What We Can Learn From Conservative Organizations

I have a favorite quote by Susan B. Anthony. She said: “Think your own thoughts, speak your best words, do your best work, looking to your own conscience for approval.” I think the reason these words appeal to me so much is that they affirm the validity of our own ideas and experiences as sources of religious authority. Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of our religious forebears, wrote similar sentiments when he spoke of “self-reliance” and urged us, “Trust thyself.” Emerson, unfortunately, has frequently had his concept of self-reliance misconstrued as radical individualism, when in fact, he was referring to an individual’s freedom of belief.

We value our right to this individual freedom; in fact, it is, in a way, at the heart of Unitarian Universalism. It’s the one dogma in our non-dogmatic faith, some might say! It’s stated very clearly in the UU Association’s bylaws, often referred to as the “liberty clause:” “Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages…”

A recent study describes the majority of Unitarian Universalists and other liberal thinkers as:

• Being strongly inner directed
• Tending to be non-conformists
• Having little loyalty to authority or institutions
• Tending to be experimental, especially in terms of theology
• Being deeply concerned about social issues

We are deeply concerned about social issues, and we’re distressed about some of the things we’re witnessing and hearing about. Religious and political conservatives are also concerned about social issues, although their agenda is usually quite different from ours. There is a dynamic that I think is at the core of the difference between progressives (religious or political) and extreme conservatives (religious or political). It comes down to deeply-held priorities. Progressives tend to value individualism over the whole body  whether that body is a congregation, an organization or a larger movement. Those on the far right tend to value conformity, presenting a united front and speaking with a single voice. They value the larger group and its aims over and above their individual differences and have a much higher loyalty to authority and institutions.

Conservative organizations like the American Principles Project, for example, which fought against gay marriage, rather than falling apart once their mission failed, scrambled to maintain the organization and its membership by shifting to another cause –attacking transgender rights, especially for young people. You don’t often hear about a lot of internal bickering and disagreement within far-right circles. They tend to pull together and conform to the agenda, whatever that may be. Supporters of an extreme conservative agenda have been meeting and strategizing in formal think tanks for the past 50 years or more, forging common goals and common language to articulate that agenda, and willing to shift their focus as necessary.

We have seen throughout history that the more people are fully committed to a particular cause, the more likely it is that change will occur. So why do those of us who believe in equal rights and environmentally sound policies (the majority of Americans), have to struggle so hard to be heard? And why isn’t Unitarian Universalism a voice that is heard more loudly and clearly in our society? Is it because of our small numbers? That could be a factor, but I believe the main issue is that we have continually been in tension between our ethical stance and our commitment to individual freedom of belief.

It turns out that we value not only individual freedom of belief, but we value our individualism in general. And it’s this individualism, our rejection of conformity and discomfort with authority, that can prevent us from working together as a whole congregation and as a whole denomination, speaking together with one loud prophetic voice. Are we inherently doomed to keep chasing our tails, each in our own little circles? I don’t think so. But we need to learn to temporarily let go of our individualism in times when standing united could further the realization of our common ideals. The far right knows how to do it, and do it well, and UU’s and other progressive organizations could benefit from ending the micromanaging and infighting that stalls forward progress. For example, anti-racism work among white members of some UU congregations has led to conflict, frustration and disgust because of a climate of finger-pointing and accusations, rather than a compassionate commitment to learning together.

Most of us are involved in UUism because we want to learn and grow and to work together to make the world a better place. Together we can find ways to speak loudly and clearly, because as progressives and religious liberals, we share many common goals in the larger picture. If we can put aside our individual differences about the details for the sake of working together on a united agenda, one based on compassion and dignity, justice and freedom, and respect and responsibility for the earth, we have the power to change the world.