(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Please listen to the message here or see below to read it.
Before the U.S. Constitution was written in September 1787, almost exactly 232 years ago, many of the most basic freedoms we now enjoy were surprisingly limited. Freedom of religion and conscience, enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment, was an ideal advocated during the American Independence but often not practiced.
The British Anglican church controlled religious expression throughout the colonies. In Virginia, often referred* to as the cradle of American Democracy, the Anglican church was the official state church well into the 1780’s. That was likewise the case in many colonies.
Ministers were an exclusive group and a man could only become one if he was both ordained by the Anglican church and licensed by the colonial government. Anglican Ministers were then employed and paid by the colonies. They often became government officials and public school teachers and exercised wide control over both spiritual and civic life.
Pastors to other religions were regularly imprisoned for preaching without a license – one that could be obtained only if one was ordained by the Anglicans and hired by a colonial government.
Fortunately, many of the founders perceived that government sanctioned religion was counter to the principles that compelled American independence. The most outspoken advocate for freedom of conscience was James Madison who believed that one’s conscience is “the most sacred of all property”. The right of conscience is, he said, intrinsic to being human. The right to form, believe, and express opinions about morality and issues that touch on it are foundational to both liberty and the practice of democracy. For Madison, people cannot be free to vote if they are not free to follow their conscience.
After the freedom of religion clause was included in the Constitution, Madison wrote Thomas Jefferson this, “I flatter myself we have in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.” His wish has sadly proven untrue – especially for the present times. Our minds, souls, and right to believe as we wish should not be subject to control by anyone – except by ourselves. This right of conscience is a bedrock American value – even as many try to dictate how others should think and believe.
One year prior to the 1961 merging of Unitarianism and Universalism, wise leaders from both groups wrote the UU seven principles. Much later, in 1984, the Principles were rewritten with the same meaning while revising sexist language – replacing words like “mankind” with “humanity” for instance. Even with those minor changes, the Principles have stood the test of time.
Reviewing, analyzing and understanding the seven Principles will be the theme for my messages in September – and then again in November. Today, I look at the Fifth Principle which says that we as UU’s affirm and promote “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”
Experts with the Georgetown University Center for Religion and World Affairs recently weighed in on defining the human conscience. Arriving at a satisfactory definition for it is not easy. Most of the experts define the human conscience as comprising one’s judgement about truth and falsehood, right and wrong, good and evil. The conscience is therefore ethically based and not simply one’s personal whims about what one wants to do, or wants to believe. In other words, the conscience is defined as our way of thinking that seeks goodness.
Constitutional and legal experts say that to have freedom of conscience is to hold opinions and beliefs as one thinks best – so long as one’s opinions do not unduly burden others. As an example, there is no burden on others to believe wearing a yarmulke is a way to honor God. It does burden others, however, if one’s conscience believes contraception is morally wrong and then promotes or enforces laws forbidding it.
That standard for the right if conscience is a fundamental part of Unitarian Universalism. Within UU ranks, there are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Humanists and Atheists. All are freely welcome to share their deeply held beliefs within UU congregations. Very importantly, however, nobody is free to expect others believe as they do.
That is particularly essential for UU Ministers. All UU Ministers are granted freedom of the pulpit – to freely speak their mind in a message. But a minister should not tell you that you must believe what he or she believes. The freedom also implies we are each deserving of having our ethically based opinions respectfully heard and considered.
It’s that point which I believe causes the most problems. How does a nation, a denomination, a congregation, or two individuals who resolve differences between ethically based beliefs and opinions? As the founders stipulated for the United States, and as the writers of the UU principles believed, we rely on the democratic process to make the difficult decisions between competing opinions of conscience. In other words, a majority with similar opinions prevails.
Of course, that does not mean the majority is right. It simply means that democracy is the fairest way to make a decision. As Winston Churchill drily noted, “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others.”
Democracy is messy. It often leads to disingenuous ways of influencing people’s opinions or forbidding them altogether. Democracy takes time and effort to hear all sides of an issue. Passions and emotions often prevail and people are often left feeling frustrated and separated from the whole. Frequently, the winner in a debate is 50% of a group plus one – meaning that nearly half of the group loses.
Those less than ideal outcomes lead us full circle back to what the UU Fifth Principle begins with – the right of conscience. If we believe in that freedom, then it is logical that even in losing a debate we should gracefully respect the result. Winners should not be harassed or disrespected for prevailing, and most importantly the loser must be free from a tyranny of the majority. They must be able to continue to share their opinions and be respectfully heard. Both winners and losers must proceed from the idea that having differing beliefs and opinions does not mean they are enemies, or somehow not still part of the larger group or community.
To rise above the inclination toward resentment of those who disagree, the Fifth UU Principle implicitly says that everyone should agree to accept democracy’s results. That means that people should move from resentment of those who disagree, to instead feel gratitude for the opportunity to have learned about differing ideas. It also means being grateful the free competition of ideas and the privilege of being heard. And it finally means there are no lingering animosities. A respectful debate is held, the democratic process is followed, and then all should move on from their differences to reunite and work for the good of the whole.
In any fair, open and democratic debate, experts on conflict resolution recommend all parties enter into the debate with the attitude they are wrong. That requires humility and a willingness to genuinely consider what others say and believe. It also requires believing that whatever the outcome, it will be the best one for the entire group. In other words, the good of the whole is seen as more important than whether the opinion of an individual or a sub-group wins.
Those are extremely difficult attitudes to adopt, especially when one believes something to the depths of their conscience. Even so, attitudes of humility, grace, and kindness – toward opponents – are the hallmark of people who understand and believe in the right of conscience and the practice of democracy.
A beautiful example of that ethic is found in President George H.W. Bush’s letter to incoming President Bill Clinton. He shared the awe and privilege he had felt as President and that he knew Clinton would feel the same. He offered encouragement and understanding for the challenging times ahead – particularly when Clinton might be criticized. He concluded his letter by wishing Clinton great happiness as President and wrote, “Your success is now our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”
Whatever one may think of Bush’s politics, he was a man of great kindness. In defeat, he saw the country’s well-being as more important than his own. Bush embodied the best of American democracy.
Psychologists say there are five ways people resolve conflicts of opinion. The first is to avoid a conflict by not engaging in a debate or discussion. The second is to compete in a conflict resolved that one side must win and the other side must lose. The third is to accommodate. One side just gives up – often for the sake of keeping the peace. The fourth is to compromise or partially accommodate. Both sides partially give up such that nobody wins. The fifth and final conflict resolution strategy is to collaborate where both sides work together, find common ground, and reach a decision everybody supports. This last form of conflict resolution is what I often call a win-win.
As you may know, I am a strong believer in collaboration. It’s why I prefer to call volunteer groups in this congregation “teams” and not committees. Each person on a team collaborates with others for the good of the entire team. There are no leaders or prima donnas, egos are checked at the door, and all try to find common ground solutions. Every singer Board of Trustees I’ve worked with in this congregation has acted in that manner. There have many decisions made by our Boards with every one of them being unanimously agreed to.
Collaboration, though, is perhaps the most difficult form of conflict resolution. It asks that nobody makes their desired perfect outcome the enemy of a good enough outcome. Collaboration thus requires creative thinking on everyone’s part to move beyond their own conscience based opinions to find a solution to which all sides agree. You win. I win. We all win.
Implicitly, collaboration expects participants refuse the figurative assertion of “my way or the highway.” I must win or else I quit. Agreeing to be part of a democracy like the United States or a UU congregation assumes humility in debate, grace in losing, magnanimous kindness in winning, and a total commitment to remain united and together. For me, that is exactly what the Fifth UU Principle expects – not only am I free to believe what seems right to me, more importantly so are you – and I will respect and honor the democratic process in resolving our differences or, even better, I’ll collaborate so any vote is unanimous.
I think all of us relate to the challenges of living in a democracy and of embracing the right of conscience. On paper, the two ideals seem virtuous and obvious. Despite that, most of us have felt extreme upset and even anger at past election results, or of debate outcomes in our nation, families and this congregation. The virtuous rights of conscience and democracy often run up against our deeply held opinions on what is right and wrong.
And that is both the reality and the challenge of the right of conscience and the practice of democracy. How is it possible to respect opinions and outcomes that do not fit with our sincere individual consciences?
That is precisely where humility must do its work in our minds, hearts, and attitudes. While recognizing nobody’s conscience is formed haphazardly, humility asks that we understand our consciences are not infallible. My conscience is very fallible and I must continuously readjust it to help me be a better person. To do that, my conscience asks me to look for what is true, good and ethical in someone else’s conscience. That’s what Unitarian Universalism is all about and what uniquely and ethically sets it apart from any other religion or belief system. Unitarian Universalism IS inherently humble. So long as one is respectful, whatever she or he believes is welcome here. And we will not try to change someone’s beliefs but celebrate them as possible answers to our group questions.
This ideal is true for spirituality, politics, church affairs, and any other matter. Nobody’s beliefs or opinions are perfect and right, but they are nevertheless still worthy, beautiful, and good – if they are ethically based.
Since all of us believe that to be true, then it behooves us to continually remember, and use the Fifth Principle for all we say and do. When the next debate of opinions happens in our families, or in this congregation, let us remember the high ideal of right of conscience and democracy. Let us remember the implicit meaning of those rights – that we respect other opinions, that we see democracy as an imperfect but still good tool to encourage collaboration, and that we remain loving and kind people who stay united no matter the outcome.
Ultimately, I believe the Fifth Unitarian Universalist Principle is about selflessness, sacrifice and above all, love when love is hard to show to an opponent. Our love for opponents is not an impossible task, but as with many actions in life, it asks us to heed the better nature of our angels. Let us look to the Fifth Unitarian Universalist Principle whenever we disagree and whenever our passions tempt us to follow negative paths. Let us be, in the spirit of the Fifth Principle, truly humble, all loving, and full of grace.
I wish you all peace and joy.