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[Chalice] Has our Church Become too Political? [Chalice]
Reflecting Upon The Role of Our Church in Our Community

Presented September 23, 2003, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

There's a Chinese proverb that goes: "may you live in interesting times." Remember when, not very long ago, the times we were living in didn't seem all that interesting or momentous, when the most important thing was Clinton's possible impeachment because of the Monica nonsense. That was not very long ago, but now it seems like another world because of all that has happened since. The closest presidential election in history and the hope for a continuing recount in Florida and the actions by the Supreme Court that put George W. in the White House. And then of course the unbelieveable events of September 11th, the war against Afghanistan, the debate about Iraq, about the role of the UN , the weapons inspections, the protests against the war all around the world and right here in Quincy, the war itself in all its shock and awe, and now the long and expensive occupation of Iraq, and the almost daily news that more of our young soldiers have been killed of wounded. Remember a few years ago when our lives as citizens of this country were more frivolous, before they became not merely interesting but heavy, urgent, and above all political?

There is no doubt that during these last couple very political years that our church here, this religious community, has become more political. In my opinion, this has been unavoidable because the times have required it. However, I also believe that this is not something any religious community should simply just let happen without thinking and talking about it. A church community becoming more political can be a perilous and divisive experience. The last thing this church should ever do is make people feel that they cannot express their opinions openly here. We cannot do that if we are really speaking the truth when we say every week that "love is the spirit of this place." So I want us to talk openly and freely about our church becoming more political and about the relation between religion/theology/spirituality-whatever they mean to each of us-and politics.

I don't know how you each would articulate the relationship between your theology and your politics, but for myself I have to confess that that if there is a distinction there is no separation between my theology and my politics. September 11th certainly made that obvious. In the aftermath of that tragedy so many of our fellow citizens seemed to want to reassert that there was a special bond between the Supreme Being and the usually happy fortunes of our own country, while inside me whole communities of Hebrew prophets and Christian thinkers from Augustine to Merton shouted that such God-supported nationalism was always the unholy temptation of nations. I believe spiritual awareness of the divine ground of all reality undoes or deconstructs one's identity in this world as a particular nationality or ethnicity or gender. As Paul says in the New Testament, in Christ there is no east and west, no male or female. The spiritual identity beyond all of our parochial identities is the very meaning of ecclesia, church, to be called out where you can live and think beyond the conventions of society.

When the debate about whether we as a nation should proceed with the war vs. Iraq even without the support of the UN was proceeding, Pope John Paul II and the U.S. Catholic Bishops tried to persuade the Catholics in this country that they had a spiritual identity beyond their parochial identity as Americans. The leaders and the governing bodies of nearly all of the major Protestant denominations tried to do the same. That was a great moment in the religious history of this country when the major Christian churches were united in trying to get their members to think beyond their own national identity and were providing real and courageous spiritual leadership. And even with all that, do you know what has happening in Quincy? Nothing. The leader of the probably the most liberal Catholic parish in town told me 90% of his congregation supported the war no matter what the Pope said. And though mainstream Protestant ministers are often more liberal than their congregations, Protestant churches are really run by their boards and by the people who put the money in the collection plate, most of whom do not want the minister to stir things up very much.

That's when I realized that the one minister in this town who is most free and most able to stir things up and make things happen is the Unitarian minister. So we got some of the ministers together in a public forum to at least publicly state some of their concerns about the possible war, and we decided to do other forums to discuss some things, and some of the people involved with them wanted to form a more partisan, definitely anti-war group, and this group, Patriots for Peace, includes many Unitarians, and through all this our church became more politicized, more political, and became definitely more identified in this community with leftist politics.

Well, where do we go from here, and how do we all feel about a more political church? Good questions to discuss, but let me clarify first some of my own views. First, the thing that most bothered me back when the Congress was debating the authorization to use force in Iraq was that our nation was about to go to war and we weren't even publicly discussing it here in Quincy. That seemed a travesty for a supposed democracy. Now our church becoming more political could mean a lot of things, but one definition I would definitely endorse is our church doing what we can to make public discussion of important issues happen. I would love it if more people, most people in this community thought of our church as a democratic space, as a special place that made the whole community more democratic because it fostered discussion of important issues we really should be debating and discussing in public if this really is a democratic society. I'd like to see public discussion of important issues where all are free to give their opinions, and those of us, for example, who opposed this war meet and listen to our fellow citizens who continue to support it. I think we should be talking to such people right now and listening to them respectfully and trying to learn from them, and why not right here in this place of openness and freedom. This would be nothing other than the living out of our Unitarian principles, for "We affirm and promote the right and of conscience and the use of the democratic process not only in our own congregations but throughout our society."

And another way in which our church can and in my opinion should be political is that we are not just a religious community in this town but we are a liberal religious community, and liberal religion is necessarily and inevitably political. Now what does it mean to be a liberal religious community? For one thing, it means our concerns go beyond national interests because we are spiritually connected to all of humanity and all of the natural world. Our UU principles call us to be good citizens of the world world. They call us to think of ourselves as among the community of the great philosophers of the world-Confucius, Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Boethius, Kant, Locke, Franklin, Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, Simone Weil, Nietzsche, Derrida-in developing our ethics and our politics as a cosmopolitan, as a citizen of the world. As Unitarians, our cosmopolitanism is based on our spiritual connection to everyone and our awareness that we ourselves and our nation are simply woven in to the web of existence and are not the web itself. Our spiritual cosmopolitanism does have political ramifications. It tends to make us citizens who are more open to a critical view of our own country's actions and policies, especially if they advance our own country's interests at the expense of the world's interests. Our spiritual cosmopolitanism does not give us a definite politics-it doesn't necessarily make us conservative or liberal, democratic or republican-but it definitely does make us political. Simply not caring about political issues or a raw real politique, where all nations simply pursue their own self interests-are options not open to us as Unitarians because of our spiritual cosmopolitanism.

And another way we are liberal religion is that we are aware that religion can often become a conservative and reactionary force in society that preserves the status quo, and we don't believe that this is the only way to be religious. When an issue like the ordination of gay persons as ministers of bishops arises, or the issue of same sex unions arises, the air in our culture fills with reactionary religious language about what the Bible says and about what ordains. As Unitarians we counter that not only politically but religiously, spiritually, by articulating our spiritual connection to all people. This I think we need to do constantly and more of in this community. We need to make ourselves more heard and more visible as a community not of political liberalism but of liberal religion. Because what this community and this country most needs is a better understanding that there is another way to be religious, a way that is not conservative and does not simply reinforce the status quo and preserve traditional values.

So I do think that our church should be political in that it should be dedicated to making the life of our community more democratic and that we should clearly and boldly be the voice and the presence of liberal religion in this community. Are we getting too political? The great 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said ministers should hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Now for us it wouldn't be the Bible but the book of the world's wisdom in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Now I feel like I'm still pretty far away from Niebuhr's vision of what a minister should be, but I'm definitely moving in that direction because the times require it. These are extraordinary times, dangerous and significant times, and we cannot afford to not be political. We have to be political. We have to be informed. We cannot afford to be like that 60% of the American public who support the war because they believe Sadam Hussein was connected to the attack on September 11th. We have to be political because this upcoming presidential election is going to be one of the most important in American history. We need to decide if we are going to continue the policies of the last few years or if we are going to repudiate them and go in hopefully what will be put forward by the various democratic candidates as a very different direction. Our country is incredibly divided on this, and we need to talk together about all of this, and what better place to do that than right here, together, as a community of liberal religion, in this place?

But as I said there are dangers with our church becoming more political. One is that we become a place of political discussion primarily and we somehow lose our sense of being first and foremost a church. We can come together and have great political discussions because we are a church, we are a community where we know each other, where we are bound together by ties of friendship, mutual respect and openness. These connections among us are what make us the church that we are, why we are, as Sharon was pointing out last week, at home here in this church with each other. That sense of being at home with each other, of having a home together as a community of friends here in this place, is the essential thing. Our church becoming more political must strengthen rather than strain the ties among us.

And the other obvious danger with our church becoming too political is that we become so overt and one-sided in our politics that people feel you have to believe a certain thing, you have to be a democrat, or you have to be against the Iraq war, or you have to be anti-George Bush to be welcome here. I definitely do not want that to happen to this church. This should be a church of welcome to everyone, though it should be a church that discusses and challenges. But I don't see why the discussion and the challenge cannot be done in a spirit of openness and friendship. There are legitimate reasons to be a Republican. There were certainly legitimate reasons to support the war against Iraq.

©2003 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Robert J. S. 2003. Has our Church Become too Political?, (accessed July 7, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.