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12.8.04

I'm rather late in getting to this, as the question was last month's discussion topic at Coffee Hour, but I figured I ought to get my thoughts down on ... screen. Chris Walton asks: "What is the relationship between a person's Unitarian Universalism and his or her political ideas?"

I can't address the main thrust of Walton's inquiry (or most of the questions at Coffee Hour) because I'm not UU enough. I've described myself as a UU* for the past three or so years, but while I my theological beliefs may fit into UUism, and I've liked the UU congregations I've been to, I'm not part of the UU institution or community. Socially, I'm still pretty Lutheran (or mainline Protestant in general).

So I can't say much about to what degree the UU church can be accommodating of different political philosophies, either doctrinally or institutionally. But I can describe my own experience. In a certain sense my politics led me to the UUs.

One of the most significant things that happened to me in my college career was being encouraged to take up commentary writing. As embarassing as my early efforts were, it played a major part in getting me to think seriously and critically about issues I'd taken for granted or ignored previously. Having grown up in a conservative household, and feeling like my values derived from my Republican parents, the Boy Scouts, and the Lutheran church, I assumed the political opinions I was forming were conservative ones. Much to my surprise, my friends described me as a liberal. There followed a great deal of reflection about how I had managed to follow such conservative inputs to such an unexpected outcome, without ever experiencing any break from my past.

This political development contributed** to a similar rethinking of my religious viewpoint. So I was clearly primed for a seeker-friendly religion when a friend mentioned the UUs and curiosity drew me to the UUA website. But what really struck me about UUism could be described as political.

Perhaps the clearest political belief I've had is support for gay and lesbian rights. That homosexuality and heterosexuality should be treated equally seemed self-evident as soon as I actually considered the issue, and for all the thinking about it I've done since then I've never had reason to seriously question my basic stand. So I was quite excited by UUism's active embrace of homosexuality, and that stand still goes a long way toward making me feel good about associating with that church.

The second thing that struck me was the way that the UUs could remain active in working on social justice issues despite its lack of a unified doctrine -- or perhaps even because of it, as their efforts aren't divided by the need to also work on proselytizing. Even little things, like having fair trade coffee at coffee hour, served to signal what kind of an attitude th church held. As I see it, one of the major functions of a religious organization is to provide the infrastructure for developing and acting on one's values***, including broadly-defined political action (though I'd draw the line at things like electioneering). And it was the "social gospel" elements from my Lutheran background that continued to resonate with me even as I backed off from metaphysical commitments.

*Or as a "Unitarian" -- I'm new enough to this that I haven't got over my habit of thinking that "Unitarian" is an acceptable shorthand for "Unitarian Universalist," rather than referring to a specific doctrinal and historial community.

**Along with some good discussions on the Brunching board with a cast ranging from atheists to one of Jehovah's Witnesses

***Not that I've done a particularly good job of taking advantage of these opportunities through the church.

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