My Faith Is Not Fascist-Friendly
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Our Fifth Principle reads: We the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote … The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.
While this is not the only UU Principle applicable for today’s topic, it is certainly our starting point. Several times over the years I have stumbled upon a conversation that essentially asks ‘why is the democratic process included in our list of religious values?’ The answer, really, begins with the first part of that fifth principle which leads into a commitment to the democratic process as a natural and logical consequence. The fifth principle begins the ‘right of conscience’
The ‘right of conscience’ began for both the early Unitarians and the early Universalists as a religious commitment. Essentially, throughout our religious history, we would make statements about God’s love or God’s unity or professions of faith concerning various doctrinal matters; but throughout that time, we always kept a commitment to the freedom of conscience. This meant, if you did not believe the same as everyone else in the group, yet felt you were in the right group anyway, the group would not use that difference as grounds to ask you to leave the group. If you were in sympathy with the aims and doctrines, you were welcome.
This first part of the Fifth Principle leans very heavily on the Fourth Principle. “We… affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” The way we know truth, discern meaning, get guidance on what is important is this: we search for it. It isn’t given to us, it isn’t dictated unto the people, it isn’t set out for all time, for all people, in all situations. Instead, we each search for truth and meaning.
A person’s faith cannot be coerced. Each person’s experience of life and of faith is their own. Heed your own conscience. No one else can dictate for you what you have experienced. In the past we called this the ‘right of conscience.’ In today’s language you might say we are against religious gaslighting.
But if that were all we said, we would not be a congregation. We would be a bunch of individuals who may or may not have anything in common and who may or may not interact with each other. Like my Facebook Friends list. But, instead, here we are. We are a congregation. Ah! That’s why there is more to the Fifth Principle than simply affirming and promoting an individual’s Right of Conscience. A commitment to the Democratic Process is the natural and logical outcome of a community rooted in the Right of Conscience.
Our work, according to this Fifth Principle, is to be individuals in community. This leads us to make some conclusions about how we govern ourselves, how we reach agreements together about matters of importance. We have declared that the governance style that allows for the greatest individual Right of Conscience is the Democratic Process. We practice a form of self-governance.
Unitarian minister Theodore Parker wrote in his 1858 sermon that “Democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, by all the people, for all the people.” Abraham Lincoln’s law partner was present at that sermon and brought a printed copy of it to the president. It is presumed this connection lead to the phrasing in the Gettysburg Address in 1863, “government of the people, by the people, for the people”
I don’t mean to imply that our idea of religious ‘right of conscience’ is the source of our country’s form of government. The Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee deserves that credit. What I am trying to point to is the parallel between our United States form of government alongside our modern Unitarian Universalist form of government – and, more importantly, the values undergirding both.
We value the democratic process as a function of a healthy religious practice, and a healthy civic practice. That’s a part of our faith tradition.
Now, perhaps you can see where I am headed with this. I am not going to tell you who to vote for in the coming election. I am not going to tell you who to not vote for either. I certainly have some opinions on the matter, but that’s not how our faith community works.
I won’t pretend we are a big glorious mix of political opinions here. I won’t pretend that our liberal and progressive spiritualities don’t shape the political and social make-up of our demographics. I won’t pretend that, in practice, there isn’t pressure to vote in a particular way in our congregation. But a deep piece of what I have been saying for the past few minutes is this: you need to think for yourself and reach your own conclusion. For us to be true to our values as a community, we must keep that commitment at the front.
So, while I will not tell you who to vote for, I have no compunction telling you our faith calls you to vote. Our faith should not be diminished into serving as the religious version of one political party or another. But it does – unequivocally – espouse the same values that uphold the political practice of democracy as a whole.
So, what happens when the election includes the possibility of our democracy slipping into an autocratic dictatorial regime with hints of Fascism? I will tell you that our faith is not Fascist-friendly. I will not tell you how to vote, but I will warn you of forces at play that are bent of undermining our democracy.
Throughout the 20th century, Europe has had “three major democratic movements: after the First World War in 1918, after the Second World War in 1945, and after the end of communism in 1989. Many of the democracies founded at these junctures failed.” Timothy Snyder, in his small but well researched book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, claims those European democracies failed “in circumstances that in some important respects resemble our own.”
Fascism is a form of government that according to the dictionary “stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.” (Merriam-Webster) Every step of that definition is antithetical to our way of faith and to the civil practice of democracy. Historically, Fascism is epitomized by Mussolini’s Italy; although Hitler’s Nazi Germany is modeled on Mussolini and is what most Americans think of when presented with the term Fascism.
In her book Fascism: A Waring, Madeleine Albright suggests that within each of us resides “an inexhaustible yearning for liberty,” and contradictorily, “a longing to be told what to do.” This is not a good thing or a bad thing. It is our reality. We long for liberty and we yearn to be told what to do. We are best served when we find balance between disciple and creativity, between rules and liberty. Especially in times of chaos and fear, the clarity of a commandment can be deeply calming. But our faith has never called us into easy and calming answers. Unitarian Universalism has a long religious and social history of rejecting the comfort that may come from ‘being told what to do.’
Our faith is not Fascist-friendly. We do not look kindly on those who would use violence to enforce obedience. We take issue with leaders who are cruel, petty, and belittling of those who are different for the sake of nationalistic or racial pride. On principle, we side with compassion, equity, and respect over against those who sow distrust and disharmony with deceit and divisiveness. Our faith is not Fascist-friendly.
Am I saying we are in danger of slipping into fascism? I do not think we are there yet, but we are on that road. “Aristotle warned that inequality brought instability, while Plato believed that demagogues exploited free speech to install themselves as tyrants.” (On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder; p9) I confess, I see a lot of the marks they warn about happening around us in this country.
So what can we do about this? Other than the obvious – be sure to vote – what can be done? It is not enough to be armchair critics, or perhaps today we would call that online critics. The reason I have framed this conversation in the context of our Unitarian Universalist faith and values is to help us focus on what we can do rather than on what is going wrong.
Timothy Snyder, in his book On Tyranny, has several suggestions including some simple, direct actions an individual can undertake such as: “Make eye contact and small talk” and “Investigate.” Doing research in a time when facts and truth are slippery can be a powerful way to stay grounded. Suppression and regimentation are harder to accomplish when people know their neighbors. So, do a little extra research and take the extra effort to interact with people around you. He also lists actions such as “Be wary of paramilitaries” and “Defend institutions.” Paramilitaries are a signal that violence can be outsourced to unofficial, ‘secret’ groups – so don’t brush off concerns about terrorist-like activities of militias. And in a democracy, we thrive by our institutions such as the free press, the impartial courts, labor unions, and open elections. Pick one and defend it. Our democracy thrives by our institutions.
And take heed of the list of questions from madeleine Albright about the people who want to be our leaders. “Do they cater to our prejudices by suggesting that we treat people outside our ethnicity, race, creed, or party as unworthy of dignity and respect? Do they encourage us to have contempt for our governing institutions and the electoral process? Do they exploit the symbols of patriotism – the flag, the pledge – in a conscious effort to turn us against one another?” Reviewing Albright’s questions can reveal warnings about the beginnings of Fascism.
We should not wait until Fascism is undeniably entrenched. Freedom must be defended – and I don’t mean defended with guns; I mean defended through engaging with our deep values of truth and respect, participation and compassion. Our faith is rooted in the Right of Conscience. We have formed community around the desire to protect and encourage that religious freedom, and by extension, all freedoms.
I began my sermon with one of our seven UU principles – the Fifth one that speaks specifically about democracy and the right of conscience. But really all our principles lift up values that run directly counter to the means and ends of Fascism.
Our Second Principle outlines our obligation to act with compassion and to seek justice. Our Seventh Principle is our recognition that we are a part of the universe, not separate from it with special authority over certain parts of nature. Our Third Principle is a commitment to accept and encourage each other. Our Fourth Principle is a declaration that we will think for ourselves. Our Sixth Principle is a call for freedom and justice for all people. Our Fifth Principle is a yearning to bring all voices to the table, to share the power. And our First Principle, simply and elegantly, is a promise that all of this applies to everyone.
And in the end, do your own investigation on this. Don’t take my word for it, think for yourself. Go ahead and disagree with me. But don’t get stuck on that. Instead, act. Engage with the issues. Live in your integrity and your conscience. Be part of the progress of our nation as we grow into a better community.
In a world without end
May it be so