmation of the spiritual freedom that exceeded the reach of the institutional church Protestant or Catholic. The Holy Spirit was completely free to move within and among them through immediate experience often called the inner light. Since this Holy Spirit could bring a message that prophetically challenged the authority structure, spiritual freedom and the right of conscience were needed to protect that divine message and messenger.
What surprised the Founders was the effect of designing so much freedom into the Constitution. The first leaders elected in the national assemblies mostly didn’t assume a position of benevolent interest in the good of the whole society as they governed. Rather than philosophers gathering to debate great ideas, they gravitated toward personal and economic interest as they wrote legislation, collected and spent public money.
Samuel was right to doubt ceding power to a king. Likewise, a representative democracy cannot depend on electing enlightened philosophers to act from benevolence for the good of all rather than a special interest group. Left to their own devices, professional lobbyists who only follow their self-interest will carve up our government for us.
We need voices to counter the power of self-interest. One of those voices needs to be a prophetic religious voice to call our government to moral accountability, to a law higher than self-interest. We cannot rely on the Supreme Court alone to do this for us. We must join with others to build religious coalitions to make sure our government is guided by good and just values. The moral religious voice must counter the corrosive influence of self-interest.
Unitarian Universalists have been strong advocates for freedom and civil rights issues. Whether the issues are marriage equality, human rights, women’s reproductive rights, protection of the ecosphere, prevention of torture, peace and disarmament, racial justice or religious freedom, our voice belongs in the public debate too.
Our public voices are not just for our elected officials. They must also be for the electorate as well. We have a strong obligation to share our faith and values with others. Toward that end, we need a strong religious voice at the St. Lawrence District and the national level to continually get our liberal religious values in front of the American people.
If the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, then the price of liberalism is endless advocacy. Satisfaction in advocacy work may not be immediate. Satisfaction comes through acceptance of the endless nature of the work. Moses never got to the Promised Land. Jesus was executed. Plato was unable to enact his Republic. We may never see the fruit of our work in our lifetime. The fundamentalists will gain ground then lose it. So will we. We must recognize the struggle for freedom is good in and of itself.
This struggle isn’t separate from our spiritual life but integral to it. The fight for freedom in the public square parallels the inner struggle for freedom. The Jewish journey to freedom from Egypt, Jesus’ appeal for a new social order, and the ancient commitment to cultivating virtue all have both public and private meaning. Inwardly and outwardly, we must face the tyranny of false separation and discover the unifying power of human connection that transcends difference.
Working for liberty and democracy, however you choose to do it, is spiritual work that brings rewards that extend beyond us.
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George Washington reminds us of why we struggle for freedom:
We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition, and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart. In this enlightened Age and in this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man's religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest Offices that are known in the United States. --George Washington, letter to the Members of the New Church in Baltimore, January 27, 1793
Several Unitarians have served as our President. Perhaps one of our Unitarian Universalist children will carry our tradition of liberalism into the White House again. Until that day and beyond it, let us be vigilant in the public square and in our hearts as we work for the spread of freedom for all.
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Copyright © 2005 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.